Happy North American Meetings Industry Day. Welcome to a celebration that has been a while in the making.

If you want to trace its origins, just “follow the money,” as the saying goes. And if you want to tie the movement’s relevance to current events, just use Canada’s province of Alberta as Exhibit A.

An economic downturn is challenging Alberta for the second time in less than a decade. In February alone, 14,000 people were laid off work, and there is fear more jobs will be eliminated soon because of pressures on the energy sector, Alberta's economic lifeblood.

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The scenario is much like the recession crisis that occurred in 2009, according to Calgary meeting planner and MPI chapter leader Cynthia Lamont, CMP, CMM. Lamont, who is operations manager/event specialist for the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources, says she believes the Canadian meetings industry is now better prepared to mitigate recessionary impact on face-to-face meetings.

"Because of the advocacy networking and education we've been doing in recent years," Lamont says, "I am better able to help my clients and society members justify to their bosses why they should spend $750 on a workshop or some other in-person event. One thing we did recently was put to together a letter over our society president's signature that detailed the takeaway attendees would receive."

In Canada, National Meetings Industry Day is the annual centerpiece of the industry's nationwide advocacy initiatives. With that event and others throughout the calendar, the industry demonstrates its value to stakeholders and legislators. The industry has put itself on par with Canada's vital forestry, agricultural, and entertainment industries, Lamont says. A good indicator, she adds, are the written acknowledgements from the prime minister's Ottawa office about the industry's value.

U.S. and Mexico Catch Up

This month, the U.S. and Mexican meetings industries are modeling Canada's long-standing meetings advocacy centerpiece event with the first annual North American Meetings Industry Day (NAMID). It's been organized and promoted in the U.S. under Meetings Mean Business (MMB), a cross-industry advocacy initiative with steering by the US Travel Association, the Convention Industry Council and its member organizations. Local events, like Chicagoland's Four Star Award heroes event at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, will spotlight advocacy education and honor industry advocates and leaders.  

Meetings Mean Business (MMB) first emerged during the 2009 economic crisis when meetings cancellations and cutbacks were rampant. Until the past year or so, MMB has been more of a reactive effort, addressing media-led crises like "Muffingate" and disparaging remarks out of the White House about Las Vegas events.

Nan Marchand Beauvois, the US Travel vice president who oversees the MMB coalition, says there hasn't been a sustained effort to put eyes and ears to meetings advocacy at all levels until recently. Increasing pressures on meetings such as government budget cuts and media-driven boycotts surrounding political debates about social issues have elevated the need for more robust advocacy efforts.

"Boycotts like the one we've seen around legislation in Arkansas and Indiana are effective," Marchand Beauvois says, "but often come with unintended consequences to local communities who count on in-person meetings, events, conferences and conventions to sustain themselves. “Part of our job is to raise the issue and remind those involved that local businesses are not the target of travel suspensions and meetings cancelations, but are often the ones to pay the price."

More high-level spokespeople are also needed for industry advocacy, she adds.

"What we really need now are more high-profile advocates like Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP," she contends.

McDermott, who is head of the world's largest business software company, spoke at IMEX America last fall in Las Vegas. He explained how he set out to achieve 10 times more company growth partly by rethinking the company's entire events strategy.

"During my time at Xerox, I'd learned that you have to bring people together; you can't motivate for growth by using email!" McDermott told his Las Vegas audience.