ATLANTA – In the nearly 12 years that I’ve been a member of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), I have never seen our industry so angry, energized, and ready to argue the value and business results of a well-orchestrated meeting.
As my mother might have said, in a reasonable imitation of some of our earlier-generation relatives: “Dahlink, on you (us), it looks good.”
There’s a hard edge and a determination in the group that has gathered this week for MPI’s annual MeetDifferent conference. It came through loud and clear Sunday, in an opening session that combined some useful analysis of the global financial meltdown with a rousing call to action from industry leaders.
And it’s echoing through the informal conversations onsite, as participants express their fury and frustration at seeing legitimate meetings labelled as pointless boondoggles.
The key word—and the potential Achilles heel, depending on how the industry addresses it—is “legitimate”.
This whole debate began when media began carrying stories of executive retreats and incentive programs organized by companies that subsequently received bailout funds from the U.S. government, hence from U.S. taxpayers.
The reports led to a disconnect so profound and visceral that it will likely take more than numbers and facts to bridge the rapidly-growing divide: Where meeting professionals see pragmatic programming that drives business results, the public sees flagrant waste on the part of mismanaged companies that are now swarming the U.S. Congress (some of them arriving in private jets) to beg for bailouts.
Several of the leading meeting and travel associations have banded together to argue for the jobs and tax revenues our industries deliver to the communities they serve, and for the critical importance of meetings in making organizations successful. Late Monday, they published a list of “legitimate business purposes” for conference and events. The list included training meetings and educational events, product launches and sales conferences, user group meetings and strategic planning sessions. Out of 12 categories, only two had to do with the employee recognition events or performance incentives that have generated such a firestorm of reaction.
It’s a compelling list, and we should be tremendously proud that our associations are telling the story so effectively. But this isn’t nearly the end. It’s barely the end of the beginning, and there are a few things we need to do to sort this issue out.
First, it’s up to each and every one of us to get out there and tell the story. Our friends, family, colleagues, and legislators need to hear that the AIG and Wells Fargo meetings are only a small part of the story (and, if you’re feeling particularly adventuresome, that that particular story is not being told in full).
The arguments are simple and direct: Meetings create jobs. They sustain tax revenues and government services that are increasingly threatened by mortgage defaults and cascading job losses in other parts of the economy.
And even more important—meetings deliver. When organizations measure their meetings against a defined purpose, they see results that could not be achieved by any other means. When we tell this part of the story, we take the truly giant step of tracking our economic impact by the results meetings produce, not just the products and services our industry buys.
The U.S. legislative crisis has led to a dazzling degree of cooperation among the major industry associations in this country. It’s abundantly clear that they can’t do it alone. But the signs of ferment were clear at the Monday morning panel session on FutureWatch, the annual tracking survey in which MPI asks meeting professionals about the trends they foresee for the coming year.
We had spent most of the hour presenting the data: tighter budgets, fewer meetings, smaller staff teams, heavier work loads, and a general sense that the picture has worsened since November, when the survey was conducted. (I was on the panel because I’ve had a hand in writing the last three editions of FutureWatch.) By the time we opened the floor for questions, participants were halfway to the barricades.
They asked for toolkits, statistics, and Q&As. They wanted electronic copies of the full FutureWatch report. And a participant wanted all of that by March 10, the day her chapter representatives are scheduled to meet with state legislators. The wave is beginning to build.
There are some details our industry may have to learn or relearn, and a future blog post will take a closer look at the legitimacy of programs that have fallen behind the tone of our times. But the energy of intention at this conference is the first step. This is our industry’s own version of change we can believe in, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.