At MeetDifferent, MPI Squeezes In Content on Battling Negative Attacks

The planning committee for Meeting Professionals International's annual MeetDifferent conference—the trade group's second-largest event, behind its annual 3,000- attendee World Education Congress—scrambled less than two months before the show to alter nearly half of the content offered Feb. 8-10 in Atlanta, in response to the negative publicity besieging the meetings industry.

By most accounts, the committee did a commendable job, sending attendees home from Atlanta with a better understanding of how a new industry coalition is fighting the attack on the industry (see cover story), and how they must operate in the currently distressed climate. Moreover, attendees seemed to gain new confidence in MPI, seeing the trade group as an industry champion in dealing with elected officials and the public.

While there were several breakout sessions that focused on strategies and tactics planners can use to preserve meetings and execute them on reduced budgets, the most dramatic moments came in the opening general session—the theme of which was changed exactly 30 days ahead of the conference—where industry leaders roused the crowd with news of the pro-meetings coalition.

In the news-program-style session, hosted by journalist and CNN commentator Terry Savage, Christine Duffy, CEO of Maritz Travel and a former MPI president, and Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, discussed the public-relations damage to meetings and events done by Wells Fargo and AIG, two companies that accepted government bailout money, and then renounced their meetings and events as boondoggles.

Duffy aggressively countered the idea that meetings and events are money drains, noting that they are critical to business success and that the government shouldn't tell companies to not have them.

"I don't see how [not having events] will help taxpayers get their money back," Duffy said. Dow added, "We have got to strike the words 'boondoggle' and 'junket' from the media's vocabulary."

And, in a moment that drew wild applause, Duffy cited the inaugural ceremony of president Barack Obama as a "$150 million meeting where the president communicated his vision on how to turn the country around ... and asked for people to align with that vision." Duffy posed the question, "How is that any different from an executive needing to do that for employees and customers right now?"

To maximize the impact of the general session—and given the fact that 1,829 industry members attended compared to nearly 2,300 last year—it was broadcast in real time on MPI's website, www.mpiweb.org, for both members and non-members. The live webcast was a first for the association, and the video is archived on MPI's site.

Overall, MeetDifferent was recast to publicize the coordinated effort between MPI and other meetings and business travel industry groups to promote meetings and events to elected officials and the public. The effort is being documented on a newly created website, MeetingIndustryCrisisCenter.org.

That site is a central repository for the most up-to-date information from MPI and other organizations on how the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) regulations will affect meetings and events, news on the progress of publicity campaigns and petitions, and contact information for elected officials. The site aims to give industry professionals a reference point as to what's going on in various critical campaign areas, according to an MPI spokesperson.

Attendee reaction to MeetDifferent was positive. "We know how hard it is to shift the gears of a meeting, but many people said that MPI successfully brought in very timely elements on short notice," said Kate Demarest Lastinger, president of Atlanta-based meetings consulting firm Metaphrasis Group, and a former corporate meeting planner. "The opening session clearly moved people—they felt that, for the first time in a long time, the industry has a strong voice, and that more people will now see what comes from our segment of the business world. Our most influential people are banding together and targeting high levels of government. We needed this event; it really excited people at a critical time."

Originally published March 9, 2009