by Michael J. Shapiro | February 01, 2014
The effects wrought on some medical meetings by sequestration, government budget reductions and federal travel restrictions have been massive. Take, for example, the annual meeting of the Chicago-based American Academy of Medical Administrators.

About half of the organization's members work for the federal government. In large part, they represent the U.S. armed services or National Guard and, traditionally, make up more than half of the attendees at the AAMA meeting. That won't be the case when the academy convenes for the 2014 gathering later this month. "This is a conference that typically has attracted about 400 people," says SmithBucklin's Kevin Baliozian, the show's executive director. "We will be ecstatic if this year we attract, say, 200 to 250 people face-to-face."

Due in large part to the travel policy restrictions that grew out of the GSA conference scandal of 2012, Baliozian says, armed-forces representatives have to pay their own way to this year's AAMA meeting -- the government won't pick up the tab for either registration or travel. And that applies to every federal-sector attendee of the conference (except for the National Guard, notes Baliozian, because that agency has a different budget). This isn't necessarily the case long-term, nor is it true for every conference. But for this particular meeting, that's what Baliozian has to deal with.

The AAMA meeting has been hit particularly hard due to the notably high percentage of federal-sector attendees, but other health-care organizations likewise are feeling the effects. At the American College of Healthcare Executives, also based in Chicago, attendance from government agencies has similarly taken a dive. While federal attendees -- most from the armed services and the Veterans Administration -- comprise only about 8 percent of the organization's membership, those members traditionally have made up a disproportionately large percentage of attendees at the annual meeting, says ACHE president and CEO Deborah Bowen.

"We normally get about 800 of them at the annual meeting," notes Bowen, "out of approximately 4,300 total attendees. Last year we only had 100. They haven't been able to get the funding to come."

This is likely to be a long-range issue for the marketplace. On Jan. 14, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on "Examining Conference and Travel Spending Across the Federal Government." As indicated in M&C's coverage of the meeting (see Newsline, page 20, and expanded coverage of the hearing at, policymakers are investigating legislation that would restrict such government spending in the long term.

In the face of such challenges, medical and health-care meeting planners have had to adapt.

Upping the Ante on Education
"When you're fighting for a smaller pie of education dollars, you have to make sure the education you offer is very compelling and very relevant," points out Kevin Baliozian. For the AAMA, that has meant working individually with each branch of the armed forces to determine their needs, and to offer both highly specialized sessions as well as those that touch on health-care topics of interest to the total attendee population.

But the challenge here is also about convincing the federal government that such education has value in the first place, that meetings are not boondoggles or a waste of public funds. The ACHE's Deborah Bowen believes that some progress already is being made in that direction.

"This year we're going to have some pick-up in attendance," Bowen says, estimating that the federal-sector representation could be as high as 300 attendees at the March meeting, up from last year's 100. "I think people are realizing, on some level, that they do need the education. Some agencies are getting special dispensation to send groups of people." Plus, she adds, it seems that some of the confusion around the new travel policies has been worked out. "Last year, people didn't know until the eleventh hour whether they were coming to our meeting or not. I think a lot about the policy has since been clarified -- in some cases to our favor."