As of this writing at the end of October, there were signs that whatever “normal” turns out to be, it's coming back quicker than anticipated for the meetings industry.
“The effects have not necessarily been as catastrophic as we first thought,” says Eric Allen, executive director of the Healthcare Convention Exhibitors Association, Atlanta. “The meetings industry is pulling together and working together to ensure that the effects are minimal.”
Allen notes that “virtual conferencing” is no more a substitute for face-to-face meetings now than it was before September 11. “While the videoconferencing market may accelerate a bit, one simply cannot replace the other,” he says. “Where we were headed was a marriage of the two — live conferences and video feeds. Both are irreplaceable, and that's not going to change.”
Allen says he thinks associations of all types should consider adopting a concept his organization has been advocating: exhibitor advisory councils. “These councils bring together a cross-section of exhibitors to discuss with association representatives their concerns and issues,” he said. “It encourages communication, and communication is what's needed now more than ever.”
Richard B. Green, vice president, industry relations and association sales, Marriott International, agrees thatwill continue to remain strong. “Once we get through the initial scare, I predict the association meetings business could be more vibrant than ever. [The attacks] have galvanized groups of citizens, and I think we'll see a similar galvanization in associations.”
Green notes that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Marriott was lenient on planners in terms of penalty fees. But since the middle of October, the company has returned to its previous policies.
“The amount of cancellations was expected, but we think that if things stay the way they are, cancellations related to the attacks are finished,” he says. “People are getting back to business, and we're doing the same.”
According to Green, association meetings have hadbetween 8 and 10 percent. Planners who anticipate reduced attendance should make hotel salespeople aware of it early on in order to mitigate any financial penalties.
Similar negotiability exists among the airlines — perhaps the hardest-hit of all the travel-related industries.
“The attacks truly had a precipitous impact on air travel through October 11,” says David Castelvetter, spokesman for US Airways. “But we're seeing a gradual return to travel. Our sales force has been in touch with conference and association planners to assure them that we're doing everything possible to ensure safe travel.” He also says the company is offering deals above and beyond the well-publicized industry-wide discount programs.
“We're offering value-added ‘performance tickets’ for groups, based on the number of tickets that are purchased. We are tailoring programs to fit the needs of our group and meetings clients. We see all the components of the travel industry taking special steps to get their customers back.”