At BizBash Expo: Planners Report Business Growth, Confidence in Economy

By Beth Kormanik April 20, 2012, 12:58 PM EDT

Photo: Brightroom, Inc.

Event professionals are optimistic about the coming year, despite the scandal around the General Services Administration that threatens to drag it down, according to planners gathered at the BizBash Expo & Awards Wednesday at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center.

At a roundtable discussion, planners shared their views on the economy and their own businesses during a session on the state of the events industry led by BizBash C.E.O. David Adler.

In a real-time poll of the planners using handheld technology from IML, 41 percent said they were optimistic about the direction of the economy, with 28 percent very optimistic. Only 7 percent thought the economy wasn’t as good as people think.

The proof is in business volume. Thirty-five percent said business is up 20 percent this year compared to 2011, and another 35 percent reported a 10 percent hike. Customers remain as demanding as ever, though, with shorter lead times. They also are looking to trim their budgets, with 56 percent of planners saying that clients are cutting back on decor elements, followed by 29 percent on entertainment. Clients are not skimping on food and beverage or speakers, though.

With more work, planners said they expect to hire more staff, with just over half planning to add to their teams in the next six months. The staffing mix has changed, though, with nearly half of planners saying they have relied more this past year on freelancers or event companies rather than hiring full-time staff.

One cloud over the optimism could be the growing scandal surrounding the General Services Administration’s 2010 conference in Las Vegas. The $820,000 event was the subject of congressional hearings this week. Many planners hadn’t heard much about the scandal—it is high season in South Florida, after all—but those following the news said they thought it had become a black eye for the entire industry and the fallout would complicate business for all planners, especially those working on government events. Others were having flashbacks to President Obama’s 2009 comments criticizing corporate meetings in Las Vegas, which hospitality leaders condemned and blamed for hurting tourism to the city.

Many people do not realize that incentive trips have a business purpose, planners said, and the public needs more education on the benefits of these meetings. They thought the goal of the conference was lost amid the details, such as the mind reader hired for entertainment. Others thought the conference sounded like an exception, not indicative of widespread problems in the industry. “No one just throws money at me,” one producer said.

Vendors also share responsibility in making sure an event hits the right notes, planners noted. Vendors should steer clients toward appropriate activities and help make sure each event has a clear return on investment.

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