ONLY a year ago, the business buzzword was ``competitiveness.'' Conferences sprang up around the country on why the trade deficit was so huge and what business and government should do about it. This year, chief executive officers are being bombarded by conferences about Europe's plans to further integrate in 1992.
Yes, 1992 is still three years off. But since last October, the New York office of the European Commission has provided speakers for 59 conferences about the event. The office has scheduled speakers for 14 more conferences and meetings over the next two months.
Sir Roy Denman, head of the EC delegation in Washington, says he speaks about 1992 three times a week. In case any of the journalists who cover trade have missed an opportunity to hear about the issues, the EC itself has scheduled an invitation-only conference on ``1992 A Crossroads in EC/US Relations'' for the middle of May in Annapolis, Md. Besides flying over some European luminaries, it has lined up United States Trade Representative Carla Hills as a speaker.
The same phenomenon has also hit Europe, where conferences are popping up like dandelions. There is intense competition for speakers. Two weeks ago, the organizers of the International Management Symposium in St. Gallen, Switzerland, were ecstatic: They had enticed Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve Board, to their meeting, which begins May 22.
In the US, speakers in demand include US Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, former US Trade Representative William Brock III, and Fred Bergsten, who heads the Institute for International Economics in Washington. The University of South Carolina recently sent out a press advisory about a video conference it plans to hold May 25 that includes Henry Kissinger, Mr. Mosbacher, and Lord Young, Britain's secretary of trade and industry.
The event has become a field day for academics. George Mason University later this month plans a Europe in the 1990s conference with 135 professors as speakers, including Michael Calingaert, who has written a book on the subject, and Jacques Pelkmans, a Dutch professor who is considered one of the foremost authorities on the issue.
The ``Europhoria'' spread to state governments, too, ranging from Delaware to Nevada, which are all sponsoring their own meetings. But the enthusiasm appears to be fading.
A Washington lobbyist, Christopher Nelson, says he gets one or two notices a week from reputable groups holding meetings. ``Most of these end up in the garbage can,'' he says. Enough people are following Mr. Nelson's example that the EC office in Washington says four or five groups have already canceled their 1992 extravaganzas because of lack of interest.
In fact, Peter Doyle, press officer at the EC in New York, says the conferences are getting ``a bit uneven.'' He jokes that it has reached the point where consultants are throwing conferences about consulting on 1992.
``The consultants are everywhere,'' says Suzanne Perry, managing editor of a newsletter, Europe-1992. In fact, at a Conference in New York last week sponsored by Business Week magazine and the Foreign Policy Association, speakers included consultants from Arthur Andersen & Co., DRI/McGraw-Hill, and Arthur D. Little International.
Covering these conferences are reporters from specialty publications that have been spawned by the change in Europe. Aside from Europe-1992, produced by Lafayette Publications Inc., there are new publications from the Bureau of National Affairs, and European Business Journal published by Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm - which has also held its own conference. Georgetown University and the Hudson Research Institute are planning a newsletter.
There is a certain repetitiveness to the meetings. Almost all the conferences begin with what 1992 means to Europe, America, and the rest of the world. Few conferences are complete without some discussion of whether Europe will resemble an old-fashioned fortress, keeping exports out with newly erected walls. And many include a case study of how a company is preparing for a united Europe.
James Arrowsmith, senior analyst at Texaco Inc., says the Business Week conference, which cost $795 to attend, was his fourth session on European integration. He says Texaco also has two people in Brussels keeping their finger on the European pulse. ``I think the conferences are more important for smaller companies,'' he says.
This was the case for Jack Brookhart, Go-Jo Industries' director of marketing. ``We are thinking of moving production into Europe,'' says Mr. Brookhart, who was at the Business Week conference. The Cleveland-based businessman was particularly impressed by a realistic assessment of the integration as seen from the perspective of the trade unions.
Some professionals believe such general conferences are quickly losing their appeal.
``I wonder if American business is getting the information they need to do business in Europe,'' says Kevin Nealer, a former congressional aide who is now with the Arnold & Porter Consulting Group. ``You need to walk away from these things knowing three things you did not know before you walked in.''
The Georgetown Center for International Business and Trade is already planning its second 1992 conference June 28. Rather than repeat its first conference, which was a typical big-issues affair, Georgetown plans a more specialized presentation, geared toward the specific needs of its client, the American Hardware Association.
``The big no man's land in information is for the small to medium-sized companies,'' says John Onto, the director of the Georgetown center.