The General Services Administration has suspended all travel to external, private-sector conferences for the remainder of fiscal year 2012, which ends September 30. The move is part of the agency’s review of internal and external travel and meetings following its mismanaged $823,000 2010 Western Region Conference that was the subject of an investigation and congressional hearings.
While some exceptions to the travel ban are being made on a case-by-case basis, at least one industry meeting has been affected by GSA’s new restrictions. The Global Business Travel Association’s National Travel Forum, planned for June 4–7, has been postponed because GSA employees cannot attend. According to an internal memo from GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini posted on Fed Insider, during this review period travel to certain conferences for external audiences is permitted with the proper budget and business justification and approval by an officer. Permitted conferences may include those that advance or expand the services of GSA and its customers.
The GSA itself has canceled 35 conferences in 2012 as a result of the scandal. Most were small meetings, but all together the cancellations have saved the government nearly $1 million, even after factoring in cancellation fees paid on some of the meetings.
GSA is reviewing which internal meetings will return next year, as well as the policies for attending private sector events.
Mark Decker, director of government affairs for St. Louis–based meeting planning company Experient (recently acquired by Maritz Travel), has already had one government agency client cancel a meeting since the GSA story broke, and he believes the industry needs to get the message out about the importance of meetings to the economy. “Government has to get together to make decisions and to chart the course of the country,” Decker says. “Meetings are critical to the success and the efficiency of the government, and without these meetings, we are going to be missing the mark.”
Government agencies need a better understanding of the return on investment of meetings, Decker says, and in response Experient is pitching its Luminosity, based on the measurement methodology developed by Jack Phillips at the ROI Institute. Many corporate and association clients use it, but so far government groups have not, he notes.measurement tool,
In response to the heightened scrutiny of government meetings, Decker is recommending that hotel and convention center partners itemize meal costs, breaking out the meal itself from the taxes, room setup, and other expenses that make up the often misunderstood food and beverage bill. “The government isn’t afraid to pay for what it is utilizing,” he says, “it just wants to know what it is paying for.” Decker is also advising government clients to select attendee gifts that support a meeting’s educational objectives. Commemorative shirts and coins, which were given to Western Region Conference attendees, are not advisable.