There are signs that the meetings industry's Meetings Mean Business campaign to promote the value of meetings is having a positive effect. With leadership from the U.S. Travel Association, advertisements, petitions, rallies, and other public relations efforts are damping the anti-meeting rhetoric coming from the media and politicians.

The four lobbying firms working for U.S. Travel's Meetings Mean Business campaign have orchestrated separate meetings between industry heavyweights and President Obama and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and succeeded in focusing attention on the jobs being lost due to the cancellations of corporate meetings and incentive programs and away from the excess of a few companies receiving federal bailouts.

In late April, the week before the Treasury Department's guidelines regarding executive compensation for recipients of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds was to be released, Geoff Freeman, senior vice president, U.S. Travel, was optimistic that the mood in Washington was changing. “We do not expect Treasury to focus significantly on travel provisions. Our next success will be for Treasury to say that the boards of directors of TARP companies will put a policy in place that will prevent travel [and meetings] from being excessive and luxurious.”

Ideally, added Freeman, Treasury's recommendation will be that boards should adopt the guidelines written by U.S. Travel and the meetings industry coalition in February and that each company should not write its own policy. “Treasury is not going to micromanage meetings and events, because we did a good job in making our case,” predicted Freeman.

Frank Talk

One indication of a new appreciation for meetings was a clarification regarding the Pay for Performance Act of 2009, which passed the House of Representatives on April 1. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who was among the legislators who had stirred up anti-meeting sentiments with his outcry over Northern Trust's golf tournament spending, went on record to say that the bill is aimed at controlling compensation, not meetings or performance-based incentives.

Frank was asked for clarification on the House floor by Rep. Shelly Berkley, D-Nev., who explained her request with this statement: “Legitimate business travel for meetings, events, and incentive programs has dramatically decreased across the country, particularly in my district of Las Vegas. The decline is due in part to the state of our economy but also to the perception that Washington is seeking to limit these legitimate business practices. This negative perception has created an environment where every business in the United States is beginning to question whether or not they should hold a meeting, event, or incentive travel program.”

In his reply, Frank said that the bill “deals only with compensation, not with travel. Any incentive that was performance-based would be fully allowed.” The bill must now pass the Senate.

Despite the successes, U.S. Travel's Freeman warned that the meetings industry could be lulled into complacency. “This should be a wake-up call for everybody. It shows that when we [the travel industry] collaborate, we can be an influential force in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Ready for Your Close-Up?

U.S. Travel's new initiative is the Face of Travel contest, a search to find a grassroots spokesperson for the meetings industry. Organizers are looking for someone who makes his or her living from the meetings industry — anyone from a bellhop to a meeting planner to a bureau executive — and who can help the Meetings Mean Business campaign connect with media and policymakers. Entrants had until May 1 to submit a 45- to 60-second video explaining why meetings are important to their jobs and their communities, and why they, in particular, represent what is best about the travel industry. The videos can be viewed on YouTube.com (search for “Meetings Mean Business”).

U.S. Travel is also working to improve the economic data available about the meetings industry. When the attacks on meetings and incentives began last fall, “We kept saying, ‘if they only knew about our economic impact,’” Freeman said. “We were not properly armed.” While the Convention Industry Council is moving forward on a major, yearlong economic impact study, based on the United Nations World Tourism Organization's measurement model, U.S. Travel is mining data that's available today. “Our researchers, our economist PhDs, are able to determine the impact of meetings and events apart from business travel and leisure travel,” Freeman said. There's already a breakout of meeting and event spend by state on Meetingsmeanbusiness.com.

Next will be a city-by-city analysis. “We are getting ready to release the economic impact of meetings and events in the top 250 metropolitan statistical areas,” said Freeman.