by Agatha Gilmore | April 01, 2012
When a seemingly contained mortgage crisis in the U.S. unraveled into a full-fledged, global economic meltdown, everybody from Wall Street tycoons to Joe the Plumber looked on in horror. Meeting and event professionals were not spared from the chaos, and those working in financial meetings practically had front-row seats.

“It was absolutely chilling,” says Joe Farrell, production director at Switch, an experiential marketing agency with a major financial client. “I lost every bit of financial services business I had booked for 2008. Everything canceled.”

The nail in the coffin was negative press accompanied by U.S. government involvement, he says. “There was a lot of anger at the financial sector at that point. [And] nobody wanted to be in the headlines for what was seen as a junket or frivolous expense.”

Today, the financial industry is still finding its legs. Volatility has become the norm, while cautious vigilance is standard operating procedure. Yet, enough time has elapsed for government regulations to pass and for global markets to adapt and stabilize. And the new landscape, while more challenging, has provided financial meeting professionals with the opportunity to streamline efforts and focus on producing the highest-quality, most effective events possible—because they have to.

A Comeback on the Horizon
While the financial sector hasn’t completely bounced back, some recovery is taking place.

“We are in a period of uneven economic recovery,” said Jerry del Missier, co-CEO at Barclays Capital and president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), during a 2012 “state of the industry” briefing in January. “I think we can probably see better conditions this year, allowing for some of the longer-term measures to take hold: de-leveraging of the financial system in Europe, recapitalization of the banks, and ultimately some of the measures of fiscal consolidation that the states need to implement.”

He also alluded to the 2010 passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which aims to create financial stability in the U.S. by improving corporate accountability and protecting taxpayers. The act mandates the writing and approval of hundreds of new rules.

But del Missier stressed, “I don’t think we should be expecting any silver bullets. And because of the political nature of the decisions that need to be made, this will play itself out over a long period of time.”

Farrell agrees. “Ultimately, things are dependent on a rosier economic outlook, and more stability in terms of the overall business environment,” he says. “I can’t tell you when that’s going to be. My sense is banking business is [still] really down. [But] investment business and security business [have] returned to some degree. Any kind of uptick in general economic activity will bode well for our sector, because people will feel a sense of long-term security and be able to budget and plan for the future.”

And that’s good news for planners in the industry, many of whom say they are seeing an increase in meetings activity.

“We’ve been on the mend,” confirms Cynthia DeOliver, vice president and director of events management for the Sacramento, CA-based California Bankers Association (CBA). “We’re in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. [Executives] have to stay on top of it—they must. Otherwise their business and their banks would be in trouble.”

A New Normal
Despite the relative uncertainty lingering in the industry, there are some definite, tangible changes that have reshaped the meetings landscape—changes that meeting owners should take into account when planning events going forward. First and foremost, the number of meetings has dwindled, as organizations look to “trim the fat” by only spending money on meetings that can offer some kind of ROI and by consolidating conferences to boost attendance.

“A 500-person meeting in the early 2000s is maybe a 200-person meeting now,” Farrell says. But he adds that at least today there is a 200-person meeting “as opposed to a program being canceled.”

DeOliver says the CBA has recently combined several events in order to “save them, so to speak. What a planner never wants is to do away with an event altogether.” The organization’s 120-year-old convention was combined with its 45-year-old bank council seminar, for example. 

The reason for the shift might be partly due to the fact that executives today “want as much bang for their buck as possible,” she says.

Catherine Calleja, director of marketing for Montgomery & Co., an investment firm based in Santa Monica, CA, says there’s been an increased emphasis on the networking aspect of financial meetings for this very reason.

“Spending one day at a conference takes up a lot of [executives’] time. They want to make sure they not only get the information they need but network with the right people,” she says. To that end, Calleja made sure to add one-on-one meeting components to Montgomery & Co.’s annual conference, which typically draws about 1,000 CEOs and upper-level executives from financial firms.

“On-on-one meetings are a big thing nowadays,” she says. “Educational sessions are nice, but business needs to get done during those events.”

Meanwhile, site selection has been deeply affected by both the economic recession and increased negative perception. Elise Brooks, communications manager for the New York Bankers Association, based in Manhattan, says her organization began holding most meetings in Washington, DC, starting a few years back.

“That’s where most of the action is,” she says. “We used to alternate between East and West coasts, but we wanted to be convenient to our members’ needs.”

There’s been a focus on holding meetings and conferences regionally, based on the location of the host company or the attendees—but at high-end hotels within those areas because that’s what these executives are accustomed to and expect.

“The press is really hard on the financial industry,” DeOliver adds. “They’re very much concerned about perception. That’s why they’re continuing to meet and get together but trying to head off that kind of thinking by doing the best they can in their communities and for the consumer. That’s why they [are saying], ‘Let’s stay put and support our local and state economies.’ ”

Predictions for the Future
With the current environment beginning to stabilize, planners can look toward the future. So what’s on the horizon? First, lead times may grow again. 

“It’s ramping back up,” DeOliver says, noting she’d witnessed planning windows as short as six months in recent years. “Now we’re back to a year out, maybe a little bit more, if you want to get that hotel for the same dates and same space. I need to get things done sooner.” 

An Verbeeck, director of sales and marketing at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, which is where Calleja books Montgomery & Co.’s annual technology meeting, says she has seen more leads from the banking sector with longer lead times, which she says is also indicative of their confidence in budgets. “They have seen their meeting requirements gain strength,” she says.

Technology will also play an increasingly important role in financial and banking meetings. Calleja says it hasn’t been used to its fullest potential yet, particularly when it comes to the crucial component of networking.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game. We’re using our mobile application, a web portal, for our attendees to not only find out more information about companies that are attending but also about their one-on-one meetings,” she explains. “[For example], they’ll get instant notifications so there are fewer missed sessions and more interaction.”

And if all goes well, the industry can see more—yet consistently high-quality and value-driven—meetings in the future.

“We’re starting to realize how large an industry meetings really are,” Calleja says. “It’s just a positive thing for all of us.”