Through the Roof

Several meetings industry associations are enjoying record-breaking attendance at their latest annual conventions, while others are reaching near-record highs.

Association officials attribute the increased attendance to a variety of factors, but industry organizations are clearly benefiting from the business travel rebound that also has helped their members.

More than 3,600 people attended this year's World Education Congress (WEC) of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the industry's largest professional association, with 21,000 members. Attendance at the annual event, held in July in Dallas, was about 140 people over the attendance at MPI's previous record-setting annual meeting, which was held in Las Vegas in 2001.

When compared to the Las Vegas WEC more closely, this year's event appears to be a breakthrough. First, attendance typically spikes at meetings held in Las Vegas; and second, 2001's WEC was held at the tail end of an economic boom era, just eight weeks prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So this year's record attendance indicates how far the industry has rebounded. "This industry is hot right now," said MPI chairman Mark Andrew to members during a forum at the convention. "Seeing more than 3,600 people attend this conference means it's growing bigger than ever."

Planners made up about 40 percent of attendees at the most recent WEC, Andrew says, adding that they traditionally make up just one-third of attendees at other WECs. "A lot of people are looking to grow and develop careers," he says in explaining the greater planner participation. "Coming to this event shows you're focused on your own growth and excited about your future."

Other industry organizations boasting record attendance at their annual meetings this year include Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), with more than 1,200 people in Boston this year and 1,100 in San Diego last year; the Religious Conference Management Association (1,375 attendees) in San Jose, CA; the National Business Travel Association (5,700 people) in Chicago; and the National Association of Catering Executives (675 people) in Phoenix, including 200 first-time attendees.

The robust economy contributed in some way to the record numbers, according to planners of these events. Kristen Clemens, vice president of marketing for DMAI, says, "Hotel room rates are up, so more bed tax is being collected—which means that many CVB budgets are up enough to allow CVBs to invest in professional development by sending additional staffers to the conference."

Says NBTA spokeswoman Courtney Leigh Beisel, "Business travel is back."