Kevin McNally, CMP, is co-president, with Maritza E. Correa, CMP, of the Society of Corporate Meeting Professionals and director of convention services for Westin Chicago River North. He sees the coming year as one in which communication and a realistic perspective can make all the difference.

Kevin McNally: Are things going to get better in 2003? That's a tough call. The economy is going to be the economy. I'm an optimist at heart, and from what I hear from the membership of SCMP and the customers I deal with at Sheraton and Westin, I think it's going to get a little bit better. Is it going to get a lot better? Probably not.

But we're not in a recession. People are spending money. People are holding events. But they're not spending as much money as they normally do, and the international unrest is a concern. So it's a tough one to call.

Our customers are looking for more value for the dollar, and you've got a lot of hotels looking for a bigger piece of the same pie. I always like to say, ‘take human bites.’ We used to just dig in, and now we're all on diets.

We have to realize we're all — suppliers and planners — in the same boat. We have financial people we have to report to on both sides. We used to have a lot more flexibility; now we have to work harder to find a win-win situation.

That starts with the building of relationships, with asking questions. You need to have an open, honest, and candid conversation. For instance, suppose a meeting doesn't reach its projected numbers and the planner is facing attrition fees. The hotels can slam them, or act as partners. Maybe there's another piece of business the planner can bring to the hotel; maybe the hotel can lower or waive the fee in return. You're always trying to create that win-win situation.

A number of SCMP's members plan meetings internationally. The real question is for them is the economy — how strong is the dollar over there? What's the budget for that meeting? All the companies in our industry are taking a look at how they're spending money. Everybody's being cautious. Instead of just saying, ‘Go ahead and make that happen,’ it's, ‘What will it cost?’

Lots of companies have reorganized and are becoming more efficient, so that somebody who used to do event planning is now doing event planning and marketing and wearing many hats. I fear that may lower the quality of attention we can pay to meeting planning.

But everything is cyclical. Things will get better. And we're learning as we're going. I've been in this business 23 years — and there's always more to learn.

George A. Aguel, MPI chairman and senior vice president, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, sees a future in which planners will have to be more innovative and develop leadership and business skills beyond what has been needed in the past.

George A. Aguel: My outlook for 2003 is optimistic. I see meetings starting to come back, and I think confidence is coming back.

Obviously we're seeing a continuing trend toward extremely short-notice decision-making that's unprecedented. Everything is very fluid and dynamic right now — I think there's a lot of waiting and making decisions at the last moment in corporate America. You can't just go with something you planned a year ago. You have to be very nimble. Of course, in an environment like that you have to be flexible; it's going to test your experience.

Going forward, I think the one circumstance that's contributing the most uncertainty is the question of an invasion of Iraq. While things are trending upward generally, that could curb it. You can only hope, if something does happen, it will be short, and things will kick back strongly afterward. But it's hard for any of us to know what impact it will have.

The ongoing challenge to our members, both planners and suppliers, is to continue to work hard at developing themselves professionally and to manage their affairs strategically, not just tactically. Companies are going to put a lot of scrutiny on the return on investment. So it's critical for planners demonstrate the benefits of their meetings.

We're also emphasizing that they need to be good partners. Whatever we're going through right now, it won't be long term, and we want to maintain the relationships that have been fruitful for us. From the planners' side, that means not limiting your concerns to logistics; and from the suppliers' side, being concerned with more than just ‘rates, dates, and space.’ We'd rather make sure we're working the best we can together.

Peggy Whitman, CITE, president, SITE, Western regional sales director, Marriott Incentive Awards, is a leader who understands the importance of emotion to the bottom line, and vice versa.

Peggy Whitman: Right after 9/11, people looked for places to cut their budgets, and unfortunately, they cut incentive trips. And that just didn't work. What came on strong at that point were individual incentives, because that allowed people to continue to be rewarded with the gift of travel. Now we're seeing group incentive trips strong on the books for 2003.

Another trend we see is the need for incentive programs to quantify the contributions they are making to a company's bottom line. The easiest and most important way of doing so is by illustrating a positive return on investment. That's why SITE is strongly encouraging its members to participate in its ROI seminar. This will help them illustrate, in a clear and concise manner, the impact their programs are having.

For many incentive programs, cost management will be critical. This could translate into some programs opting to use four-star hotels instead of five-star properties and downgrading air travel to economy from club.

We're also hearing that many incentive-travel-based programs are being developed with shorter lead times. That means incentive firms need to be ready to respond to customer and market demands quicker.

2002 was tough. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. But even though these terrorists hit us, and even though the economy is hurting, it's hard to keep the human spirit down.

There's a lot of pent-up hope for 2003.