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March 02 2013

Congress Talks Conferences

By David McMillin, Staff Writer

congress_newsThe value of conferences was a hot topic on Capitol Hill this week.

On February 27, the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform held “The Road Less Traveled: Reducing Federal Travel and Conference Spending.” The value of the meetings industry has come under the microscope in Washington, D.C. before, and it’s no surprise that lawmakers are revisiting the topic now. With dramatic sequestration budget cuts looming over the nation’s capitol, Republicans and Democrats alike are looking for opportunities to reduce spending.

While the hearing did revisit the infamous GSA scandal of 2012, the tone was much more friendly.

“This is not an indictment of conferences or travel,” Representative Blake Farenthold (R.,Tex.), Chairman of the Committee, said. “What this is is an investigation into how the public money is spent.”

Rep. Farenthold continued to say that his district includes Corpus Christi, Texas, home to many conferences. He wasn’t the only voice that seemed to empathize with the value of face-to-face meetings, either.

In prepared testimony, Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) proved to be a strong advocate of the value of meetings. While Rep. Holt has been a member of Congress since 1999, his experience involves plenty of non-legislative meetings and conferences.

“As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are,” Holt said. “The informal conversations, as well as the formal presentations and poster sessions that go into a conference among scientists from different institutions, lead to new collaborations that have the promise of new discoveries.”

Rep. Holt agreed that smart spending should be a priority for government travel, but that should not overshadow the real benefits of bringing people together to exchange ideas and solve problems.

“As we work to ensure oversight on travel expenditures, we also should work to preserve the many benefits of appropriate travel, which can promote collaboration and innovation,” Holt said.

Holt pointed to the nation’s lawmakers as an example, posing a rhetorical question to the committee: should all 435 members of Congress work remotely and cast their votes via email?

“It could save hundreds of expensive trips each week to do that, but don’t you think that the country would be worse for it?” Holt asked.

The conversation seems to paint a hopeful picture for meeting planners and suppliers.

“It seems that members of Congress now understand the importance of face-to-face meetings,” Johnnie White, executive director, Center for Education, Cardiovascular Research Foundation and Chairman of the Board, PCMA, says. “We are making progress.”

However, White stresses that meeting professionals must continue to raise more awareness of the benefits of face-to-face meetings and conferences both within their organization and with their representation in the capital.

Those efforts are essential to the future of the industry. While the members of the committee did indicate a respect for the value of meetings and conferences, there are lingering concerns that some government officials haven’t been following the orders to keep a close watch on their travel budgets.

“I am concerned that the culture isn’t catching on,” Rep. Farenthold said while citing the recent news of the US Postal Service spending $2.2 million on the National Postal Forum.

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