There's no doubt meeting planners across the board are feeling a budget crunch. With travel and lodging costs on the rise, many planners find themselves doing more with less. In this budget-competitive environment, government meetings often find themselves at the bottom of the curve. Challenged with mandated per diems — and competing against corporate and trade meetings for resources — government meeting planners face challenges unique to their niche.
“I think everyone's budgets have been affected,” says Donna Carey, national president of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals, and California's statewide travel program administrator. “As a group, we're finding new ways to watch costs. We're becoming creative.”
By way of example, Carey says the state of California is looking into consolidating its meetings. “Anything meeting-related would go through one central point,” says Carey. “By centrally billing all charges and putting that volume in a certain chain or area, we could get lower rates.”
How else are government meeting planners getting creative? Read on.
Stringent per diems are the bane of many a meeting planner's existence, and that's especially true with government planners. “We're held to state and federal government per diems. And they aren't increasing — even with the rising cost of travel,” says Carey.
As a result, Carey is part of a group that's exploring how to garner increases — especially with lodging per diems. “What we're currently allotted is becoming unrealistic,” she says.
She knows it's possible, because she's seen success with a similar effort. “I wrote a law for the department of personnel administration, the department that sets our per diems to allow us to have a reasonable meal rate,” says Carey. “As a result, if we're meeting in a more expensive city, such as San Francisco, and we know we can't get a meal for $9, we have a little flexibility. We're given assistance to provide a meal that's reasonable in that city.”
That said, Carey admits that raising per diems isn't something to approach blindly. “With a state as large as ours, adding even a few cents is significant. For every penny we increase, it could mean almost a million additional dollars.”
Government planners are tightening or shifting their programs to ease their budgets. Cutting one day from a four-day schedule, for instance, can mean considerable cost savings in lodging and room rentals. It's a strategy that Carey has implemented: “We've made some meetings and training sessions one day instead of two,” says Carey. “It's working for us.”
If cutting a day from your schedule doesn't work, consider launching back-to-back meetings by holding several programs together. “If we're already bringing a group in for one topic, we'll address other topics, too,” says Lynette Schick, CMP, emergency preparedness and response manager, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and an SGMP board member. “That way we only have to meet once in six months instead of twice.” Though Schick has found success with this model, she acknowledges that it can be a double-edged sword. “It's less expensive, but it does impact attendance. The meetings tend to be longer, and attendees won't come if they have to spend too much time away.”
If you share an audience with another group, a third option is to piggyback onto the front or back end of their meeting. “We need to talk to national public health meeting attendees,” says Ruth Harris, CMP, CTAS, public health analyst for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an SGMP board member. “So we hold our meeting a day or two before or after theirs in the same city. It lowers our costs significantly because we don't have to fly people in.”
Advances in technology have made cost-effective meetings more accessible for government planners. For Carey, this trend has been most obvious over the past year. “We're providing Web-based training where we'd previously done in-person training,” she says. “We're also doing more conference calls.”
Videoconferencing and Web presentations have been successful for Harris. “We used to train all our state and local health officials in person,” says Harris. “But now we're doing a lot of distance learning or Web presentations. As the nation's health agency, we have the technology to help us get messages out quickly, and I take advantage of that.”
Schick uses technology to cut costs during on-site meetings, as well. Because audiovisual can be a significant part of a budget, she saves by supplying some of her own hardware. “We have a lot of laptops, so we use our own equipment when possible,” she says. “I don't really like doing that, but if we can save the state $10,000, I do it.”
Site selection is one of the most challenging aspects of government meeting planning. After all, if your per diems aren't moving, how do you compete with corporate and trade meetings for the right site?
“Government business just isn't as easy to place as it used to be,” says Schick. “In the last year, I've seen more, ‘Sorry, we don't have space.’ They're choosing not to pick my business because it's government business — it's not as high-dollar. And I understand how it works, but I still have to place meetings.”
So how do Schick and her peers find the sites they need? Most importantly, they're flexible with their dates, placing meetings in the off-season when facilities are available for their programs and more likely to offer government rates. Being flexible with a meeting's location is also key. “We might try two or three cities to find one that will be available when we want it,” says Harris.
Increasing the number of bids is high on these planner's lists. “We use our convention and visitors bureaus to get more competitive bids now,” says Carey. Schick and Harris use the same strategy, noting that using a CVB not only helps deliver more bids but also saves considerable time.
To help streamline bigger dollar items, the state of Colorado has developed an electronic bid system. “If our meeting is over $25,000 in cost to the state, we have to put our specs on a Web site,” says Schick. “Only those who have paid to be on that site have access to the specs.”
While all three women say they use SGMP properties as much as possible, they make it clear they explore all their options. “Certainly there are hotel chains that have always supported us and that doesn't mean we're going away from them,” says Carey. “But the bottom line is cost.”
Once bids come in, Carey recommends attaching costs to the value-added items. “If there's a hotel that charges for parking versus a hotel with free parking, we're accounting for that,” she says. “We're looking more closely at upgrades and complimentary equipment — anything that's going to deliver savings.”
Regardless of high costs, tight per diems, and site selection headaches, Harris believes that government meetings are solid and have a secure future. “We meet no matter what, in good and bad economic times,” she says. “After 9/11, government agencies did more meetings while corporate groups did fewer meetings. Government meetings are a constant.
Send your hotel a list of the names you're expecting, and ask them to reference it when rooms are booked under government rates. “Some attendees ask for the federal rate when making reservations — but won't mention they're coming in for my meeting,” says Ruth Harris, CMP, public health analyst for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “And when they aren't in my room block, that can really affect costs.”
For instance, during a breakfast break, eliminate the frosted rolls and pastries from the menu and offer only fruit and yogurt. “We save money by providing only the healthy foods instead of both healthy and sweet foods,” says Harris. “And we really haven't had many complaints!”
“We used to give out a lot of printed material during a meeting,” Harris points out. “But now we are putting everything we can on CD-ROMs that we give to the participants at the end of the conference.” Not only does it save the group money, it's more convenient for attendees as well, since they don't have to schlep piles of paper back home after the meeting.