Speakers set a more subdued tone than in past years at the opening general session of Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Conference on Sunday. MPI officials and keynoters alike took the stage at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace Convention Center with the message that meeting planners need to “speak the language of business.”

Acknowledging that times are tough—and addressing an audience that had roughly 2,000 fewer people than last year’s WEC in Las Vegas (which achieved a record attendance of 4,400)—speakers urged listeners to learn from the devastating economic climate, which has resulted in hundreds of meeting cancellations.

At a press conference on Monday, however, Bruce MacMillan, president and CEO of MPI, revealed a glimmer of hope from the June MPI Business Barometer, which surveys 1,000 worldwide meeting leaders from around the world. “In February 2009, only 23 percent of respondents said the next six months would be better for their meetings than the last six. In June, that number had grown to 42 percent,” he said. And participants who are being affected by new cancellations had dropped from 7 percent in February to 1 percent in June.

New Chairwoman of the Board of Directors Ann Godi, CMP, president, Benchmarc360° said at the general session, “We can no longer be a best-kept secret. We must build a business case. We must speak the language of business.” That language does not include the words “boondoggle” and “junket,” said Godi, who urged planners to “understand your business, whatever it is. Learn how to read a balance sheet.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn. The dawn is breaking, get ready. When someone asks you what do you do for a living, you will say, ‘I help organizations be successful.’”

Three keynote speakers shared the stage, starting off with Ben Stein, former speech writer for President Richard Nixon, actor, economist, and contributor to Fox news, CBS, and The New York Times. Stein, who earned the only standing ovation of the morning, has become the unlikely poster boy for the meetings industry, writing and speaking out in defense of business meetings every chance he gets.

After a few raunchy jokes, Stein became a bit more serious, saying that he would tell Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that business meetings did not cause the recession. “Why he and government think they [meetings] are wasting the taxpayer’s money, with the exception of a few banks taking bailout money, is the biggest non-cause and non-effect situation,” in the country, he added.

Stein was followed by Gary Loveman, who has been chairman and CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. for 10 years but before that was an associate professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. He spoke about “Coping with the Crunch,” and the unprecedented good fortune the hospitality and meetings industry enjoyed between 9/11 and 2007.

Loveman sits on the boards of FedEx and Cisco and said that for the first time in their respective histories, neither company held sales meetings in 2009. He talked about the public perception that “it’s a sin to hold a meeting,” and about seeing reporters standing in hotel lobbies waiting to see what meetings were happening so they could run back to their offices to post the details. Loveman expects that meeting sponsors will want to avoid publicity for a long time to come. He challenged the audience to “find a way to resonate” with executives who now see meetings as “an entitlement.”

Loveman’s four bullet points for the new normal: establish a new cost structure, reinforce commitment, enhance employee engagement, and drive innovation. He called 2005–2010 “the lost five years,” and suggested that our new goal is to get back to the profitability of 2005. “The good news for meetings,” said Loveman, “is that they are not a fixed cost. And meetings drive innovation. And value does not have to be cheap. Value is the ratio of perceived quality to price.” Loveman reiterated the message of documenting and measuring everything meeting planners do.

”Your job will be different, harder, and will require a high degree of innovation,” he said.

The third speaker was Betsy Myers, chief operating officer for the Obama presidential inauguration, and senior adviser to the Obama presidential campaign. For her work on the campaign, she accepted MPI’s first-ever RISE Award for Organizational Achievement in a separate ceremony on Friday in Salt Lake City. “We used the Internet in a way no one ever had to facilitate meetings,” she said. “I can tell you the good news. Meetings and events elected President Obama to be President of the United States. The Internet-based campaign created some 200,000 events off-line during the campaign.

“But what you really want me to do, after being here for a couple of days, is whisper in the President’s ear,” she said, to which the crowd applauded.

“I’m a huge fan of meetings and events, because they tap into connection.” Myers, who is known as an expert in leadership and particularly women’s leadership initiatives, said that the male-dominated command-and-control style doesn’t work anymore. There’s a new paradigm of leadership, she said—“being authentic, inclusive, respectful, and collaborative.”

Her advice to meeting planners: Incorporate social media as an essential part of your meetings. “Include a call to action off-line and be willing to give up a little control to your constituents. And be consistent in your messaging. People want to have a voice.”

MPI head MacMillan wrapped up the session by describing this year’s economic situation as “not a crisis, but a shift.” He likened it to the advertising industry, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s adopted a measurement model for impact and results. “It has to be about measurement.”

In other MPI news, Katie Callahan-Giobbi, executive vice president of the MPI Foundation and chief business architect for MPI, earlier this summer announced her resignation, effective in mid-August. Callahan-Giobbi has been with MPI for two years and came from the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.