Money Well Spent: Government Meeting Planners Find the Best Value for Your Tax Dollars

September 1, 2006


By Michael Humphrey

In a sense, one meeting is like any other meeting. People gather to exchange information, ideas, strategies, experiences and business cards. On the other hand, the ancillary issues that surround a meeting make every single one unique.

Enter government meetings.

Anyone who hosts, plans or attends them knows that government meetings are in a class by themselves.

“The most important difference is the budget you have,” says Cathy Jackson, SGMP, travel services coordinator for the Missouri Division of Professional Registration. “It’s not a matter of having no flexibility, but we have to show
the public that we are using their
money efficiently.”

Every planner knows about working with a tight budget. But there is a standard of fairness and, sometimes, rigidity that comes with working with tax dollars. It makes for a landscape that can confuse and put off hospitality companies who might otherwise seek government meetings.

But there are some real upsides as well.

“There are cities in this region that have an advantage for federal meetings,” says Valerie Eddleman, CMP, a planner for the USDA Farm Services Agency. “It all depends on airfare and where the groups are coming from, but Kansas City and St. Louis have both been competitive.”

Then, of course, government meetings are ubiquitous.

“I think there’s this idea out there that every government meeting is the same,” says Jackson, who serves as first vice president for the Missouri State Capital Chapter of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. “The fact is every department in the state does its meeting differently. And then a city or a federal meeting will have totally different guidelines too.”

Think of the range of government meetings – a school board retreat all the way to the President of the United States hosting a summit.

“Government meetings are recession proof,” says Eddleman, immediate past president of the Heartland Chapter of the SGMP, based in Kansas City. “After 9/11, when corporate meetings slowed way down, government meetings kept going. It’s not like we can stop the work of government, no matter what the economy is doing.”

Missouri gets that. That’s why there are three chapters of SGMP in this state alone, tied for the most in the country with Texas and California. Even then, the Missouri State Capital Chapter is the fourth largest in the country.

“There’s a lot of interest, obviously here in Jefferson City,” Jackson says, “but also all over the state.”

Best value

So what do you need to know to host or plan a government meeting? Start with three key letters: GSA. The General Services Administration has many roles with the mission to “help federal agencies better serve the public by offering, at best value, superior workplaces, expert solutions, acquisition services and management policies.”

GSA has a profound impact on meetings by setting per diem rates for lodging, mileage rates for private vehicles and even by establishing “City Pairs,” which are contractually established airline prices between two cities.

“Per diem rates have changed in the past year, to be more in line with the professional rates,” Eddleman says.

That has a major impact, because not only do federal agencies use GSA standards, but so do a great deal of local governmental bodies.

“We use federal guidelines where they apply,” says Jackson. “For instance, we use GSA standards for lodging and most hotels give you the room for that rate.”

Here’s a breakdown of how GSA sets the standards in Missouri. (Note: Per diem rates for FY 2007 had not come out by deadline.)

Per diem rates for FY 2006:

Kansas City – $91 for lodging, $49 for meals and incidental expenses for a total of $140 per day.

Osage Beach – $68 for lodging, $49 MIE for a total of $117 per day.

Springfield – $65 lodging, $39 MIE for a total of $104 per day.

St. Louis – $101 for lodging, $59 MIE for a total of $160 per day.

St. Robert / Ft. Leonard Wood – $66 for lodging, $39 MIE for a total of $105 per day.

Those areas not listed run the common rate of $60 for lodging and $39 MIE for a total of $99 per day.

Privately owned vehicle mileage reimbursement:

Private airplane – $1.07 per mile.

Automobile rates – 44.5 cents per mile (when no government vehicle is available), 28.5 cents (if government vehicle is available), 12.5 cents (if committed to use government vehicle).

City Pairs (unrestricted) one-way airfare examples for FY 2007:

Kansas City International to St. Louis – $72 on Southwest Airlines, including taxes.

New York LaGuardia to St. Louis – $555 on American Airlines.

New York LaGuardia to Kansas City – $300 on Midwest Express.

Los Angeles to St. Louis – $345 on American Airlines.

Los Angeles to Kansas City – $165 on Midwest Express.

Chicago O’Hare to Springfield – $223 on United Airlines.

“Of course, if I can find a better rate, I will take it,” Eddleman says. “My job is always to find the best value.”

While the per diem rates might be restrictive for some businesses, they can be a boon to others.

“We fall into the St. Louis per diem,” says Karen Fraser, convention sales manager for the St. Charles CVB. “So many times we can find rates that are actually lower than the GSA lodging rate.”

For government planners, on the other hand, the rate restrictions always add a challenge to the job.

“We cannot compete with big corporations for the rate,” Eddleman says. “So hotels want more flexibility on our part. Some have to get back to us to see if we’re a good fit for a certain date.”

And just like all meetings, hotels will help meet the lodging budget if a certain amount of food and meeting space comes along with the package. In fact, Jackson says, her department does not always have to hit rock bottom when it comes to the menu.

“We don’t have to go with the cheapest alternative,” she says. “When I am setting up a board meeting, I ask what the board’s expectations are. We can often go for the middle of the road. But we always have to have value in mind.”

Selling Government meetings

For those CVBs, hotels, caterers and other suppliers who want to sell government meetings, the next trick is how to reach the planners.

“Actually, it’s like everything else,” says Fraser, “it’s a relationship.”

Fraser says a primary way to establish that relationship is by joining SGMP. She is Second Vice President of the St. Louis Gateway Chapter.

“When I attend our chapter meetings, that is a great time to do networking,” Fraser says. “I’m seeing them more than once and finding out what they need.”

But joining SGMP is not simply a matter of paying the dues.

“If suppliers want to join,” Jackson says, “they have to bring another government planner with them.”

That way the chapter doesn’t become a sea of suppliers with just a few planners looking for each other.

Also, anyone who is trying to woo government planners must find creative ways to sell their properties. Eddleman, for instance, won’t go on FAM trips.

“I can’t accept a gift over $20 per occasion and no more than $50 per year from one organization,” Eddleman says. “So for me, FAMs are out of the question.”

Fraser says her chapter held an educational forum on such restrictions. And she says there are ways to stay within all legal and ethical guidelines while still showing off her community.

“It’s really up to each individual and their guidelines,” she says. “And if they can’t come to us, then we can go to them and show them what we have to offer.”

Customer service still rules

In the end, most government meetings are realized through a bid process. While planners don’t have to take the lowest bid, they do have to chose the most reasonable.

So bidding low and under-producing – just like with any other business – is a bad idea.

“If there has been a bad experience, there are always enough other hotels to find alternatives,” Eddleman says. “So when I hear something negative, that is duly noted.” Jackson agrees.

“We expect the same service any other organization will get,” she says.

(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)


Society of Government Meeting
Planners National

Heart of America Chapter

Missouri State Capital Chapter

St. Louis Gateway Chapter

General Services Administration

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