By Lisa Lance
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the current recession officially ended in June 2009. As the economy takes tentative steps toward a recovery, public scrutiny continues to focus on how government funds are spent. With criticism of high profile and costly meetings in the not-too-distant past—think of the $440,000 executive conference that AIG held at the St. Regis resort in 2008, shortly after accepting a loan from the government— government agencies have used caution when planning their own meetings and events. The backlash and its potential impact on the meeting and event industry achieved such levels of concern that Congress introduced a bill in 2009 to protect certain destinations from discrimination (H.R. 3732: Protecting Resort Cities from Discrimination Act of 2009).
Charles Sadler, CGMP, CHSP, CHSC, is the executive director and CEO of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), a national organization that offers support and education for government meeting planners. The group’s objectives are to “improve the quality of, and promote the cost-effectiveness of, government meetings.” Sadler said on a federal level, based on what members have asked for in terms of resources, he sees a pattern of ensuring planned meetings are actually held and that groups are “following through with the funds allocated.” The SGMP helps government meeting planners make information available to obtain requests for proposals (RFPs) and find the best prices in planning their events. “If they’re getting the best bid, the process is working,” said Sadler. In Missouri, planners also are looking to get the most for their money. “Our meeting attendees don’t want to spend frivolously,” said Sallie Keeney, CMP, of the Regulatory Environmental Group for Missouri (REGFORM). “We always try to give the most information and value for the cost of a registration. We haven’t raised registration costs for our seminars and conferences for several years. We realize that not only do attendees come to get the information being presented, also come to network and make connections. We try to provide opportunities for all of that and have an enjoyable time while doing it.” Keeney said REGFORM is not a government agency, but runs educational seminars and conferences with subject matter that can appeal to the Department of Natural Resources, Public Service Commission, Department of Economic Development and Department of Conservation. The group’s seminars and conferences are generally one- or two-day events, and have 100 to 300 attendees.
Staying Close to Home
Cathy Jackson, CGMP, is a meeting planner with the Missouri Division of Professional Registration and also the president of the Missouri State Capitol Chapter of SGMP. The Missouri Division of Professional Registration has 39 state boards and each holds up to five meetings a year. Jackson said her organization still holds some meetings outside Jefferson City, but they are traveling less. “We are not spending more; we are saving in the lodging area,” she said. “The boards are trying to cut back and spend less by having meetings right here in Jefferson City.” Bill Schwartz, executive secretary of the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System (MO LAGERS), noted the same trend. His organization conducts 15 to 20 meetings each year throughout the state with 10 to 100 attendees at each event. It also holds an annual meeting with about 300 attendees. “As a whole, we are traveling a little less now than a year ago,” Schwartz said. “We are utilizing our Web site to a large degree.” Keeney said REGFORM makes a point to consider the travel impact for attendees of the organization’s events. “We have always been sensitive to the amount of time spent out of the office to attend a seminar or conference,” she said. “We try to plan our conferences to minimize the impact on ever-decreasing travel budgets. We try to keep our events centrally located, where possible. Keep the lodging costs to a minimum and keep the time spent out of the office at two days or less.” Sadler sees other cost-cutting measures being made at government meetings, as well. “A lot of meetings are doing without planned food,” he said. “That’s the number one thing.” For example, breakfast and lunch may not be included in an event this year, where that may have been a standard offering in the past.
Government Meetings are Going Green
Benchmark Hospitality International, a privately held hospitality management company that operates 30 hotels, resorts and conference centers nationwide, included the following government meeting-related entry in its 2010 Top Ten Meeting Trends: “Being green is now generally assumed, but for certain segments such as federal and state government and education business, it’s a requirement.” While eco-friendly meetings may be mandated on a national level, this trend is not necessarily the rule in Missouri. “I have heard some of the planners going toward the ‘green hotels,’ but not that many,” said Jackson. “I am not required to use them. We still bid out hotels and go by the lowest bid. I think more federal planners are using more ‘green hotels’ than we are.” Jackson has noticed smaller steps toward sustainability, such as planners using pitchers of ice water instead of bottled water at meetings and having more recycling bins available for event attendees to use.
Another Day, Another Dollar
Although both Jackson and Schwartz said they haven’t seen a change in their organizations’ per diems (the allowance for lodging excluding taxes, meals and incidentals), Sadler said there has been a change on a federal level. “Per diems did decrease,” he said. “The process for that is very vetted, very well done.” Sadler said per diems are set based on a report from Smith Travel Research (STR), which obtains rate information directly from hotels. “It’s the industry’s thermostat on itself,” he said. Federal per diem rates are set each year by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) on October 1, and are set for the next fiscal year. According to the GSA Web site, this year “the majority of locations saw a decrease or no change in per diem lodging rates.” The per diem lodging rates for federal travel customers in Missouri currently range from a standard rate of $77 in non-specified areas to $78 in Columbia and $105 in St. Louis and its surrounding counties. Hotels are not required to honor government per diems, but it is a business decision on the part of each establishment. “Because of the economy, a lot of our hotels were going below per diem,” Sadler added. “The rates aren’t really set by GSA, they’re set by supply and demand.” And lower rates are not limited to hotels. “Cost matters more now than ever,” said Keeney. “We have always offered a reduced registration rate for government entities. Even with the reduced registration rate, I do see fewer people attending conferences from the same agencies.” Schwartz also sees cost as a large factor in the future of government meetings. “With the cuts in state and local government budgets, I think there will be fewer meetings with less attendance,” he said. How can planners keep attracting attendees to their government meetings and events? In addition to planning fiscally conservative events, Keeney said, “we realize that we have to deliver valuable content in order to have people want to attend our events. That is our main focus.” MM&E
(Lisa Lance is a contributor from Towson, Md.)