But in harsh downturn, their staying power is being tested.
Layoffs are on everyone's mind: In January, the U.S. shed 598,000 jobs, after cutting over one million in the prior two months.
But, surprisingly, of the 301 planners who responded to MeetingNews Exclusive Research, most felt secure about their jobs. When asked "to what degree are you worried about your job in 2009?" just 9 percent of respondents were "very worried." Those who were "somewhat worried" numbered 44 percent. "Not worried" got the biggest response: 47 percent.
Women tended to be more worried than men: 41 percent of women were "not worried" versus 61 percent of men. The under-31 age group showed the largest percentage of "very worried" respondents, 17 percent, versus 7 percent of those 51-plus years old.
Corporate meeting planners were 10 times as likely as association planners to say they'd been "very affected" by layoffs at their places of business. Half of all corporate planners said they were feeling the pain, being either "very affected" (10 percent of respondents) or "somewhat affected" (40 percent), versus 25 percent of association planners who were "somewhat affected" (only one such planner was "very affected").
"Association planners have always stayed stable because their job is to produce income for their organization," said Dawn Penfold, president of MeetingJobs.com, in New York. "They earn less money than corporate planners, but their jobs are more secure."
However, said Penfold, in past recessions, association planners felt the fallout one to two years after it hit corporations.
Donella Evoniuk, senior director of conference services for the International Society for Technology in Education, in Eugene, OR, is already strategizing for smaller attendance. ISTE's big annual conference for educators begins June 28."Now I'm at four months before my event...and we have to have three different events in mind: the super event, the medium event, and the really scaled-back event," she said. Evoniuk is worried that attendees will decide Washington, DC, is too expensive.
The opening reception might have to be completely different from the usual blowout if attendance is low: cupcakes and champagne, versus two hours of all you can eat and drink. "Where I get concerned is whether or not we'll be able to produce an event this year that contributes to the overall longevity of our product," she said.
Corporate planner Allie Wright, event coordinator for Phonak LLC, in Warrenville, IL, is cutting all frills. Her company's product, hearing aids, are a luxury right now. They cost around $7,000, and insurance does not cover them. Phonak laid off 18 people in October (out of a 500 staff), including the exhibition coordinator. Wright is busy figuring out a way to do Phonak University, an educational experience for audiology students. In addition to feeding attendees "simpler things, like prepackaged hamburgers and hot dogs with cookies and chips," she has canceled the usual airport pickups by limo and will use group shuttles. People might have to wait, she admitted.
Some independent planners have been hit hard. Kati Hulick, CEO of Kati Hulick & Associates Meeting & Event Planning, in Marina Del Rey, CA, laid off staff after last year's Hollywood writers strike. "Business has not picked up, because at the end of that 100 days the economy tanked," she said. "I'm desperately worried about my company. When you don't take a salary and you cancel your health insurance, where's the bailout for that?"
Hulick's strategy is to partner with a recruiter and do pink slip parties. "It's the best thing I could think of," she said. "At the moment, we're doing it out of the goodness of our hearts, but hopefully that will pick up as we get sponsorships for the website www.pinkslippartyla.com."
Another independent, Pam Hamilton, principal of EventOvations LLC, in Denver, specializes in golf tournaments. Sponsorships are way down because of all the scrutiny of corporate spending. She spoke to MeetingNews on the day Northern Trust Corp.'s golf tournament story was splashed across U.S. newspapers and TV stations as the latest example of inappropriate use of bailout funds.
Hamilton's strategy will be to "reinvent the value that I bring to my clients to keep the business ... to bring different and new ideas to make sure that I stay in the contract."
Other planners said they are getting price breaks on hotel meeting space, F&B, and rental of AV equipment. "It's unfortunate that it's happening this way," said Edyth Johnson, program coordinator of MC Medical Communications LLC, in New York, "but we're getting unbelievably great deals."
MeetingJobs.com's Penfold said planners should look to education, green technology, and biotech, as those areas will be doing a lot of retraining and meetings. "Government meeting planners should be increasing, too ... I would also advise people to be flexible and to uncover every stone," she said. "It's not just [monitoring] the Internet sites, they're going to have to network, too."
Penfold added, "And for those who think that they're safe, they should keep their eyes open. Everyone thinks they're safe and they're not."
Originally published March 9, 2009