The theme of the MPI Professional Education Conference/North America was “It's all about YOU,” and that really was the mantra last month at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. A heavy menu of personal development courses enhanced the overall feeling that individual planners are fighting for their jobs and struggling to convey the strategic value of meetings and events. From the opening general session, at which keynote speaker Jim Loehr, Ed.D. discussed strategies for “surviving the storm,” the conference offerings stressed leadership — but the subtext was survival.

“We're facing challenges that are more serious than they've ever been,” said George Aguel, MPI chairman, in an interview during the convention. “We're entering the third year of this economic downturn, and it's our obligation to our members to further their abilities and enhance their professional development, to give them the business skills to express the value of what they do in terms that are better understood in business.”

From a new strategic plan that emphasizes putting meeting professionals in positions of corporate influence to sessions on rewriting resumes and job descriptions, the undercurrent was how to justify the apparent expense — and downplay any aura of frivolity — of meetings in a down economy. “We have to be careful about appearances,” said Audra T. Narikawa, meeting and event planner for The Capital Group Cos. Inc., Los Angeles. “We have shareholders, and we don't want them to think we're wasting money, even if it's obvious to us that we're not.” The fear of war and terrorism is less of a factor for her. “We have to keep having meetings overseas because that's where our business is. It's just not an option to stop doing those meetings.”

Hoteliers are dealing with appearances, too. For them, the pressure is to make the meeting experience appear worth the expenditure. “I don't think attrition is what it's all about,” said David Riley, vice president for catering and meeting services at Wyndham International, Dallas, “and it's not as much about price as people think it is. But people want whatever they do spend to appear worthwhile. We have to add the creativity to make their experience special, so that it's appreciated.” Riley also noted that when groups accustomed to going overseas do select a domestic venue, “it had better be really good.”

Riley had some advice about penny-pinching, though, that might seem contrary. “Return on investment isn't just the money I saved,” he said. “The money you save can cost you more than the money you spend if you're not careful. You have to consider: If it was a bad meeting, even though you saved a lot of money, that was an expensive meeting, because you didn't get what you needed out of it.”

Attendance at MPI's PEC — 2,207 (680 meeting planners and 1,167 suppliers) — was well up from last year's somewhat disappointing turnout of fewer than 1,500. The expo featured 270 exhibitors.