The Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference opened this week at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel with a general session that looked at the effects of the long recession on both sides of the meetings business.

The big applause line came from Bill Kavanaugh, senior vice president, Securian Financial, who said, “We canceled no trips in 2009.”

Kavanaugh and Thomas Storey, president, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, sat down with Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large, Fortune magazine, for an open and compelling discussion of how the economic chaos of the past 18 months has affected their respective industries—and where we all go from here.

Kavanaugh endeared himself to the crowd of around 550 planners and hoteliers when he said, “Our recognition program is core to who we are.” Picking up on a comment from Colvin that the most successful business leaders protect their best people in a downturn, Kavanaugh said that Securian had reduced its head count by attrition only. “You build loyalty with associates in times of trouble,” he said. Many Securian advisers, he noted, have worked with the company for two or three decades. “They have literally seen each other’s children grow up and some of them become advisers as well.”

And while the company remains dedicated to its incentive conferences, he emphasized that Securian follows its guiding principle of being financially responsible with regard to spending on those conferences. “It’s an expensive line item for us. We must maintain our culture, but we must be economically feasible and responsible,” he said. To the planners in the audience, Kavanaugh said, “Keep on doing what you’re doing. The work you do for your field force is more important now than ever.” He told the suppliers in the crowd to remain visible to their corporate customers. “This business is going to come back,” he said. “It’s not gone forever.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Storey of Fairmont offered his view of the coming recovery on the hotel side. “We are just starting to see a flattening of occupancy rates,” he said, meaning that this indicator may have hit bottom. Now will come the gradually rising demand; however, he explained, a corresponding rise in average room rates will lag the increasing demand by six to nine months. “It will be the third or fourth quarter of 2010 before we see prices go up again,” he predicted. Fairmont, like other hotel companies, is seeing more potential for growth internationally than in North America right now.

Throughout the opening day of the conference, attendees heard brief presentations from major sponsors, all of whom emphasized the importance of partnering to get through the down cycle. In her welcome address, outgoing FICP President Cindy Wheaton said, “I applaud you and your companies for making the commitment to be here,” when, as she noted, many planners spent the first half of the year canceling meetings and worrying about the security of their own jobs. “We are all survivors,” she said. “We are coming out of it, and there is optimism for the future.”

She noted that FICP is ending the year financially healthy, having met its membership goals and having moved forward with initiatives such as a re-engineered Web site, a restructured system of FICP regions, and a new program called the Online Exchange for planners and hospitality partners to share information and experiences electronically.

Click for more on the meeting, including a photo gallery.