ast February, during a speech on his economic stimulus plan, President Barack Obama rubbed exhibition and event professionals the wrong way with statements that many felt were a direct attack on the value of our industry. Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman shot back with a two-page letter, noting that Las Vegas alone hosts 22,000 events and six million business travelers annually, for an economic impact totaling $8.5 billion per year.
"The assumption that all meetings, events, and incentive travel are wasteful is wrong. Now more than ever, we need businesses to travel and hold meetings and events," read Goodman's letter, which went on to warn the president that fueling criticism of events could cause many employed in the travel and hospitality industries to lose their jobs and their homes.
Within a month, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs backpedaled a bit, clarifying Obama's intent. "The president believes it's important to have a strong tourism
industry and that we shouldn't retrench," Gibbs said. But with the media scrutiny of AIG's events still fresh in everyone's mind, Gibbs' statement was unable to undo what had already been done: The public's perception of exhibitions and events had been lumped together with lavish junkets and wasteful, excessive "retreats" on the beach. And separating the beneficial from the boondoggle-ish became a daunting battle that few seemed willing to wage.
As a result, companies afraid of media scrutiny and/or concerned about the perceptions of their investors slashed travel budgets and cancelled events in an effort to sidestep the hellfire and brimstone that was levied on AIG. Today, you can't swing a dead cat in a room full of industry suppliers without hitting someone whose clients have cancelled events or axed trade shows from their annual calendar - and forfeited significant deposits - not necessarily because those events and trade shows were worthless, but because they were afraid of damaging public-relations fallout.
As those companies continue to cancel or curtail their corporate travel, they reinforce the perception that trade shows and events are unnecessary. Granted, there is fat to trim, and underperforming events likely should be cut. But the cuts should be part of a strategic, well thought-out attempt to run more efficiently, not in an attempt to bow down to the media powers that be, who tend to use negatively charged terms like "junket," "retreat," and "outing" as labels for any and all corporate events.
Some are standing up to the criticism, like Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, who took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal that read, "These one-sided stories lead you to believe every employee-recognition event is a junket, a boondoggle, a waste, or that it's for highly paid executives. Nonsense!" What we need are more companies willing to stand up and publicly promote the value that exhibitions and events bring to their bottom line, as well as to the U.S. economy.
According to estimates from the U.S. Travel Association, business travel supports 2.4 million jobs, and represents a $240 billion boost to the nation's economy, along with $39 billion in tax revenue. Furthermore, the meetings and events subset of the business-travel industry is responsible for 1 million jobs, $101 billion in spending, $27 billion in wages, and $16 billion in tax revenue. Not bad for such a vilified industry.
Exhibitions, meetings, and events represent an economic stimulus plan in and of themselves. But if we're unwilling to personally and collectively stand up and prove their worth, inaccurate perceptions will persist, and we will have missed a critical opportunity to save our industry and help get our economy back on track. e