In a hastily called, but packed session at Meeting Professionals International’s MeetDifferent conference, being held in Atlanta this week, Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel, and Jonathan Howe, JD, president, senior partner, Howe & Hutton Ltd., chief legal counsel for MPI, outlined the meeting industry's response to U.S. Government efforts to curtail the meetings, events, and incentive travel programs of companies receiving funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

An industry coalition of meeting and business-travel associations and third-party intermediary companies galvanized back in October in response to the "AIG effect," said Duffy, referring to corporate meeting cutbacks and cancellations made because of perception issues. But while the coalition has had Washington, D.C.–based strategic communications and lobbying companies in place since then, it is only since last Thursday, when the Treasury Department issued new rules for meetings and events held by companies participating in TARP, that the coalition went into high gear.

TARP fund recipients are now required to adopt companywide policies on spending related to conferences and events. In response, the coalition has produced model guidelines for corporations. Those guidelines, issued yesterday, include a model policy for approval of meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel, and examples of legitimate business purposes for meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel.

Duffy emphasized that the model guidelines are a resource for all companies, not just those receiving TARP funds. When Corporate America “emphasizes the business purposes behind meetings, puts limits on what is spent, and dictates which executives attend the meetings,” then government intervention—even legislation—could be avoided, she said. The coalition’s model guidelines lend specificity to the generalities of the U.S. Treasury guidelines.

Howe explained that the Treasury guidelines issued last week around executive compensation were a reaction to a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on January 6, and another bill introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) last week, both aimed at limiting excesses at TARP companies, including what those companies can spend on meetings. “Unfortunately, we got bundled under executive compensation,” said Duffy.

She said that the coalition’s goal to raise $1 million to pay for lobbying and public relations efforts as well as an economic impact study, is a year-long effort. “We have tapped the U.S. Travel Association as our spokesperson because it has the resources,” Duffy said. “When I say we speak as one voice, there are many voices, but it is one message."

The U.S. Travel Association organized an audioconference yesterday to introduce the model guidelines. The response was so high that a second press conference had to be added to accommodate the consumer media in addition to the travel and meetings media. Duffy has also been contacted by CNN while in Atlanta, and she sees an opportunity to get the message to the wider media. In addition, she said the coalition is looking to business executives like Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, as potential spokespersons. Welch was a firm believer in his company's meetings and events while at the helm.

“Our landscape has changed significantly,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, during the audioconference. While the coalition understands that Congress must oversee the responsible use of taxpayer dollars, Dow said, legislators must also realize how important meetings and travel are to the U.S. economy. Travel and meetings drive $100 billion in spending in the U.S. and create 1 million jobs. “That’s why it’s critical to protect the meetings and events that drive this part of the economy,” Dow said.

Duffy hopes companies use the example set by pharmaceutical companies back in the 1990s when they were under attack for their meeting and events practices. "The largest companies tended to put policies into place that went beyond what the regulatory agencies were asking for," she said. "That conservative, safe approach went a long way for pharma to continue to spend on meetings and events but in a totally transparent way."

Duffy added that another document would be coming from MPI and the National Business Travel Association aimed at corporate meeting professionals, but would not widely distributed. "It will give best practices in strategic meeting management that a meeting professional can take to the CEO and CFO."

While the coalition's communication company is drafting a model letter for people to send to their Congress members, meeting professionals are asking what they can do now to get in front of lawmakers. Howe recommends writing to them by e-mail and mail. He said quantifying the loss of jobs in the hospitality and meeting industry at the local level will appeal to senators and representatives (both houses ultimately would have to pass a law affecting meetings).

In addition, MPI is in full gear, creating question-and-answer documents and a landing page that will include all of the model documents and other resources, said a spokesperson.