Thousands of representatives from more than 30 nations will convene in Salt Lake City this coming weekend at the annual World Education Congress of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the world's largest association for the event and convention industry.

And, as delegates focus intensively on keeping large business meetings relevant in a challenging economic environment as well as politically-driven concerns of corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau (SLCVB) will showcase the area's far-reaching array of natural, creative, and entrepreneurial benefits in a series of events that justify why SLC has earned this global stamp of approval, as significant as the 2002 Winter Olympics in leveraging the city's capabilities for shepherding major events.

"This is an important statement," Scott Beck, president and CEO of the SLCVB, says. "If the leading international organization in this industry says our city is good enough for its international meeting, then it also is good enough for any group planning its next large meeting."

As with the Olympics, Beck sees good karma in MPI's presence this month in SLC. "There is a potential halo effect, where we could see an incremental bump of five to seven percent annually in our already expanding base of convention business," he explains.

At the core of this year's MPI global congress is why meetings still are important business accelerators, especially in an economic environment where the reflexive instinct is to scale back on such events. At least 120 sessions will be dedicated to the strategic implications of wise planning in large-scale meetings and conventions, according to Vicki Hawarden, MPI's vice president of knowledge and events.

"We're responding directly to the public perceptions and politically-driven attacks that question the bottom-line relevance of meetings," she says. "We want CEOs, business leaders, and community officials to understand the power and value of meetings."

Individually, delegates will be able to tap into the convention-site resource center at which experts and professional counselors will provide specific advice on how to deal with layoffs and cutbacks, align meeting goals with corporate targets, manage issues arising from the national recovery act program, work with suppliers and vendors, and quantify the impact of large meetings.

While some large conventions are experiencing drops of 50 percent or more in attendance because of the recession, MPI expects to hold its own relatively well, with only a minor dropoff. For example, a virtual webcasting access pass that covers the opening and closing sessions as well as 14 workshops is being offered, on a test-run basis, to members who cannot travel to SLC because of cost concerns.

"The themes of cost savings and social responsibility are front and center in our minds," Hawarden explains. "We're seeing that convention planners can partner with the staffs at venues and collaborate on what can be reduced or eliminated without impacting the quality of the meeting." She adds that involves being creative with such aspects including catering where local and seasonable food can be served as well as replacing fancy registration bags with functional recyclable items that work just as effectively.

Ben Stein, whose credentials run the gamut from actor to lawyer and speechwriter to economist, will be among the MPI speakers, sharing the insights he developed recently for a widely cited article he wrote about the significant relevance of business meetings and their role in economic recovery.

Betsy Myers, co-chair of the Women's Leadership Forum and former senior advisor to the Obama presidential campaign, will also speak. The Obama for America campaign has been tapped for MPI's first RISE Award for Organizational Achievement. "Whether or not you agree with President Obama's politics, the vision and strategy created transformational change. That is what we all should do when we bring people together," says Hattie Hill, chairwoman of the MPI awards and recognition task force.

Also, Gary Loveman, former Harvard MBA faculty member and current chair and CEO and president of Harrah's Inc., will provide insights on the "business" of meetings and how to enhance their strategic value.

As for selecting SLC to be host for MPI's annual congress, Hawarden cites the city's affordability, its natural beauty, and the opportunity to introduce a venue, "fabulous for its hospitality and creative energy," to many convention visitors.

Beck and his staff, recognizing that some previous MPI venues have given limited opportunities for visitors to venture outside, will use City Library Square, Red Butte Garden, and Park City as venues for receptions. Working closely with tourism officials at the city, county, and state levels, they have planned the July 11 opening reception as a celebration of Utah's rapidly emerging focus on slow food and organic products, ensuring that every offering will represent food produced within a 150-mile radius and with sustainable farming practices. The Bandaloops aerial artists, who amazed visitors at the 2006 Utah Arts festival, will perform using ropes and the glass walls of the City Library as their stage.

The closing event on July 14 will be held at Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah, featuring a casual picnic with food including lamb and fish tacos, once again highlighting the best of sustainable food production, and Smash Mouth, the multi-platinum rock band, as the headlining entertainment.

Beck and his staff also are planning a limited Park City tour for several hundred MPI delegates.

The SLC events parallel MPI's significant emphasis on corporate social responsibility especially with regard to the environment and the ever-increasing public demand to reduce the carbon footprints generated by such large-scale gatherings.

For example, SLC convention hosts have managed to reduce the need for large shuttle buses to transport MPI delegates by 78 percent, working with all of the hotels lining the downtown TRAX light-rail routes to ensure prompt, reliable service throughout the convention.

In addition, full composting capabilities also have come to the radar thanks to the assistance of Meet Green. "Too often we see meetings a singular event, rather than a transformative process. This initiative shows meetings are about much more than a few days sharing in education or networking. Conferences and events are multi-month or multi-year processes that can positively transform the cities where we meet and change how we look at an event footprint if we work together with our stakeholders," Shawna McKinley of Meet Green explains.

The initiative is gathering momentum with the MPI meeting following closely on the heels of the Unitarian Universalists convention whose 3,500 delegates met in SLC late last month. "Even though these organizations will have come and gone from Salt Lake City by the time commercial composting is implemented, our public departments understand this is a desired service and one that is a decision-making factor for meeting planners when selecting a city," Beck explains, adding that the more than $20 million value of these two large conventions is extended even further. "The addition of commercial composting adds to our existing green meeting package for Salt Lake and increases our marketability to the meetings industry as a whole."