Meetings and events industry leaders met Wednesday, February 25, in Washington to further an agenda of promoting the positive impact of meetings, events, and incentives at a time of negative attention from the media and government. The group discussed outreach and public relations, an upcoming economic impact study, and Sen. John Kerry’s recently introduced bill to curb meetings at companies receiving bailout funds.

“What is missing from the current debate is [a recognition of] the value that conferences and events bring to business,” said Deborah Sexton, president, Professional Convention Management Association, in a press release. Other industry leaders at the meeting were John Graham, American Society of Executives; Gregg Talley, Convention Industry Council; Bill Connors, National Business Travel Association; Bruce MacMillan, Meeting Professionals International; Brenda Anderson, Site [formerly the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives]; Geoff Freeman, U.S. Travel Association; Steven Hacker, International Association of Exhibitions and Events; Douglas Ducate, Center for Exhibition Industry Research; Ozzie Jenkins-Gibson, National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners; and Karen Gonzalez, Destination Marketing Association International.

The participants, all members of the Convention Industry Council, pushed forward plans for an economic impact study that will quantify the value of meetings. “We need validated data that enables us to directly compare our value versus other industries’. Right now, that doesn’t exist,” said Karen Kotowski, CIC’s chief operating officer, in a press release.

At the meeting, the group began the process of identifying research gaps in order to pinpoint what data needs to be collected and analyzed in the new study, explained Talley, executive director at CIC, in a follow up interview. Next, they plan to formulate a request for proposal to send out to research firms. The RFP will be issued this year, said Talley—“sooner rather than later.”

Outreach and public relations were also on the agenda. Participants spoke about the need to broaden the conversation beyond corporate meetings. The talking points developed by U.S. Travel to counter negative public perceptions have focused on business travel, corporate meetings, and incentives. And rightfully so, since they are directly affected by TARP, said Talley. But what is getting lost is the effect that federal legislation could have on association meetings, trade shows, and other events. “This draconian concept of no involvement or investment in meetings, conferences, or anything else is going to have a trickle-down effect,” said Talley. “Business and industry play a huge role in association meetings, so any pullback by corporate America because of some perceived rule, or non-rule, has a huge potential impact, whether that’s in the area of support, exhibit scale, or the number of people attending.” It’s important, said Talley, for the larger meetings industry to come together and speak out with one voice.

Consequently, the coalition plans to tweak the talking points. It will also include this broader message in upcoming advertisements and its lobbying efforts and public relations campaigns—which U.S. Travel is handling.

Internally, CIC and its member organizations will step up efforts to reach out to members. The coalition has a “PR Toolkit” with resources to help members get their opinions out to legislators, newspapers, and organizations. CIC member organizations will continue to communicate with individual members and provide them with the resources, and an action plan, to have an impact, said Talley.

Finally, the industry leaders discussed the bill introduced by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that would, if passed, prohibit companies receiving TARP funds from hosting or sponsoring conferences and events without a waiver from the Secretary of the Treasury. The bill raised eyebrows and questions from industry leaders at the meeting. “We have a tough time imagining that a senator from a state with a major convention city in it like Boston would not realize the implications of this to local jobs and their local economy,” said Talley.

The coalition expects to meet again in April.