The beginning of 2009 brought a myriad of government scrutiny for the meetings and travel industry. It began with the corporate meetings segment and restrictions the government imposed on companies receiving emergency financial assistance. Now as we near the end of the year, government agencies are supposedly restricting their own internal meetings to avoid destinations that appear too lavish, fun or resort-oriented.
“Agency heads have a tremendous amount of authority,” says Charles Sadler, executive director and chief executive officer of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP). “They can never go below the federal guidelines of any regulation, but they can always be stricter than the agency’s internal guidelines.”
A SGMP survey of 623 government agency planners stated that four percent had been directed not to include particular cities or properties in request for proposal (RFP) submissions due to “image.” The survey also revealed that 21 percent of the respondents said that if they received a RFP from properties in Las Vegas and Orlando, it would be rejected.
Tammi Runzler, vice president of sales and services for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) confirmed a 25 percent slow-down in new business leads. While Runzler largely attributed this decline to corporate business reacting to economic pressures, she is aware of cancellations in the government sector.
“The [Orlando] CVB has not talked directly to any clients calling us to cancel their events,” Runzler says. “We have heard of a few groups that may have done so with the hotels directly.”
In response to a rumored blacklist of resort destinations, Nevada Senator Harry Reid sent a letter to cabinet secretaries and the head of all federal agencies asking them to reject or reverse any travel policy that discriminates against specific U.S. cities. Reid then introduced a bill to the Senate called the “Protecting Resort Cities from Discrimination Act of 2009” (S.1530), which states that U.S. agencies may not implement an internal policy that would prohibit the selection of a destination “because the location is perceived to be a resort or vacation destination.” Last month, the bill was introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 3732, co-sponsored by Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Az.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Currently, both bills are in committee.
Ruth Harris, special projects advisor for workforce development at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said when she started with the government agency, meetings were not placed at resorts.
“Although I never saw anything in writing, the CDC was always cognizant of the perception — how we spend the taxpayer’s dollars,” Harris says.
According to Reid, government travel restrictions started with the George W. Bush administration, which discouraged conventions and conferences for federal employees in Las Vegas, Reno and Orlando. In response to Reid’s request that any such travel policies be reversed, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sent a letter stating that “Federal policy should not dictate the location of where such government events are held.” The letter went on to say that the Obama administration does not believe the issue of government travel should be focused on specific destinations, but should examine the cost against value received.
When booking a hotel, Harris says the CDC’s first objective is to find a property that offers the reduced government per diem rate. However, sometimes the CDC will pay more if the cost is justified. Harris recently returned from exhibiting at the National Medical Association’s Scientific Assembly in Las Vegas. Held at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the higher room rate was offset by the fact that Harris saved money on ground transportation costs.
“I had to move a lot of materials,” Harris said. “By staying at the [headquarters] hotel, I saved money on taxis.”
Reid says that in the past, government agencies would avoid Nevada and go to a location that cost four or five times as much just to avoid criticism.
“Government officials should be able to go where they get the best bang for their buck,” Reid says. “In Nevada, room rates are low and there are so many amenities.”
Runzler agrees that the cost/value ratio should be the main reason for booking a meeting’s location.
“When planners have the opportunity to evaluate the facts, they see for themselves that Orlando continues to make sense from a cost perspective for all meeting segments,” Runzler says. “Our room rates are extremely competitive.”