No one doubts the economy is affecting association meetings, but if anybody doubted that we are just at the starting line of the meetings distress, all one needed to do was have a few conversations on the show floor.
â€œThings were going well, I wasnâ€™t experiencing hardly any affectâ€”until January, then it start hitting pretty hard,â€ says Joanne Melser, who sells to the association market for Keystone Resort and Conference Center.
â€œWeâ€™re doing great in 09,â€ says Ross Mirmelstein, a meeting planner with the National Sheriffsâ€™ Association. â€œWeâ€™re two months out and weâ€™re tracking ahead of the last few years. What Iâ€™m worried about is 2010. Itâ€™s an election year, itâ€™s on the West Coast, and Iâ€™m worried about what kinds of cutbacks localities are going to have to make. 2010 is a little scary for me.â€
Of course, the economy is affecting associations right now, too.
â€œIâ€™m not booking anything new,â€ says one hotel rep. "All weâ€™re doing is rewriting existing bookings.â€
A meetings consultant who requested her name be withheld says, â€œItâ€™s the worst Iâ€™ve seen it in 20 years. Iâ€™m seeing budgets freezing, and lots of regional and small meetings just being cancelled.â€
There is some good news, though. As in down economic cycles of the past, its associations that are keeping the entire sector afloat. With a few exceptions here and there, they are not cancelling their biggest meetings. Thereâ€™s a general appreciation for association sector business during soft economic times. Hotels and destinations report not just a willingness, but an eagerness to work with associations to be sure the meetings are as financially successful as they can be.
As reported by Nancy Halsey and Dawn Smith of the Air Line Pilots Association International, associations are making nips and tucks where they can.
â€œMaybe you cut a reception, or you limit the open bar to an hour,â€ Halsey says. â€œYou make your bookings for smaller groups, replace full meals with hors dâ€™oeuvres.â€
Smith adds: â€œWeâ€™re not hearing complaints. Our members understand whatâ€™s going on.â€
Scott Williamson with ConferenceDirect says heâ€™s seen the same things. â€œYouâ€™re going for fewer days and fewer room nights,â€ he says. â€œTheyâ€™re being smarter about sponsorships and really watching costs, but the bottom line is associations in general have to have their meetings.â€