Commentary on Federal Agencies Banning Destinations from Government Meetings
It seems that government meeting planners are probably a relatively quiet group who probably don’t get the level of recognition they really deserve. For those who may not know – and this includes administrators and others who work at the federal, state and local levels – government meeting planners are bound by stringent ethics requirements that include rules on conflict of interest, procurement and contracting, and gifts and travel.
Before exploring the issue of federal agencies banning destinations from government meetings, it’s worth reminding everyone of the procurement responsibilities shouldered by government meeting planners. Did you know the U.S. General Services Administration establishes maximum per diem rates for all destinations throughout the U.S. for lodging, meals and entertainment? They are tough standards to meet.
So why would some Senators and Congressmen even need to draft a bill designed to prohibit federal agencies from discriminating against some destinations within the country anyway?
S. 1530 Protecting Resort Cities from Discrimination Act of 2009 was sponsored on July 29, 2009, by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and co-sponsored by others from Nevada and Florida. It prohibits any agency or department of the United States from establishing or implementing an internal policy that discourages or prohibits the selection of a resort or vacation destination as the location for a conference or event, and for other purposes.
Perhaps it’s their way to send a strong message in response to requests that haven’t been addressed to their satisfaction. Let me explain.
It has been reported that some federal agencies have opted to enhance government meeting contracting standards in a way that has resulted in banning government meetings in resort destinations in Nevada, Florida and elsewhere from consideration. This, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Governor of Nevada Jim Gibbons (R), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Eight Members of the House of Representatives from Florida and Nevada, the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), the Wall Street Journal and countless other news media.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Agriculture Department both sit at the center of the allegation at this time.
A recent Wall Street Journal article (July 22, 2009) reported the message of an internal email regarding government meeting locations for FBI programs: The Department of Justice “decided conference(s) are not to be held in cities that are vacation destinations/spas/resort/gambling … Las Vegas and Orland[o] are the first 2 on the chopping block.’’
Although DOJ spokeswoman Gina Talamona had no comment about the report, she did emphatically counter the claim, “We do not have a policy that prohibits travel to Las Vegas, Orlando or any other city.”
The WSJ article also released portions of a July (2009) email distributed within the Agriculture Department after a decision was made to cancel a planned meeting in Orlando. “I think Orlando got put on the list of not to go because of the perception that it is a resort and vacation area.”
However, Agriculture Department spokesman Justin DeJong declined to comment on the email, but confirmed that this is inconsistent with department travel guidelines issued in May 2008, which indicates the “use of resort areas are to be minimized.”
So, with the contradiction in messages, have some U.S. federal agencies prohibited government meetings and conferences to be held in leisure-oriented cities?
And if they did, is it a fair business decision to informally ban spending federally budgeted dollars from any U.S. destination, especially cost-effective destinations that happen to also generate billions of dollars generated for use by federal budgets? And, yes, it is fair to expect government agencies to make meetings decisions based on sound business practices.
Federal Agencies Want to Avoid the “AIG Effect”
With the USTA receiving and sharing internal documents that reflect policy decisions at two agencies, it’s tough to argue against the validity that some government meetings were given a directive to ban certain destinations.
The USTA claims are backed up by several other concerns that have been raised this year related to business travel, which includes government meetings. To understand the timeline, it’s important to reflect back to the fall of 2008.
After insurance giant American International Group hosted an executive conference that cost $440,000 at the St. Regis resort in Dana Point, CA, then Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama during a debate said, “The Treasury should demand that money back and those executives should be fired” (Bloomberg.com, Oct. 9, 2008). It’s important to note that he wasn’t alone in the criticism, which was bipartisan during a heated election year when the banking industry was in a shambles.
Politicians and the media jumped on the situation which has now become known as the AIG Effect. Many organizations made the decision to scale back their own involvement in meetings and events, regardless if they received federal bailout monies.
“Everyone has a problem with somebody else’s meeting that’s viewed as a waste of time, someone else’s travel. Never your own meeting – those always have value,” explains Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for USTA, adding that criticism and questioning of the value of corporate meetings were being asked at the highest levels of government.
The problem with this logic is that it fails to recognize the positive economic impact of these face to face meetings. “Our economy is in a tenuous state. To discourage people from traveling, to discourage meeting is only slowing progress,” Freeman advises.
The AIG effect resulted in a significant number of meeting cancellations for the remainder of 2008, and the travel industry estimates that it lost about US$1 billion in the first two months of the year; Las Vegas was estimated to have lost US$131 worth of meetings in the first two months of 2009 (ETN Global Travel Industry News, April 10, 2009). The AIG effect is still very real today.
President Obama Acknowledges the Travel Industry
In February 2009, the travel industry – particularly those in the business travel industry – organized itself to respond to misperceptions about business meetings and events, including a general lack of understanding for the value behind these meetings, and the USTA served as the central and unifying voice of many industry associations and travel industry leaders.
In response to some of the pressure, President Obama and others in the White House agreed to meet with the USTA and a select number of travel leaders to highlight the industry’s ability to help strengthen the economy.
“We are pleased that President Obama recognizes the power of travel to strengthen America’s economy,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the USTA. “The travel community has an ally in President Obama and we appreciate the leadership he intends to bring to increasing travel to, and within, the United States.”
However, that message may have been premature. There has been no evidence that federal agencies were provided with directives to exclusively follow standard criteria for the selection of government meeting locations.
Political Leaders Speak Out Against No Change in Government Meetings Policies
Initially, Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons (R) and those from the Las Vegas community which had been hammered by the cancellation of corporate events sounded the horn that the message may not have been cascaded. Governor Gibbons submitted requests to meet with President Obama in May, but he was declined.
Meanwhile, being fully aware of the impact on corporate meetings, some federal agencies may have been potentially worried that they were slotted next for criticism if their government meetings were held at similar locations, so some may have made the decision to shift meeting locations, reflects Charles S. Sadler, CHSP, CHSC, executive director and CEO for SGMP.
With the understanding that no change directive had been conveyed to federal agencies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to the White House on June 26, 2009, documenting several government meetings were allegedly canceled based on an informal federal policy which prohibited and/or discouraged government meetings in Las Vegas and other select destinations; Senator Reid requested that the White House issue a letter to federal agencies indicating that this is not permissible.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel responded by indicating that government travel had not been focused on specific destinations, but rather on the justification for and the cost/benefit ratio of the individual exercise.
If agencies were not discouraging meetings in certain destinations, no further action would have likely been needed.
But Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) also stepped in to convey concerns. On July 24, 2009, he issued a press release that announced the introduction of legislation that would make the blacklisting of cities unlawful. The announcement added that eight House members representing Florida and Nevada on July 23, 2009, sent a letter to the acting U.S. comptroller seeking an investigation of policies used to determine where to hold meetings.
And the additional follow up was required by Senator Reid, who issued a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on July 26, 2009, for what he perceived as a discriminating business practice within the Department of Justice. This was followed by Senator Reid’s bill on July 29, 2009.
Allow Government Meeting Planners to Make Decisions
Even though it offers a good message, there’s no telling what will ever happen with the bill that was introduced, “Protecting Resort Cities from Discrimination Act of 2009” (if anything). So it may be best to continue emphasizing the importance that federal agencies allow all appropriate destinations for conferences into the bid consideration process.
After all, government event planners are expected to follow proper steps for venue selection.
Consider for a moment if it were deemed appropriate for a federal agency to hold a government meeting in Las Vegas, Orlando or Chicago (Chicago has been singled out along with other cities as an appropriate government meetings destination).
Let’s take a quick look at the cost effectiveness of each location based on federal guidelines for per diem rates for lodging, meals and incidental expenses (MIE) defined by the U.S. General Services Administration for Las Vegas, Orlando and Chicago:
- Oct. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2008: $105 for lodging and $64 for MIE
- Jan. 1, 2009 to May 31, 2009: $126 for lodging and $64 for MIE
- June 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2009: $105 for lodging and $64 for MIE
- Oct. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2008: $109 for lodging and $49 for MIE
- Jan. 1, 2009 to May 31, 2009: $133 for lodging and $49 for MIE
- June 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2009: $109 for lodging and $49 for MIE
- Oct. 1, 2008 to Nov. 31, 2008: $218 for lodging and $64 for MI
- Dec. 1, 2008 to April 30, 2009: $157 for lodging and $64 for MIE
- May 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009: $209 for lodging and $64 for MIE
- July 1, 2009 to Aug. 31, 2009: $177 for lodging and $64 for MIE
To be sure, based on the organizational objectives of a given agency, it may be completely justified to choose any of these destinations as long as the price were within the budget. But the main point is that destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando are cost effective for government meetings if costs are within guidelines.
SGMP’s Sadler explains that federal agencies organize a lot of meetings and trainings around the country. “The important thing behind these meetings is content, but agencies are worried about being under the microscope. It’s a knee jerk reaction, maybe not a fair one, but someone has to come out and say it’s okay to do meetings in these places,” Sadler explains.
Okay, I’ll say it for anyone who is willing to listen to reason: it’s okay for government meeting planners to organize conferences and events in Las Vegas, Orlando and any other resort or leisure-oriented destination where it will achieve program objectives. Any federal officials willing to back this up?
May Not Be Reproduced; Published on About.com