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For Some, 2010 Motto: 'We Have to Start Meeting Like This'

If you think you're alone in borrowing a page from Warren G. Harding's presidential campaign and hoping for a "Return to Normalcy" at your credit union in 2010, consider the plight of conference and meeting planners.

In the conference business, 2009 has been the Year of the Aggressive Hotel Meeting & Beverage Contract Review. Not sure anyone has kept a tally, but this year has certainly set the record for credit union conference cancellations, with many meeting hosts finding it financially preferable to eat the cancellation fee (if you want to know how substantial these can be, consider these are the places that gave us the mini-bar pricing model) over actually taking an even bigger bath on the conference itself.

When Credit Union Journal hosted its Grow Show earlier this year, for instance, one person called me twice to make sure it was a Go Show, the second time doing so while telling me they were about to click on "Order Ticket" for their airfare, and just wanted to make sure.

Those who have held meetings have had to live through the reality that when NCUA announced the surprise corporate assessment, credit unions reacted by cutting every expense in the budget, beginning with travel. That brings us to the dilemma facing meeting planners at the national associations, leagues, vendors and others for 2010: Is 2009 an aberration, or the new normal?

At the Credit Union Executives Society in Madison, Wis., which hosts dozens of schools, conferences and other meetings each year, Dawn Poker, SVP and chief learning officer, said CUES looked at the history of its meetings and attendance at '09 events in forecasting for next year.

"We know that people have not been traveling this year, so we're being flexible with our budgets. We talk just about every day and are reviewing all the time," Poker said.

Where the national and CU economy has had more of an effect is in longer-term planning, according to Poker, noting CUES has meetings planned through 2011. "It's changing drastically the way we book meetings and how far out we go with our hotel partners. Looking at contracts from five years ago is not a valid way to plan for your (food and beverage) minimum. We are not looking five years out into the future. We monitor what has been happening in the hospitality industry. If it starts to become a seller's market again, we will lock up again."

For now it remains a buyer's market for meeting planners, with Poker noting that one Las Vegas property has been gambling that a $35 a night room rate for November and December of this year might snag a meeting or two. And it appears buyers are out there, at least among conference attendees. Poker added that a CUES event in September for which the group had reforecasted a lower attendance figure, actually exceeded the original projection.

"People have sat out for a year, but they also understand the need to meet with their peers and for professional development for their own personal well-being," said Poker. "I think people are craving to talk to their peers."

But what about the future of smaller meetings, which offer good, solid content but which can also be too easily dismissed as a secondary event? The Paragon Consulting Group, for instance, will host its 13th Annual Volunteer Leadership Institute in late January for board members (although some CEOs attend) in Hawaii. Paragon Consulting Group is a CUSO of TwinStar Credit Union, and CEO Jim This has 30 years experience consulting with credit unions.

This said he remains optimistic about attendance, projecting the meeting, which normally draws up to 250 people, will attract between 140 and 175. "While the current financial market has forced some credit unions to curtail spending on travel and training they must eventually face the reality of keeping their volunteers up to date," This said.

Mention "Hawaii" and "meeting" in the same sentence, however, and many will also immediately think "expensive junket."

"These are educational sessions first," This observed, acknowledging, "They are held in lovely places. Check the airfares and hotel rates. They are equivalent to traveling across the continental U.S. for sessions. Hawaii is a state; we are not going on cruise ships or traveling out of the country."

When I used Expedia last week to look for airfares from L.A., for instance, a round trip could be had for $499. The group has also negotiated with the host Marriott hotel in Maui rooms for 50% off the conference room for three days after the meeting. Still, where is the ROI for directors in such events?

"The ROI is in having volunteers who are better trained to deal with the challenges of the environment," responded This. "We prove that by offering full-day programs-no fluff; nationally recognized speakers, and consistent Institute ratings well over 4.0 on a scale of 1 to 5."

This said Paragon Consulting Group typically plans meetings one to two years out, and like CUES has found hotels willing to find "reasonable solutions," especially with long-term clients.

Now all everyone needs is credit union leaders who believe it's equally reasonable to hit the road again.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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