Last week was a busy time for news that could cast a long shadow over the recovery that has taken hold in meetings and events.
Nothing noticeable has changed on the ground—most of the planners and suppliers I talk to are still busy enough to complain about it, signifying a big improvement over the deep doldrums of 2009 and 2010.
But the industry’s vulnerabilities are still plain to see. The recovery begins to look particularly precarious when you realize that meetings and travel could be driven down by developments we might even take as positive if we weren’t viewing them through our own industry’s lens.
- MeetingsNet reported May 2 that California Governor Jerry Brown had banned meetings-related travel for state employees. In a state that has seen crippling budget cuts, the ban cannot have been a surprise, and taxpayers of all political stripes must have seen it as an easy, sensible way to control costs. But the announcement will translate into lost volume and revenue for our industry, while showing how difficult it’s been to win the argument that Meetings Mean Business.
- With the news that U.S. Navy SEALS had killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden May 1, spontaneous celebrations broke out at Ground Zero in New York, and outside the White House gates. Meanwhile, meeting professionals began dusting off their emergency preparedness plans and asking each other how they would cope with tighter security and nervous travelers. Even the threat of retaliation could tip the balance for participants who are hesitant to fly, and a successful attack would catapult our industry right back to the days after 9/11.
- Oil prices generated extreme news in two different directions. On May 1, we learned that fuel had surpassed labor as the airlines’ biggest operating expense. By the end of the week, a 10 percent price drop had some economists speculating that oil was settling down to a new, lower normal. (Prices have since begun to bounce back.) Peak oil is a deep threat to any meeting that depends on air travel to get participants on site, but volatility is almost as bad—it makes advance planning almost impossible, and it postpones the day when we finally recognize our industry’s reliance on (relatively) cheap, abundant airline seats as a potentially fatal weakness.
None of this is to suggest that the meetings economy is about to crash. With complexity and uncertainty around every corner, and future events impossible to predict, it’s self-defeating to assume the worst.
But it’s just as dangerous to expect that all will be well. And that’s why every meeting professional should pause to remember this moment.
There’s a lot to be said for a positive attitude, and our industry quite rightly takes pride in its ability to stay upbeat and optimistic. But we should be careful about translating that sunny disposition into firm business projections. The next time you hear about the great recovery of 2011–2012, don’t forget about the very large forces that could easily push the industry off course.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.