Tips for coping with route cutbacks, schedule changes, and capacity reductions that can affect your religious meetings.

Destinations that once were easily accessible by air may be two or more transfers away today. Cities that had a daylong schedule of flights may now have only one or two a day. And in the current cost-cutting craze, some carriers may cancel or reschedule flights at the last minute because of reduced demand.

All these changes can make getting to your religious meeting a less-than-pleasurable experience. Although some planners report business as usual, others are taking steps to make air travel as convenient, economical, and comfortable as possible.

Site Selection

Choosing a site that will remain accessible, regardless of cutbacks, is the first step. “If there is limited service, it will affect where we go,” says Ann Wittner, CMP, director of the Chicago-based American Osteopathic Association, Chicago. “But we have five major cities, and I don't see them cutting back.” AOA annual meetings rotate among Las Vegas, New Orleans, Orlando, San Diego, and San Francisco. “Airlines are condensing flights, but they still go into the locations we need,” she says. For example, Delta Air Lines hasn't reduced the number of destinations it serves, only the number of flights it offers on routes where it had multiple flights. And that situation may change.

“With the decrease of military action in Iraq, we're expecting that passenger demand will begin to return,” says Bettina Brayshaw, a spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines association and incentive sales. “Airlines are matching capacity to that anticipated demand. As a result, planners will have more choices for travel on their chosen airline.”

Negotiating Tactics

With airlines struggling to stimulate traffic, you might expect to have more clout in negotiating group rates. You may be disappointed.

“The challenges facing the airline industry have not had a measurable impact on negotiations between Northwest/KLM Airlines and their corporate meeting and incentive planner customers,” says Kurt Ebenhoch, senior manager, media relations. “Pricing … has not been changed, nor have the terms and conditions altered as a result of reductions in capacity.” However, if you can negotiate zone fare discounts for programs that don't require a Saturday night stay, attendees may be able to avoid having to come in on a Saturday for a Monday meeting.

“These [programs] can be contracted closer to the meeting, as they only require a seven-day advance booking window and offer guaranteed pricing once the contract is signed,” he says.

To get the most favorable rates, it's as important as ever to do your homework. “We're doing more extensive research … to identify which carriers have the most lift in and out of locations,” says Gary Schirmacher, CMP, vice president for Conferon's western region, based in Denver. “It's important to know where your highest number of attendees are, what locales they'll be departing from, and what airlines have the most seats and the most frequent flight schedules.”

Still, carriers can be inflexible. “Airlines are being more selective with regard to providing up-front concessions to clients,” Schirmacher says.

Direct Booking

Fewer flights not only mean less convenience but also higher costs for the 5,000 delegates expected to attend the Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting, scheduled for October 9 to 12 in San Diego. “I do see fares increasing because the list of major cities will be reduced,” says Sandy Vura Harwood, CMP, director of meetings and conventions. “I think overall costs of getting to a destination will affect our functions in the future, but it's hard to predict the impact on attendance right now.”

Harwood expects Internet-savvy delegates to shop online for cheap rates rather than use the official travel agency, which has increased its surcharge. Or they may go directly to the designated carriers — United, which has code sharing with US Airways for lift into San Diego, and Southwest Airlines. “We allow attendees to go directly to the airlines and use our discount code,” she says.

Pounding Pavement

Ground transportation is an easy place to save money — if you know how. Here are tips from Brian Whitaker, vice president of operations, Chicagoland Transportation Solutions, Barrington, Ill.:

LESS IS MORE — The farther apart you can spread the shuttle pickup times, the better. Save one to five vehicles by adjusting the times by 10 minutes.

SPONSORSHIP — Get everything possible sponsored. Consider showing videotape advertisements on the overhead television of the bus.

LIMOS — In many cases, planners don't want to transport anyone in a limo because it looks too costly. However, the limo actually can be $50 to $100 cheaper than a van.

CUT DOWN ON “GREETS” — Have guests walk to a meeting point in the claim area. This reduces the number of staff at the airport.