The GSA Scandal Hangover

Trends

The Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP) has a training course that includes a chapter called “The Washington Post Test.” It presents planners with various situations and asks them to consider which courses of action will keep their names—and their agencies—from appearing in a scathing newspaper expose.

Somewhere along the line, the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA)—the agency that essentially manages the business concerns of the federal government—failed the Washington Post test.

When news broke in April that the GSA spent $823,000 on a 2010 regional conference for about 300 employees at the M Resort Spa and Casino near Las Vegas, it quickly resulted in the resignation of the agency’s top administrator, a week of congressional hearings, talk of criminal investigations and the cancellation of 35 upcoming GSA meetings. What remains to be seen is how the fallout from the scandal will affect government meetings in general and the contractors and hotels that work with government planners. “I think people are going to be more cautious,” says Charles Sadler, SGMP executive director and CEO. “Obviously there were problems at the GSA, but I don’t think it’s going to stop meetings.”

Others aren’t so sure. Roger Rickard, a partner at Sacramento, Calif., consulting firm Revent LLC, whose experience includes working with Meeting Professionals International’s government affairs committee, is particularly concerned about lawmakers’ efforts to place caps on conference spending and curb government employees’ meeting attendance. “I don’t want to overreact, but I think it has the opportunity to blow up in our faces,” he says. “Congress is reacting partly out of grandstanding during an election year, but also to send a message. There’s definitely going to be other government agencies that are going to curtail their activities dramatically, and it’s going to affect the industry.”

Fixing Existing Regulations

Rather than cutting back on meetings, Sadler thinks the government should be focusing on fixing existing rules. Those who head agencies and regional offices are given a great deal of leeway in how they operate, he explains. “What they really need to do is standardize the meeting- and event-planning process,” he says.

Sadler—whose organization represents about 2,100 government meeting planners and nearly 1,700 suppliers who provide facilities or services for meetings—followed the congressional hearings closely and expects the main outcome will be more scrutiny of contract planners. An element of the scandal that has been gaining attention is the GSA’s use of hotel-search firm Location Solvers, which pocketed a $12,000 commission from the Las Vegas resort for bringing the government’s business its way. The GSA Inspector General’s report on the conference notes that money could have gone toward discounts had the agency dealt directly with the hotel, and that “since GSA already employs several full-time event planners, the use of Location Solvers seems redundant and wasteful.” Sadler believes arrangements like this “will be looked at very hard” in the future.

That concerns some industry experts, including Elizabeth Perrin. In January, Perrin started up a consulting service at Washington, DC, event-planning firm Courtesy Associates. Drawing on experience as global account director for Dolce Hotels & Resorts, Perrin helps hotels, convention centers and other conference facilities through the steps involved in qualifying for the GSA’s Multiple Awards Schedule, a list of pre-approved vendors for federal contracts. “The third-party industry is very necessary,” Perrin says. “[Business] has to be done in accordance with regulations, that’s all.” Perrin said more education is needed for hotels to understand the requirements of working with the government. “I have heard people say, ‘How do we change the way the government does business with us?’ You can’t. You have to change the way you work with the government,” she says. “What we’re seeing now is the result of people going after business they didn’t understand.”

On the Defensive

Even though corporate meetings in Las Vegas are hardly unusual, the GSA conference location made it all but inevitable that it would be portrayed in the media as a wild party, with editorial cartoons depicting GSA officials nursing hangovers. “It’s very difficult to get people to take meetings seriously,” Sadler says. “I don’t know why people think that government workers should be chained down to their desks and not have the same work experiences as other people. If you want your [employees] to be effective and connect to the outside world, you have to have some face-to-face meetings.” He says there is a need for a PR campaign to educate the public about government meetings, their benefits and what they contribute to the economy.

Even after the lessons of the AIG scandal that rocked the meetings world in 2008, Rickard believes the industry needs to do a better job of sticking up for itself. “It’s time for the industry organizations to collaborate, coalesce and craft a message that anybody in our industry can share at any time,” he says. “We need to be consistent with our messaging.” He also called on meeting professionals to speak up when they notice others neglecting rules and regulations. “It’s imperative on us to police ourselves,” Rickard says. “I think it would behoove us to make sure we cry foul when we know people in the industry are doing the wrong things.”

Perrin believes in also speaking up for those who are doing the right things. “The people I have worked with inside the GSA are some of the hardest working, most dedicated and most ethical people I have ever had the opportunity to work with,” she says. “This scandal is not indicative of the GSA as a whole.”

Image: Roger Rickard, Revent LLC