Fight plaque buildup

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If you get our e-newsletter, MeetingsNet Extra, you might have already seen this editorial by our editorial director, Betsy Bair, on the TSA party that got excoriated in the papers. But if you didn't, check it out--she actually talked to the planner involved and got his perspective.

By now, many of you have heard about yet another high-profile "party" that made national news last week because it was paid for with government funds. The Transportation Security Administration hosted a nearly half-million-dollar awards banquet at a hotel in Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2003. While my original intent in this editorial was to question the high amount spent on plaques, and how giving out so many awards could be meaningful to the recipients, I've changed my tune, after speaking with the event planner and reading the Office of Inspector General report.

According to the OIG report, the TSA spent $461,745 on the awards banquet, which included $81,767 for honorary awards/plaques; $85,552 for the event planning company (MarCom Group Inc., the lowest bidder); $73,839 for food, beverage, and meeting room rental at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.; and nearly $200,000 on hotel and travel. The implications from the AP reports, and the OIG report, are that executives of TSA were paid bonuses "higher than at any other federal agency," and that "lower-level employees were shortchanged."

Then, I talked at length with Executive Vice President Robert Rainford, MarCom Group Inc., Fairfax, VA, Monday afternoon.

And, I read the OIG report. Too bad not all of the consumer press analyzed it before deciding to hang this event out to dry (and it became the "Fleecing of America" report on a network news report). In actuality, the TSA put the event specs out to bid so late that it left little choice for a venue, or for negotiating rates, needing to make the second anniversary date of the inception of the TSA on November 19, 2001. Few hotels in the greater Washington, D.C., area that could accommodate more than 1,000 in a ballroom had space for that date. And, with about three weeks' notice, the event planner had to order and have shipped some 588 award plaques, with names engraved, in time for the ceremony. Those of you who have ordered awards and plaques know that short turnarounds require overtime and extra dollars.

Bottom line? I admitted to Rainford that I thought the cost of plaques was excessive. And, was it meaningful to the recipients? He explained that these were front-line screener employees of the TSA, who had little to be proud of during these past two years while the government created a whole new agency, hiring and training some 45,000 airport screeners at a relatively low hourly wage. The screeners, who work irregular hours, were also much maligned by the mainstream media. "To be recognized among their peers, friends, and managers, improved their morale. It gave many of them a chance to say, 'This is something to be proud to be a part of,'" said Rainford. He also explained that large annual awards ceremonies for government frontline employees are commonplace.

But I still have a problem with the plaques. If your award winners are not the "trophy" type, that is if their offices aren't adorned with award plaques and certificates--mine isn't, and it isn't because I haven't received any--chances are they'd like to be asked how they'd prefer to have that money spent: Public recognition? Cash? Merchandise? Donation to a favorite charity? Ask them to fill in the blanks. Or, an $84-plaque given out in front of colleagues might be just the ticket.

P.S. Late-breaking news: The International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus has changed the dates of its 2005 annual convention to August 3 to 6 in San Diego, at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel. It was originally scheduled for July 9 to 12, and IACVB says it has adjusted the meeting dates so as not to conflict with Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress, July 10 to 12, in Miami, "as we know, many of our members will want to attend both meetings."

Won't many of those same execs be foregoing any August vacation to also attend just one week later the annual meeting and exposition of the American Society of Association Executives, August 13 to 16 in Nashville?

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