The Meetings Group magazines have been inundated with anecdotal reports of corporate travel cutbacks resulting in canceled, postponed, or relocated meetings. Part of the problem, of course, is related to a dramatic drop in air travel since the war with Iraq began. During a phone press conference this afternoon, Air Transport Association President and CEO James May outlined the heavy toll the war is taking on that industry, including 10,000 jobs cut since the war began last week. By March 23, traffic for the week had dropped 25 percent in the Atlantic market, 13 percent in the Pacific, and 8 percent in Latin markets. Domestically, air traffic was down 7 percent for the week.
"Every major airline has announced staff and cost-cutting measures as a direct result of the hostilities. Industry capacity cuts so far have come in between 6 and 12 percent," said May. "What we don’t have as good a handle on as we’d like is the ripple effect we expect is taking place on the rest of the economy." While he didn’t want to speculate on worst-case scenarios, May said he would "do more than speculate" about the dramatic impact the airline situation is likely to have on the meetings and conventions business. "I think we’re going to see a lot of collateral effect, particularly in cities that specialize in holding meetings, like New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Orlando. I suspect we’re going to see those [impacts] sooner rather than later," he said.
"As we look forward to future bookings, the news is even worse," May added. ATA says that advance bookings for the next 60 to 90 days are down 20 percent domestically, 40 percent in the Atlantic market, 30 percent in the Pacific, and 15 percent in the Latin market. And it’s not just companies and leisure travelers who are pulling the plug—even Meeting Professionals International decided not to send its Dallas-based staff to its April PEC-Europe meeting in Berlin, Germany.
But many planners seem to be taking this news with a grain—or maybe a shaker—of salt. In a MeetingsNet online poll that asks what impact planners believe the U.S. war on Iraq will have on their meetings, the "increased attendance" and "decreased attendance" categories have been running neck and neck, with "increased attendance" pulling ahead by a nose on occasion. (Click here to vote or view current results.)
And they may be onto something. A survey conducted by Fodor’s Travel from March 19 to 22 found that 76 percent of respondents said that war would not cause them to change their travel plans. While it did not separate business from leisure travelers, or meeting-goers from vacationers, it didn’t find any significant change in attitude from a similar poll taken before the war began, when 76 percent said a fear of war would not cause them to change their travel plans. While it may be a stretch to apply these results to your meeting, it does give some credibility to the optimists in the planner community.
So, is the glass half empty or half full when it comes to the meetings market? Until the war impacts become clearer, it looks like it’s up to you to decide.