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The Executive Officer’s Column

Annual Meeting Venues Past, Present, and Future

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

By all accounts, the Montréal Annual Meeting was a great success, thanks to the hard work of Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and the 2006 Program Committee, and the splendid venues and hospitality provided by the Montréal convention bureau, the hotels and their staff. Preparation for this meeting had its dif- ficult moments, however, as the ASA membership knows. It took over a year for Council, the Executive Office, and the Program Committee to ensure an appropriate location, and our 2006 planning process took us from New York City to San Francisco and finally to Montréal.

Playing “musical meeting places” is not typical for the ASA. Meetings of our size require much forward planning and advantageous long-term contracts for space to ensure their success, and ASA has been exceptionally well served in this regard by the strong working relationships we have developed with our longstanding hotel partners. In the past, these collaborative relationships have also been essential to ASA’s ability on rare but important occasions to make swift and successful changes in meeting location, for example, as a result of an electrical fire (DC 1995) and civil rights decisions by Council (Atlanta 1980). And these relationships remain essential today as the Association seeks to respond to a new, positive environment in the hospitality industry, one in which labor unions have become greatly invigorated and collective bargaining has become increasingly national in scope.

New Challenges in the Hospitality Industry

In recent months there has been an on-going discussion within Council about how the Association might best relate to labor unions whose members provide us with important services that help make our meetings successful and whose conditions of employment matter on general principle to all ASA members. As a result, ASA elected leaders, the Executive Officer, and the Director of Operations and Meetings have met and talked with union leaders from UniteHere, the major hotel workers union, as the hospitality industry has been undergoing change, and we have developed a good working relationship with them. Early in its discussions, Council also agreed that, in principle, the ASA should seek to participate in collaborative efforts by organizations such as ours that are major consumers of the hotel and convention industry’s services to develop quality information and standards to guide our individual decision processes over the long run.

During this time, the union and individual members of nonprofit organizations that use substantial hotel space and services for meetings, including members of ASA and sister social science associations, have been working to establish an independent organization designed to provide and share information relevant to organizational consumers. The Informed Meeting Exchange (INMEX) was established in June 2006 as a nonprofit mutual benefit corporation [a (501(c)(6) organization under IRS classification], chaired by John Stephens, Executive Director of the American Studies Association. It is based upon the recognition that nonprofit organizations in many fields are key stakeholders in the meetings industry; that they want to conduct successful meetings in environments free from the threat of labor disputes; that transparency in this industry is a major component in holding successful meetings and conventions; and that access to information about destination cities, hotels, and union activities is essential to better planning. INMEX is also based upon the principles that hotel workers deserve fair pay for their work, and that they have a right to work in environments free from discrimination, intimidation and harassment, and to bargain collectively.

ASA Joins the Informed Meeting Exchange

After considerable discussion and fact finding, the ASA Council voted unanimously in June 2006 to become a subscribing member of the new INMEX. INMEX will aim to help associations organize annual meetings to avoid situations of labor-management conflict that have caused several of our sister associations to face significant financial losses because of decisions to change meeting venues at a late date. It intends to collect information and data about subscriber experience and relationships with various hotel chains, cities, etc., so that subscribers can have the benefit of wider experience and be familiar with best practices in the marketplace. Council felt such information could be a valuable resource for the Executive Office and Council as we work together to ensure successful future meetings.

As ASA President Frances Fox Piven said, “This initiative is based on the idea that in the hotel industry, as in other industries, employers currently face a choice between a low-road strategy and a high-road strategy. The first—often driven by short-term financial considerations—rests on weakening unions and driving wages down, while the latter involves cooperative relations with unions and upgrading of employee skill levels and compensation. The purpose of INMEX is to exert consumer pressure on this industry to follow the high road. Since some key players in this industry have already opted for the high road, it is clearly a viable option. It is consistent with the interests of ASA as an organization and the preferences of our members to do what we can to prevent yet another industry from following a low-road strategy. We suspect that many of the staffers at the hotel chains that we work with also hope that the industry chooses more cooperative labor relations.”

As the ASA moves forward to complete its planning for the 2007 Annual Meeting in New York City, this expectation is being fulfilled. The city’s hotels and hotel workers union have reached contract agreements. This is a fitting beginning for President Piven’s 2007 theme: “Is Another World Possible? Sociological Perspectives on Contemporary Politics.”

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer