An over-the-top government meeting, replete with a clown and mind reader, made headlines last week just as the U.S. Travel Association announced a campaign focusing on the importance of meetings to the national economy.
This latest scandal surrounding government spending on meetings is much bigger than last year’s kerfuffle over $16 muffins purportedly purchased by a federal agency during a breakfast meeting. (See story, Dustup Over $16 Muffins Frustrates Govt. Meeting Planners, Oct. 13, 2011)
This time, the General Services Administration created a sensation when news leaked of a 2010 meeting in Las Vegas that cost the federal agency $823,000. In addition to the services of a clown and mind reader, the bill included a $75,000 bicycle-assembly teambuilding session.
GSA administrator Martha Johnson resigned over the matter, along with other top officials, and several congressional hearings are planned to investigate the event.
Scandal dominates press event
The nonprofit U. S. Travel Association last week held a long-planned press conference introducing its Vote Travel initiative, whose aim is to influence legislators about the value of travel, including meetings. The effort includes “Keep America Meeting,” one of five points in the Vote Travel program.
But the press conference was nearly derailed by questions about the GSA meeting.
“The GSA event took place in 2010, before the president’s executive order on travel policy,” said Blain Rethmeier, senior vice president of public affairs for U.S. Travel. “There’s no question this was irresponsible behavior on the part of a few government employees.
“The administration has done a good job of putting policies in place that will prevent this type of thing again,” he said.
Impact on corporate meetings?
Asked if negative “spillover” from the fracas would dampen corporate travel and meetings, Rethmeier said, “We can’t leave anything to chance. We saw what happened in 2009 and can’t let that happen again. Also, this is an election year, so we have to take that into account.”
What was the GSA’s “biggest sin” in the now-notorious event?
“That’s not for me to determine. We’ll let the Congressional hearings get to the bottom of that,” Rethmeier replied. “But if what is in the report on the conference did happen, there was irresponsible behavior.”
Dow weighs in
Dismayed by the GSA news, Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, acknowledged in a statement that the report details “instances of inappropriate spending and poor decision-making on the part of federal employees.”
He added that he hopes it will not be detrimental to recognition of the industry’s importance.
“At a time when Washington is laser-focused on creating jobs and curbing wasteful spending, we hope policymakers will remember that responsible travel can help accomplish these goals,” he said.
Focus on initiatives
Despite fielding questions over the scandal, U.S. Travel did its best to keep the press conference focused on the positive initiatives it is taking to aid the meetings industry.
The meeting portion of Vote Travel “aims to demonstrate the economic impact and business productivity that comes from face-to-face meetings; and to protect meetings, events and incentive travel from harmful attacks and inform policymakers about the value of such events.”
U.S. Travel recognizes the importance of the meetings sector and plans to engage meeting professionals in forming a strong industry-wide alliance, said Candice Knezevic, director, grassroots and industry relations, for U.S. Travel.
“We learned in 2009, after President Obama’s remarks discouraging travel to Las Vegas, that we need Congressional allies who understand the value of meetings and can dissuade harmful legislation and rhetoric.”