Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2018

Cover Story

Government Cutbacks On Travel
Hit Meeting Attendance

Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13589 to cut government waste 20 percent below FY 2010 levels and promote efficient spending, all by fiscal year 2013. At the top of the target list were travel and conferences, not good news for the meetings, hospitality and travel industries, which began efforts to promote the value of face-to-face interaction. So what’s been the impact?

Cutbacks and Savings. The General Services Administration — whose meeting set off Congressional investigation into spending practices across all federal agencies — canceled nearly 50 conferences, saving $11 million, in the five months since April. During that time, the agency did hold five conferences that support its core mission. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported in October that the federal government cut $600 million in conference costs over the previous six months.

Increased Transparency. Beginning January 31, 2013, the Department of Interior’s web site will post descriptions of all conference activities of the previous fiscal year exceeding $100,000, the secretary’s documented approval for any conference activities exceeding $500,000 and the department’s net conference expenses for the fiscal year.

What It Means. “We’re hearing from the private sector that interaction with government officials is an important part of doing business,” said Erik Hansen, director, domestic policy for U.S. Travel Association. “When government decides not to attend a meeting, it can have a real impact on sales, relationships and education.”

Case in Point. It did hit hard and unexpectedly for the international meetings of the American Society of Agronomy, Soil Science Society of America, and Crop Science Society of America this past October. The biggest government contingent comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service. The societies’ staff kept checking and was assured members would be coming. “But the Tuesday before our Sunday start, the agency contacted us for lists of their employees who were registered, saying that they needed to make a 33 percent cut — up to 80 people,” Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the three societies. “By Thursday, we were hearing it would be 50 percent.”

The Outcome: Federal employees generally account for 7 to 10 percent of the societies’ annual meeting attendance. In this case, 42 of its members at ARS requested refunds, and the societies had no way of knowing who from USDA did not register because awaited approval to travel never came. This was a huge blow for two reasons:

1. The value of having federal agencies on site to network and share cutting-edge research with colleagues working around the world. “The sheer enormity of that is critical to feeding people, being sustainable, and growing crops in a changing climate,” Bergfeld emphasized.

2. The need to be globally competitive. “If federal employees can’t interact on the front edge of science, where will we be in 10 years?” she asked.

The Back Story: New Office of Management and Budget rules for federal agency travel changed the equation for calculating the dollars for travel. Per diems now must include an allocation for salary and benefits for attendees’ time at the meeting, cited Bergfeld Without the new ruling, the total outlay for association members at ARS to participate would have been between $200,000 and $300,000; with salary allocation, it ballooned to $750,000.

Here’s the irony. “Our agency members are told that a scientific meeting is not part of their job, yet their performance evaluation specifically says they must interact with colleagues within their discipline. This wasn’t a boondoggle; it was a geek meeting in Cincinnati,” she maintained.

Furthermore, the government per diem, frozen in 2012 for 2013, has become a real impediment as average daily room rates have risen strongly in the past two years. “We’re pleading with our hotels in 2013 for a $15 to $20 drop in rates for government attendees — or for 10 percent of blocked rooms to be priced at the federal per diem,” said Keith Schlesinger, director of meetings and conventions, ASA, CSSA and SSSA.

Future Plans: To avoid last-minute attendance issues, the three societies will share who is planning to come with agencies early on. The groups are also looking at doing more virtually. “It will mean fewer people in the turnstiles on site,” Bergfeld noted, “and it won’t replace the critical ‘networking’ component — it’s hard to put a dollar figure on that.”

“Unfortunately, leading scientific societies, with their important research, have been grouped — wrongly — with excessive meeting costs,” added Schlesinger. He would tell politicians and the heads of federal agencies to “come to our meetings, see our value, and ‘certify’ us. And while you’re at our meeting, we will make you a featured keynote speaker.”

From U.S. Travel’s perspective, “we have to continue to demonstrate, beyond anecdotes, the value that conferences and meetings provide the government,” acknowledged Hansen. To that end, U.S. Travel is commissioning research on what value government meetings return to taxpayers. Results should be announced first quarter 2013.

Call to Action. “It’s important for participants and employees in the meetings and events industry to talk with members of Congress about value,” said Hansen. They may be more willing to listen to a message that “meetings mean jobs.” — Maxine Golding


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