The after-effects of the U.S. General Services Administration’s disastrously mismanaged Western Region Conference continue to ripple through the meetings industry. Last week, the Global Business Travel Association postponed its National Travel Forum, a meeting for government travel planners, because GSA employees now are restricted from attending. And the American Society of Association executives is collecting signatures in a grassroots effort to educate lawmakers in the House and Senate as they work on bills aimed at putting spending limits and other restrictions on government conferences.
“Having just been notified by the General Services Administration that it is no longer able to support the National Travel Forum planned for June 4-7, 2012, the Global Business Travel Association has no choice but to postpone the National Travel Forum conference,” wrote Mike McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer at GBTA. The National Travel Forum, which has attracted as many as 1,100 attendees in the past, was to be held in Phoenix. “Although we at GBTA firmly believe that there is no more appropriate time for government travel professionals to learn cost-cutting strategies from top corporate travel managers, hear from business and academic leaders, build key relationships with industry suppliers, and reinforce ethical behavior standards, we cannot hold this important forum without GSA’s participation.” GBTA says it hopes to reschedule the conference but no further details are available. Supplier registration fees will be refunded; government fee refunds are under review.
In response to mismanagement of the 2010 Western Region Conference, which cost the GSA $823,000, GSA has canceled 35 meetings this year worth nearly $1 million. GSA officials could not be reached for comment on travel restrictions to outside conferences by press time.
Congress, which held hearings about the GSA conference on April 16–18, acted quickly to propose legislation that would cap spending and impose other restrictions on government conferences. On April 24, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would cap the amount that can be spent on any government conference at $500,000; reduce the amount an agency can spend on conferences to 80 percent of 2010 levels; prohibit sponsorship of more than one conference per year, per organization; and cap at 50 the number of employees from a single agency who can travel to an international conference. The bill would also require government agencies to report on their Web sites every three months all conferences supported or attended, including the cost, location, and an explanation of how the event advanced the agency’s mission. Savings from the reforms are estimated at $65 million annually.
The Coburn conference amendment was attached to the U.S. Postal Reform Bill. It has not yet gone before the House. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives took the language used in the Coburn amendment and attached it to the Digital Accountability and Transparency, or DATA Act, a proposal that seeks government transparency. It has not yet gone before the Senate. As it stands, the same amendment is attached to two separate bills—one in the House, one in the Senate. In order to be approved, one of the bills has to be approved by both the House and the Senate, explains Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at U.S. Travel Association. Neither the House version of the postal reform bill nor the Senate version of the Data Act are scheduled for vote at this time, says Hansen. “It’s a long way off at this point,” he adds. U.S. Travel is working to improve any bill that would have a negative impact on meetings.
“As a general principle, we do support adequate oversight of government meetings and conferences, but not onerous oversight,” says Hansen. On the other hand, U.S. Travel is going to be “very opposed” to any provision that would hamper interaction at conferences between the public and private sectors or impose budget restrictions, says Hansen.
ASAE is asking association professionals and others in the meetings industry to sign an open letter to Congress asking lawmakers to amend language that would affect conferences. Writes ASAE, “While the stated intent of the language would be to prevent wasteful spending on government-sponsored conferences, the actual language would prevent many federal employees from attending and participating in private conferences. We need a strong response to wake Congress up to this issue, so take a few minutes today to take action on this issue.” ASAE is collecting signatures through Friday May 4.