The board of the directors of the National Business Travel Association voted last week to continue to pursue a merger with the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. However, the issue is at a standstill. ACTE had voted the previous week not to support the merger process that was on the table as a result of months of negotiations.
The merger talks, begun in April between NBTA and ACTE, illustrate the challenges faced by overlapping meetings and travel industry associations in this troubled economy. The talks were a response to sponsors' shrinking budgets and a way to create operational savings, according to NBTA spokesman Caleb Tiller. They were not, he said, because of a lack of sponsorships or shrinking attendance at NBTA's August International Convention & Exhibition, which are tracking as well as the past two years.
"Even in good times, there is pressure from suppliers who say they cannot support multiple associations with overlapping memberships," said Al Rickard, president of Association Vision, a company that has managed communication strategies for a major association merger. "This is especially true today in the travel and meetings industry, which has been hit by a double whammy of a down economy and the incorrect perception that business travel is somehow frivolous or unnecessary.
“It's a tough situation,” continued Rickard, “but travel industry associations must learn to survive with diminished resources and realize that, even in a recovery, all those dollars may not come back."
Discussions between both associations stretch back for years, according to Tiller, "though this is the furthest we've ever come." The most recent talks included four people from each association’s board, who worked to draft an outline for a potential structure for a merger, the document that NBTA voted for and ACTE voted against.
Association mergers are infinitely more complicated than corporate mergers due to the politics involved, said Rickard. "It takes a lot of hard work and diplomacy to make them happen. ... The departure of a chief staff executive from one of the associations also opens up a window of opportunity for a merger." Rickard was referring to Bill Conners, CTC, NBTA’s former executive director and COO who left the association June 15.
What's next? "They can certainly meet again and vote again," said Tiller, "but right now, nobody knows for sure."