The trouble started in October 2010, when the General Services Administration, which oversees the business of the federal government, flew 300 people to the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas for its Western Regions Conference. The total tab for that event topped $822,000. Subsequent scrutiny into the practices at the GSA uncovered more questionable spending, leading Martha N. Johnson, the agency's chief, to resign in April.
Since that initial scandal came to light, President Obama has put his signature on a number of executive orders, severely curtailing the travel and meetings budgets for government agencies. These measures have altered planning practices for federal meeting professionals, third-party firms handling their events, and employees looking to attend nongovernment business meetings.
Here is a look at the far-reaching ramifications of what has become known in some circles as the "GSA effect."
From the White House In June 2011, President Obama started tightening the screws with Executive Order 13576, "Delivering an Efficient, Effective and Accountable Government," which outlines ways to make spending more transparent and clarifies the fiscal roles of various government executives in containing costs.
This was followed in November by Executive Order 13589, "Promoting Efficient Spending," which got down to the nitty-gritty, requiring government agencies to cut spending by at least 20 percent below fiscal year 2010 levels on travel, extraneous promotional items, printing and more. According to the Office of Management and Budget, these efforts have identified $8 billion in reduced costs for FY2013, but for government meetings, the result has been cancellations and confusion.
"It's a lot more chaotic in those departments," says Katie Herritage, CMP, CSEP, a corporate planner and former federal contractor in Northern Virginia. "Government planners have had the brakes put on. They are reconciling what they can, canceling contracts and halting orders. A lot of agencies are getting their lawyers more involved to get out of contracts."
This past May, an OMB memorandum further outlined how costs will be cut, specifying that in FY2013, each agency will be required to spend at least 30 percent less on travel than in FY2010, and agencies must maintain that spending level through FY2016. The memorandum also addressed government conferences, requiring senior-level review and approval of spreadsheets for all upcoming conferences sponsored or hosted by federal agencies that exceed $100,000, and prohibiting expenses of more than $500,000 on any single conference, among other actions.
Herritage, who conducted a seminar at Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress in July on the changes facing federal planners, says, "Many government planners are encountering issues and requirements never seen before. For them to now be canceling events and doing more strategic planning is a personal and organizational challenge."
For those toughing it out, Herritage offers some suggestions for coping with the new restrictions.
• Find out how your agency is dealing with the new mandates, whether it's fewer, shorter, smaller or less elaborate meetings.
• Expect to spend more time on requests for proposal. "If you have 100 events a year where you used to send one to three RFPs, the most you would get is 300 to vet. If you're mandated now to send out more, you don't have more events, but you have so many more RFPs to review. It makes more work for the planner and the hotelier," says Herritage.
• Be prepared to cut ancillary spending, such as giveaways or even F&B, if there are enough reasonably priced outlets nearby. "I'm having to look for venues where my attendees can go outside of the hotel," says Audrey L. Steidl, of Steidl Site Services, who is a director of global accounts for third-party HelmsBriscoe. "Or, I'm looking [to provide] a half-sandwich and a cup of soup for the attendees, just something."
• Start planning earlier, because there are so many more hoops to jump through to get an event approved.
• Use webconferencing whenever possible.
The bottom line, says Herritage: Be prepared to do more work.
In light of the federal crackdown on travel and meeting funds, the Society of Government Meeting Professionals is focusing on helping its members learn to work within the restrictions, because this seems to be the new status quo.
"We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our industry due to the 2011 executive order requiring a 30 percent decrease in federal travel expenses," said Rob Bergeron, SGMP's acting executive director. "We also understand that significant scrutiny for government meetings will continue in the near term until appropriate spending levels have been established."