by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | March 01, 2014

It has been a rough two years for government meeting planners. Following several high-profile cases of lavish conference spending, and with economic recovery from the Great Recession remaining in fragile mode, Congress has turned up its scrutiny of federal travel and conference spend and pushed for legislation that would restrict and regulate meetings outlay. Determined to avoid potential accusations of excess, federal agencies responded last year by taking an ax to meeting budgets, canceling multiple conferences and shunning resort destinations such as Hawaii, Las Vegas and Orlando, concerned that even the location alone could raise eyebrows. 

The slash-and-burn reaction resulted in a 30 percent drop in government meetings in most of the top-tier markets in 2013. It also set off a heated debate on the importance of face-to-face meetings and spawned a flurry of white papers and studies from various groups anxious to reaffirm the power of in-person gatherings.

The fallout has galvanized the U.S. Travel Association to voice its concern on Capitol Hill as well as relaunch a national campaign, Meetings Mean Business (, which touts the importance of meetings and conferences as an essential business tool.

Created by a coalition of 24 major industry players and headed by executives from Hilton Worldwide and Maritz Travel, the campaign kicked off on Jan. 14, 2014, and was timed to coincide with a hearing held that same day by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on "Examining Conference and Travel Spending Across the Federal Government."

"A decline in in-person communication would measurably threaten the quality of outcomes in a number of critical spheres," says Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Travel Association, which is a member of the coalition. "We're not going to allow that to happen."

Cracking down on meetings
In May 2012, the Office of Management and Budget issued regulations that required federal agencies to reduce travel spend by at least 30 percent through fiscal year 2016. According to newly appointed OMB deputy director Beth Cobert, that mandate, which also demanded more oversight by agencies on where their meeting dollars were being spent, resulted in savings of $3 billion for fiscal year 2013 compared to 2010, when total travel and conference spend reached a record high of $17 billion. (For 2013-2012 comparisons by agency, see the chart, "Deep Cuts" below.)

Much of those savings, said Cobert at the Jan. 14 hearing, were a direct result of cancellation of nonessential meetings and new, robust conference-oversight procedures, which include strict requirements for meeting approval, particularly for large gatherings. Currently, agencies must submit reports to their inspectors general on any conference that costs more than $100,000, including the number of participants and a breakdown of every line item, including food and beverage, audiovisual and entertainment. Plus, for any conference costing more than $20,000, the inspector general of that agency has to be notified within 15 days from when the event has concluded.

For international meetings, no more than 50 employees from any one agency can attend, unless they are law-enforcement personnel. What's more, the OMB said it is committed to achieving even greater savings in 2014, primarily through cost-effective alternatives such as videoconferencing.

Such rigid guidelines could get even more regulated and restrictive. Currently before the Senate is H.R. 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013, which passed in the House last July. The bill limits agency travel expenses for the next five fiscal years to 70 percent of what was spent in 2010, and prohibits expenses of more than $500,000 for any single conference, unless an agency head provides a written waiver. It also calls for increased transparency, including a detailed quarterly report posted on a public website listing all events costing more than $10,000, including the date and location of the conference, who authorized it, the number of attendees, why the venue was a cost-effective choice and any private financial assistance received that was used to help defray costs.