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Challenges for association planners

A number of increasingly complex issues are making association and government planners’ jobs a bigger challenge than ever before.


A number of increasingly complex issues are making association and government planners’ jobs a bigger challenge than ever before. By Don Douloff, Market Report, Jan/Feb 2008

Association and government planners are concerned about the daily nitty-gritty of doing their jobs – everything from dealing with higher costs and negotiating with suppliers to shorter lead times and the ins-and-outs of going green.

This year, 144 government and association planners responded to our Market Report survey. On the meeting-spend front, 24 per cent of respondents said their association non-profit organization spent between $100,000 and $249,000 on meetings in 2007 and 22 per cent said they expected their organization to spend that amount in 2008, while 13 per cent said their association non-profit organization spent $50,000 to $99,999 last year and 15 per cent projected a similar-sized meetings spend in 2008.

VENUES
Pamela Wilson, president of Calgary-based Associations Plus Inc., says her major meetings-industry concern for 2008 is “increasing venue costs. In addition, most of our clients are from small business, which has experienced numerous cost pressures, especially in Alberta.”

Wilson, whose firm manages not-for-profit associations, adds, “our meeting budgets are staying about the same, but what you can purchase for the dollar is shrinking.”

But on those occasions when Wilson is faced with a tight budget, she has a way of dealing with it. “We send out an RFP for most events and look for the best match to the budget as a starting point,” says Wilson. “Then we negotiate with the venue and end up removing some items from the bundle the venue has offered. We also look for additional sponsorship dollars.”

Among association-and-government respondents, 10 per cent reported a 2007 spend of $250,000 to $499,999 and an identical percentage forecast a comparable figure this year. Those numbers almost mirrored the percentages at the $500,000 to $999,999 tier, where 11 per cent reported 2007 spends at that level and 10 per cent believed this year’s spend would remain in that range. At the stratospheric heights, a mere 1 per cent reported a 2007 spend exceeding $2.5-million and 1 per cent predicted that amount in ’08.

INCREASED COSTS
Steve Basnett, director of trade shows and events at the Canadian Security Association, based in Markham, Ont., has money on his mind, citing “increased venue and technical costs” as one of his chief concerns for 2008. And among the biggest challenges he faces is “absorbing rising supplier costs without passing them on to the exhibitors.”

And tight budgets? “We try to reduce costs wherever possible, [with] automation playing a large part in freeing up current labour instead of hiring more bodies,” says Basnett. “We also look to trade services for space or sponsorships at events, so that both parties win and costs stay low.” Down at the lower end of the scale, a mere nine per cent of respondents indicated last year’s spend rang in at $20,000 to $49,999 and a smaller number, 8 per cent, predicted that same figure in the year ahead. The mean spend, in 2007, clocked in at $258,200 and the projected mean spend for 2008 was $275,200.

Still, times are tight. “My major concern for 2008 is the ever-shrinking travel budget directly proportional to increased travel costs; being challenged to be bigger and better than last year with the same or reduced budget,” said Sandy Neil, Winnipeg-based business development specialist, travel, at CAA Manitoba.

Besides matters monetary, association and government planners are faced with other comparatively new challenges. For instance, 28 per cent of respondents named “dealing with increasingly short lead times” as the most significant industry change they’ve noticed during the past five years.

LEAD TIMES
Basnett, for one, deals with shorter lead times “by automating as much as possible and prioritizing everything. Unfortunately, sometimes the low-priority items just don’t get completed as quickly as I would like these days.”

How does Neil deal with tighter lead times? In a word, “Education. I show my clients their limited opportunities available with a shorter lead time and also show them better opportunities which they could have if they had a longer lead time,” she says.

Furthermore, 12 per cent (the largest percentage from among the three groups of planners surveyed) said “the challenge of negotiating contracts with airlines and hotels” was the biggest change they’d noticed during the past five years.

Echoing those sentiments, Wilson notes that “hotels have been more difficult to negotiate with, but this is the reality of doing business. Much depends on the nature of the participant. If the participant is an individual paying from his own pocket, there is a real problem. If it is a company sponsoring the individual, there is less of an issue.”

“There seems to be a fuel surcharge added to every invoice these days,” says Basnett. “It’s something that we have been absorbing for now, but at some point, we’ll have to start passing it along to our exhibitors, who then pass it along to their customers, and eventually it’s the consumer that foots the bill.”

“Increased costs due to rising fuel and labor costs are part and package of doing business,” says Neil. “[My clients] understand it is the price they have to pay to enjoy that particular mode of transportation. They weigh the increased costs of travel against the benefit accrued from an incentive programme or employee-reward programme. They may reduce the number of days on the programme, or choose a closer destination, but they will continue the programme if the benefits outweigh the cost of the programme. This is where showing value-for-their-dollar is most effective.”

GREEN MEETINGS
Green meetings, too, figured into respondents’ mindsets. Indeed, 38 per cent had either planned or tried to plan a green meeting or event and 25 per cent had asked a supplier about their green practices.

Wilson’s company, for instance, does its part by posting handout material on a website or providing it as a CD. She doesn’t think the costs of going green are prohibitive.

Basnett sees some practical limitations to going green, in certain circumstances. “A lot of it is in the hands of the venue and our suppliers,” he says. “While we strive to work with facilities and suppliers that are environmentally friendly, there’s not always an option in every city.”

Suppliers, says Neil, “are struggling with the costs of going green and ‘who will pay for this?’” She adds, “right now, my clients want a green meeting as long as it doesn’t increase their budget. Moving forward, I will be suggesting to all my clients that we look at going completely or partially green.” Neil continues, “for me personally, green meetings won’t materialize until 2009. Most of my programmes sell 12 months in advance, and 2008 will definitely be a year of education.”

Who is driving green meetings? “I think if we take a macro viewpoint and look at North America, it is definitely the clients,” says Neil. “The movement is smaller (but growing) here in Canada, and I think the planners have the edge in driving green meetings at the moment.”

SURVEY SAMPLER
144 association/government planners responded to this year’s survey.

51% of association/government respondents initiated the idea for the green meeting they planned or tried to plan.

46% of association/government
r
espondents said a green meeting costs a little more or much more than a regular meeting.

53% of association/government respondents are a member of the management team which determines the educational content or business message of their organization’s meetings and events.

The average room nights booked by association/government respondents was 673.9 in 2007.

24% of association/government respondents expect the number of meetings held within Canada to increase in 2008.

9% of association/government respondents said convention and visitor bureaus were not at all influential when planning a meeting or event.

2% of association/government respondents says ‘maintaining fair working relationships with suppliers’ is the most significant change they’ve noticed in the meetings industry during the past five years.

(Source: M&IT magazine 2008)
– Don.douloff@mtg.rogers.com



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