When the planning committee for this year’s Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Education Forum came up with the theme “Changemakers: Moving Mountains,” they perfectly described the challenges faced by members in recent months, as they have struggled with the burdens of the economic crisis and negative perception surrounding meetings and incentives.

The Education Forum, the smaller of FICP’s two annual meetings, is taking place through Wednesday at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, against a backdrop of canceled programs, shrinking incentive budgets, and layoffs of some of the association’s most prominent members. However, at a “State of the Industry” session held on Monday, panelists saw some light at the end of the tunnel, starting later this year.

“Ultimately, we’re going to come out of the current crisis as one unified voice,” said Stephen O’Malley, vice president, strategy and industry relations, Maritz Travel, St. Louis, Mo. “We learned that we should have spoken out immediately and not allowed the AIG effect to take hold. That program was, to a T, the perfect example of a successful incentive program, with a 3-to-1 return on the company’s investment. There were only four AIG executives on site. We should have come out ahead of that story with that message, rather than behind it.”

Panelists spoke about the hospitality industry being this country’s “invisible industry,” employing 1 in 8 people, more than the automobile industry. “We can't afford to be the invisible industry any more,” O’Malley said.

As far as the hotel industry emerging from the economic slowdown, fellow panelist Jan Frietag, vice president, Smith Travel Research, Hendersonville, Tenn., was also fairly optimistic. “GDP growth will bounce back at the end of this year, with recovery in the hotel industry beginning early next year,” he predicted.

Hotels will bounce back, but what about destination management companies? Panelists foresaw continuing consolidation of these companies into networks that serve multiple cities and destinations. “Please make it easier and less expensive to work with you,” O'Malley urged the DMCs in the audience.

The optimism on stage was reflected in the Forum’s attendance numbers, which were the same as last year, according to FICP President Cindy Wheaton, CMP, Nationwide Financial Network, Columbus, Ohio. However, she believes that with so many 2009 incentive programs being “unplanned” and staffs on hold, wondering if there will even be a program next year, “we’re still going to be feeling the effects of the economy well into 2010.”

Wheaton recently had to defend her own staffing to her CEO, another challenge that appeared to be common among attendees. “Companies are looking for cuts, and meetings are the first place they come,” she said. “I had to convince my CEO that you can’t have [just] anyone do this job. They want to rely on administrative assistants, but their first loyalty is going to be to their bosses and what they need to get done.”

Before her presidency ends in November, Wheaton’s goal is to get her CEO, Mike Hamilton, to speak in front of FICP about the value of corporate meetings and her department. “As an industry, we also need to find other company CEOs who are willing to step up and defend our value,” she said.—Barbara Scofidio