Revival of Meetings, Conventions Awaited : Travel: An industry group postponed its own gathering so members could sort out company travel plans. Recovery could take months.


When corporate travel arrangers gather for their annual convention this year, many will likely bemoan how the Persian Gulf War caused companies to drastically cut back on training meetings and conferences.

The commiseration, however, will be delayed by a few months. Like so many of the employees whose trips were canceled amid cost cutting and fears of terrorism, the planners themselves are feeling the travel pinch.

Their group, the Assn. of Corporate Travel Executives, postponed its annual meeting at the San Diego Convention Center. Originally scheduled for this week, the meeting of 300 travel executives is being delayed until May because so many of the members have been busy trying to sort out the company travel plans that went haywire when the war began, an association official said.

They are not the only group whose travel dollars will take longer finding their way into the tills of Southland hotels, restaurants and entertainment complexes. The war cut into the relatively small, but extremely lucrative, part of the travel business that caters to conventions and meetings.

“A lot of corporations are canceling their meetings. The associations are not canceling . . . but we hear there is some slippage in attendance,” said Roy B. Evans, executive vice president of the Professional Convention Management Assn. in Birmingham, Ala.


Just as the erosion was slow in starting after the war began in January, he said, the recovery in the convention industry may take a few weeks or months.

“I think you are going to see a 60-(day) to 90-(day) lag time, and then it (meetings and convention attendance) is going to come back strong,” Evans said.

While foreign tourism came to a virtual standstill when war broke out last month, the business and convention trade at first appeared resilient enough to tide over tourism-dependent businesses. After all, organizations and large companies were hardly likely to cancel events that they had booked months or years in advance.

Convention centers and hotels that cater to the meeting trade, however, say that they have seen declines in the numbers of participants in some shows or meetings. In addition, some smaller meetings are being postponed or canceled.

“The hotels are struggling a lot more. Business is down. There are cancellations,” said Gary J. Rosenberg, a Culver City meeting planner and executive director of the Southern California Chapter of Meeting Planners International.

The war and recession have forced companies to re-examine their meeting policies.

“They will say, ‘Is this meeting really necessary?’ If not, they are not going to do it,” said Larry Rose, general manager of the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, which caters heavily to the meeting trade because of its proximity to John Wayne Airport.

Companies have cut back on travel for cost-cutting reasons as well as terrorism fears since the war began. Three-day trips have been reduced to two days. Some executives fly in early in the morning to attend a daily meeting rather than the night before, saving the cost of a night’s lodging, Rose said. And companies are sending smaller delegations to meetings.

One of the largest surf-wear and sportswear trade shows, held in late January in San Diego, lured more participating companies but fewer representatives from each, said Rich Jeffries, trade show coordinator for Action Sports Retailer magazine, which sponsored the show.

“I think the recession and the war--to what extent I’m not certain--had some bearing on the show,” Jeffries said.

The war has also affected attendance at other shows for more direct reasons. Cancellations are running ahead of last year’s pace for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons convention scheduled for March 7-12 at the Anaheim Convention Center. The meeting is expected to attract up to 22,000 doctors and exhibitors this year, down from as many as 24,000 in past years.

The cancellation increase appeared to be due in part to physicians who were activated for military duty or foreign doctors who were expecting to have difficulty traveling, said Alvin Nagelberg, assistant director of the academy, based in Park Ridge, Ill. Before the conflict, the convention was expected to attract 22,000 conventioneers and exhibitors.

So far, only one major California convention appears to have been killed outright. The Wendy’s International fast-food chain cancelled a five-day convention for 2,000 franchisees that had been scheduled for May in San Francisco.

But representatives of the Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego convention centers say their bookings are holding firm.

“Certainly the recession has affected attendance, (but) there has not been one cancellation that I could attribute to the war,” said Chuck Woolf, spokesman for the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Donna Alm, spokeswoman for the San Diego Convention Center, said that while overall attendance remains close to last year’s level, “the numbers are not as high as they anticipated it would be before the war broke out.”

Trying to cope with the business meeting slowdown, hotels and airlines have responded with targeted advertising campaigns and price cutting.

United Airlines, for instance, has been airing commercials in which a nervous boss explains that the company lost an important client and starts handing out stacks of airline tickets to the assembled sales force. He explains that each of the company’s customers must be visited to shore up the accounts.

Hotel sales staffs have been aggressively trying to fill their empty rooms, both sleeping quarters and meeting spaces.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from hotel people,” said Donna Garrett, a meeting coordinator for the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick in Los Angeles. “They are more willing to negotiate for a price of a room. From what I know, they are going to bend a little bit more.”