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WASHINGTON — As expected, the 2009 economic shakedown and belt tightening is taking a heavy toll on conference programming and trade operations not to mention travel, salaries, hotel bookings and entertainment.CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference is the first early registration casualty, down 15% to 20% in room count from a year ago. “The recession is definitely having an impact on our conference turnout and that’s unfortunate,” said Mark Wolff, CUNA’s senior vice president of communications, but he stressed the meeting’s importance to the industry in delivering a strong message to lawmakers “amidst enormous change and a swing toward activist government.”For months, CUNA management worried about a regulatory overhaul harshly impacting CUs and has pushed hard for broad attendance for it Feb. 22-26 GAC as a measure of CU lobbying muscle before the many new faces in Congress and the Obama administration.“The fact is, we should have more CEOs, senior managers and directors here to do our lobbying, not less,” lamented Wolf. However, he pointed out, the exhibitor list of 280 is even with last year, “a sign that shows the continued relevance of the GAC.”Last year GAC drew 5,000 registrants, but only 3,500 to 4,000 are expected this year.CUNA was hardly alone this winter among trade groups dealing with cutbacks and broad-scale expense reductions at CUs.CUNA Mutual Group, for one, said it has frozen salaries for nonunion employees, reduced travel “significantly” and canceled at least two large employee “enrichment and recognition meetings.”Meanwhile, CUES said it is renegotiating hotel contracts and has already managed to move its annual Directors Conference Dec. 6-9 from the Westin Our Lucaya in the Bahamas to a J.W. Marriott property in Palm Desert, Calif. “This allowed for lower air fares and a lower room rate,” explained Barb Kachelski, senior vice/chief operations officer.The Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, now “extremely conscious of expense control,” has already trimmed $75,000 from its $4.5 million 2009 budget and has imposed a hiring freeze and cut travel and training.CUNA and league officials stressed concerns over hotel penalties on events booked one or two years in advance, including the annual CEO Summit held last month in Key West, which was sponsored by CUNA and the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland/D.C., New Jersey and West Virginia leagues.“We actually saw an increase in attendance to 75, but this is one meeting that proved extremely valuable, with top-notch speakers covering such key topics as asset liability, balance sheet management and planning strategies,” said Wishnow.Perceptions aside, these kinds of high-level CEO sessions are vital for “networking and consensus” and though travel and hotel are an expense consideration, such strategy conclaves are deemed too important, explained Steve Dunham, president/CEO of Canyon State CU of Phoenix, who took part in a West Coast version of the CEO Summit also held last month in Hawaii.The Western States Summit Roundtable, as the Maui conference is called, saw a sharp drop in attendance to 100 CEOs and league staffers representing CUNA and 11 West Coast and Rocky Mountain leagues. That is down “40 bodies from last year,” said Mark Klinkert, senior vice president of the California/Nevada league.Similar to other state league executives, Klinkert forecast a 25% to 30% decline in 2009 attendance at “professional development and educational” conferencing, though “advocacy and awareness” is expected to hold up better.As one example, the California/Nevada league has already sharply reduced speaker and registration costs for its annual and popular soiree, the Big Valley Conference March 16-18 in Monterey.“We started planning for this a year ago, but we had no idea of the severity of the downturn and so we have done many things to cut expenses including eliminating celebrity speakers on personal and professional development and sticking instead to hardcore business topics,” said Klinkert.In good times, CEOs and their spouses at Big Valley have heard from such luminaries as John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted,” comedian Steve Allen and sportscaster Roy Firestone.To lure attendees, Klinkert noted registration fees have been slashed 15%, with new special group rates for 12 or more delegates, bringing the fee as low as $275 compared to the basic $699 charge, down from the $800 a year ago.Asked about the decline at the Maui conference, Klinkert attributed the fall off to economic troubles affecting CUs but also to the “perceived messages and impressions” being sent to constituents and staff in connection with high-end destinations.On that point, however, John Annaloro, president/CEO of the Washington CU League, which is in the middle of its own retrenching and large-scale “greening” effort, countered that air travel to distant places like Hawaii is more or less routine for West Coast CEOs.Besides, the GAC and Western states are too vital in mapping industry positioning on tough issues.As for the Key West conference, Michael Beall, president/CEO of the Maryland and D.C. Credit Union Association, said the number of attendees from his league dropped sharply “from the seven or eight we normally send, to one or two this year.”“We have any number of political issues we are dealing with including bankruptcy reform, voting rights, the budget deficit and remember this is the home of Steny Hoyer,” said Beall referring to the U.S. House Majority Leader representing Maryland’s 5th congressional district.For its part, the Maryland/D.C. trade group, like other leagues, has sharply trimmed operating budgets.“We had a decent year in 2008, but for 2009 we’ve already cut the budget 13% and eliminated one staff position,” said Beall adding, “The Christmas party is already gone.”Regarding GAC, CUNA said it is cutting back a bit on entertainment, d?cor, food and beverages but is keeping intact essential programming to ensure every attendee worthwhile experience.“This is a first-rate conference, and we are only sorry more will be unable to attend,” said Wolff He also noted that CUNA has taken numerous steps to reduce costs for CUs taking part in educational programming during the year.–jr[email protected]

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