MPI Dodges Trouble in Toronto

First, a three-week garbage strike left streets clogged at the height of summer's heat. Then 2,300 hotel workers threatened to walk off the job. With all that, plus 200,000 young people arriving to see the Pope for World Youth Day, planners for Meeting Professionals International (MPI) surely felt a mite anxious while putting the finishing touches on the World Education Congress (WEC) in Toronto, held from July 20-23.

Not according to them. "I was never nervous," claims Richard Robichaud, the lead planner for the conference, which marked MPI's 30th anniversary. Near-daily contact with the local host committee, starting six months out, kept staff in Dallas fully apprised of everything happening in Toronto, Robichaud notes.

At MPI's request, hotels affected by the potential walkout -- including Fairmont and Starwood properties -- quickly devised a contingency plan in case of strike, adds Ed Griffin, MPI's president and CEO: "Rather than break it [by hiring temporary workers], the properties' Plan B was to bring in management from other hotels in the chain to cover all necessary positions." (Since positions affected included room attendants, a director of sales might have been scrubbing toilets had a settlement not been reached five days before WEC began.)

As for the garbage strike, the hotels and convention center used by MPI outsource their trash pickup to private vendors and were therefore unaffected by the strike, which ended early enough to clean up affected outlying neighborhoods in time.

Debi Debiak, an attorney specializing in labor law in Roseland, New Jersey, notes that planners can protect themselves against walkouts by asking properties if any union contracts are set to expire and inserting a clause excusing the planner from using the property if a labor dispute happens. "But that's being super-cautious," she adds. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, employees continue working while the contract is being negotiated." (Robichaud says MPI never considered changing properties.)

Despite an uncertain beginning, it was business as usual at the WEC, although attendance -- 2,900 -- was below last year's 3,400 in Las Vegas.