The CEO of Estée Lauder once suggested using a “lipstick index” as an economic indicator, in the belief that sales of lipstick go up in hard times because women can’t afford higher priced items like clothes or shoes. These days a better symbol may be a name tag, because there is no better metric of the health of the global economy than meetings. International and domestic conventions, conferences, and events are the best way to sell products, educate colleagues and clients, and exchange ideas and research.
Anyone doubting that these activities are integral to the financial health of the United States should take a look at the most recent Meetings Mean Business Economic Impact Statement. The taxes from meetings and events—just taxes, not overall spending or indirect benefits—total $19.9 billion. To put that in context, it is more than enough to cover the $19.3 billion budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with enough left over to fund the National Endowment for the Arts. Hey astronauts and jazz musicians, you’re welcome.
The global component of our industry is arguably what makes it so rewarding: From showing off products to decision makers from new markets to convening experts from other countries to exchange ideas at medical conferences, international visitors always bring business and sometimes save lives. The recent executive orders on immigration and the ensuing chaos at airports and international condemnation from politicians, business leaders, and even Nobel Laureates, have introduced a level of uncertainty for meeting planners and the entire meetings industry. What will be the impact of the executive orders on people from your organization’s offices and chapters abroad? What accommodations will you have to make to ensure that everyone in your organization has access to your meetings and events?
The Immediate Aftermath
One of the first conferences to be affected was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, February 16–20. Amanda Johnson, PhD, a deputy director at AAAS, confirmed that five scientists from the countries named in the EO had cancelled before the annual meeting, including the head of The World Academy of Sciences, who is from Sudan. To help international attendees, AAAS posted travel information on its website, and made available an expanded schedule for remote viewing of sessions for attendees who may have travel problems.
The AAAS cancellations were minimal—the EO was issued so close to the conference that it was too late for others who might have dropped out in solidarity with scientists who couldn’t attend, or who were nervous about their visa status, to get refunds for cancelled travel plans. But for a conference scheduled to begin March 22, the numbers are different. The International Association for Dental Research is holding its annual conference for around 7,000 delegates at the Moscone Center West in San Francisco and, as of seven days after the ban, had received 50 cancellations totaling $27,000 in lost registration fees. Director of Meetings Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, HMCC, says, “The board is absolutely supportive of refunding [delegates] 100 percent not just from the banned countries, but from countries including Turkey, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia who are now fearful of entering the country.” The IADR posted relaxed refund and presentation rules for attendees on February 3, and is allowing some delegates to present papers to their colleagues via Skype. IADR is also incurring $15,000 in additional costs to live broadcast plenary lectures, including one by Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, for scientists who won’t be in attendance.
Sixty percent of the attendees for IADR come from abroad to share medical research and collaborate on projects. For Zeck, the financial repercussions of the ban were secondary, she calls the situation “heartbreaking” and says, “The purpose of the conference is oral health research, and I keep thinking, ‘What if this was a lost chance for a breakthrough on oral cancer?’”
The U.S. isn’t the only country with visitor restrictions. For example, Israel has a longstanding bar on travelers from certain Middle Eastern countries, but when it is the turn of the Israeli chapter of an organization to host an event, the restrictions on attendees can be planned for. The Trump executive order on immigration came out of the blue. Zeck says, “There was nothing on the radar at any meetings or from Meeting Planners International when we discussed safety concerns for global travel. This was totally unexpected.”
The current short-term response for meeting planners seems to be to support attendees directly affected by the ban, or who feel unsafe because of it, rather than losing their long-term commitment to the organization. Investing in live streaming or video downloads of sessions to include people unable to make the conference may also help delegates feel part of the experience.
For Zeck, the heartbreak of lost opportunities for research collaboration could be followed by a major headache: One of the topics now on the association’s board meeting agenda at the conference is changing the location of the next U.S. conference. That could mean cancelling an event already booked for 7,000 people in the United States and finding an appropriate venue that is available on the same dates in a more neutral location outside the U.S. For a meeting planner, this is a logistical nightmare; for a U.S. city, losing a citywide conference it is an economic nightmare. Consider the IADR meeting in 2011 at the San Diego Convention Center, where the economic impact on the city was tallied at over $18 million—and that was six years ago with just 5,500 attendees.
Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, warns that because international conferences are booked three to five years in advance, it will be difficult to measure the impact of the Trump administration’s immigration policies for a while. He says, “Destinations shout loud and long when they win bids, those who miss out are always quiet, making it very difficult to identify future trends until one gets closer to the actual date of the meetings. This is particularly dangerous because the full damage won’t be visible until far too late to do anything about it.”
Losing a conference because of a government policy is a very real danger for the U.S. economy. The most obvious precedent is the International AIDS Conference, which was held biannually in the U.S. until, in response to protests over a Reagan-era ban on anyone with a known HIV infection coming to America, the eighth International AIDS Conference was moved to Amsterdam in 1992. The event, which has grown from 5,000 participants in the early nineties to 15,000 in 2016, did not return to the U.S. until 2012, three years after the Obama administration lifted the ban.
For planners concerned about the impact of immigration uncertainty on future meetings, it is time to start looking at your membership, the language in your contracts, and your insurance policies right now. ICCA’s Martin Sirk says, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this issue will now be firmly on the agenda for any association whose meetings attract delegates from a wide variety of countries and whose decision-making guidelines state that all their members should be allowed to attend.”
B. Chris Brewster is the president of the International Life Saving Federation, Americas Region, an organization leading a global effort to reduce death and injury in and on the water. He was considering a proposal to host two events in the U.S. in the next several years but is withdrawing it because he believes the organization’s board (including himself) would have to vote against it. Brewster says, “I am obligated to act in the best interest of the organization and having a meeting in a place where some of our members are not allowed would not be correct.” The ILSF member organizations include the Lifesaving & Diving Federation of Iran, the Somali Lifeguard Association, and the Sudanese Sea Scouts.
For conversations about moving a meeting location, planners need to know how foreign chapter members feel about traveling to the U.S., how many international attendees and speakers will be directly affected, cancellation costs for future conferences, and other possible financial penalties to move a conference or to refund excluded attendees. Then sit down with your legal team and look at the language in your vendor contracts, both current ones in case the number of attendees has to be adjusted, and adding clauses to future contracts to give you more protection against unexpected immigration changes or political boycotts.
Barbara Dunn O’Neal, a partner at Barnes and Thornburg LLP, says she has noticed an uptick in inquiries about meeting contracts related to civil rights laws such as HB2 in North Carolina, and expects the executive order will also generate an increase in queries. Dunn O’Neal says, “Groups can certainly make it a business decision to insist on language in their contracts that specifically refers to these issues and allows for a right of cancellation without liability.” She warns, “I have been recommending to my clients worried about laws impacting civil rights to make that issue its own provision—separate and apart from force majeure, and the same can be done in this situation.” She also recommends looking at insurance policy language in the event of a cancellation to help cover the organization’s costs.
Expect More Fallout
Condemnation of the immigration ban has come from individuals as diverse as the vice chancellor of Cambridge University, himself a WWII refugee, who called it “an affront to one of the most fundamental human freedoms,” to religious and business leaders, including the CEOs of Nike and Microsoft. More than 6,400 scientists, researchers and professors have signed a petition asking for a boycott of academic conferences in the U.S.
A maxim from the ancient Syrian writer Publilius Syrus holds that, “A good reputation is more valuable than money,” but surveys from the weeks following the EO indicate the United States has suffered a loss of both.
Meetings Mean Business surveyed members on the executive order during the first 10 days of February and found that almost 18 percent of respondents had already faced travel problems because of the ban, and almost 55 percent believed there would be lasting harm to the reputation of the United States. A Global Business Travel Association survey found that business travel bookings were down $185 million in the week after the first executive order on immigration was signed, and a travel industry poll conducted by GfK in early February indicated that 46 percent of Germans with a previous desire to visit America are no longer considering a visit, because they don’t want to show support for the Trump administration or they no longer feel welcome here. Press reports of Muslim American citizens having their Global Entry membership revoked and British citizens with Muslim names being denied entry to the United States continue to fuel fears for international travelers.
A London-based British-Iranian medical doctor, teaching fellow, and tech entrepreneur, who is a frequent speaker and research collaborator in the medical community, is one of those who no longer feels welcome here. She spoke to MeetingsNet on condition of anonymity. She says, “I’ve removed any [U.S.] conferences in my diary that I was considering this year.” For the past few years she has attended several conferences in the U.S. including TEDMED and Health Datapa-looza, and before the executive order she was thinking about attending this year’s HIMSS, SXSW, and Singularity Summit. She says she might consider coming in the future if there was less uncertainty. “This administration seems to be making sudden/quick changes, which may mean my plans are disrupted.”
She sums up why face-to-face conferences are so important, saying that she will try to follow live-stream sessions at the missed conferences but, “I find if you don’t go, your time is often filled with other things, so there is typically no time to follow. Also, you miss out on the networking opportunities by not attending.”
Professor Mohamed Hassan, a Sudanese mathematician and executive director of The World Academy of Sciences who was unable to attend the AAAS conference, issued a statement on the executive order calling it “profoundly disruptive” but also addressing the stated security goals of the EO. He says, “To minimize the risk of terrorism, it is vitally important to build partnerships, to build friendships—to build trust and goodwill.”
Activities that the meetings industry accomplishes every day.