Last week’s mini-storm over an auditor’s report charging the U.S. Department of Justice with overspending at conferences during 2008 and 2009—including repeated references to a $16 muffin—showed how vulnerable our industry is to another backlash over costs.
It turned out, according to Hilton Worldwide, that the $16 “muffin” was what the DOJ paid per-person, including tax and tips, for a package of baked goods, fresh fruit, and beverages. But the story spun out of control, the industry reacted, and the ensuing discussion revealed some enduring issues for meetings.
The original news broke last Tuesday with a report by DOJ’s acting inspector general, Cynthia Schendar, who identified event planning and meals as the areas where the 10 sample conferences she audited were “most potentially susceptible to wasteful spending.” The muffin moment hit major media on Wednesday, and by Thursday Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was insisting that the staffers responsible for the spending should be sacked.
“Unless people are fired and heads roll, you never get changes made,” he told CNN’s American Morning.
Theresa Davis, manager of strategic communications at Meeting Professionals International, used the MPI blog to urge members to “speak out against kneejerk, sweeping assumptions about the value of a meeting.” She charged that the auditor’s report was “sadly lacking” in an assessment of the meetings’ return on objectives and investment, and of the “significant value and cost savings of using professional event planning services.”
Meetings industry advocate Roger Rickard pointed to “the archaic rules government regulations impose on government planners, hotels, and suppliers that support government meetings [that force] a less than fully transparent transaction.” Industry veteran Joan Eisenstodt elaborated, noting that planners are in a tough spot when policy “dictates that meeting room rental won’t be paid or F&B can’t be purchased. Other prices are negotiated to cover the costs, [otherwise] the meeting won’t be booked by the venue. Planners are blamed for not negotiating harder; hotels are rarely cited for charging too much.”
It’s never the wrong time to talk about the value of meetings, and it’s great that our industry blogs can explain food and beverage pricing on hotels’ behalf. But this isn’t an argument the meetings industry can easily win. Eisenstodt and Rickard are right that a change in payment and accounting policies would help. But even with a nifty infographic that showed what went into the cost of that alleged $16 muffin, I’m not sure perceptions would change.
That’s partly because, more often than we might realize, the perception really is reality. I once covered a series of community hearings for a newly appointed housing minister who refused to book any space where he would hear delegations while sitting beneath a chandelier. With too many people homeless or under-housed, our client was taking a stand against any whiff of opulence.
I can’t imagine the data that would connect the results of a meeting to the grandeur of the light fixtures. So for that client, and many others, optics and outcome are one and the same. That kind of logic can easily morph into a challenge to a meeting’s cost structure, anytime a feature that is (I suppose) essential to a hotel’s image is at best secondary to the reasons for using it as a meeting space.
So it’s still our job to tell our story—consistently, preventively, pre-emptively. But we shouldn’t be surprised if there are times when the built-in realities of the hospitality business model make the case for meetings a tougher sell.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.