On the eighth day of the U.S. government shutdown, with no clear resolution in sight, the U.S. Department of State was still planning on hosting a 450-attendee conference in Durban, South Africa, the following Monday, Oct. 14 — on what would be the 14th day of the shutdown. But no one could say with 100-percent certainty that it would actually go off.
“What we’re finding on the government side is everything is changing by the day, and it’s really contract by contract,” said Leslie Thornton, president of Washington, D.C.-based Courtesy Associates, which works extensively with government clients, including the State Department on this conference. “It’s agency-specific, and each agency is different.”
The Ultimate Cut
That was life in the meetings industry as the effects of the shutdown rippled through the government sector, spilling over into the association market, and trickling throughout travel and hospitality. Meeting professionals who over the last year and a half dealt with fallout from the GSA conference spending scandal, federal sequestration, and across-the-board cuts in government travel spending now were dealing with the ultimate cut: everything. The shutdown ended on Oct. 16, but for the two weeks leading up to that, events across a variety of industries were being canceled or postponed, or dealing with no-show speakers and attendees from the federal government. Government-owned venues were shuttered, forcing groups to look for alternative sites at the last minute.
Courtesy’s team lead for the State Department conference, whose attendees would come primarily from Africa, left for Durban on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the day after the shutdown began. The lead was followed by two more team members that Sunday; two others were to leave over the next several days. “What we’ve heard along the way,” Thornton said, “is that some small parts of the meeting that were to be attended by [Health & Human Services], Peace Corps, and [Department of Defense] folks, if the government doesn’t open, they won’t be part of that. That would be about 30 percent of their attendance.”
On a certain level that meant proceeding as normal — for the first week, Courtesy’s client assured the company that funding for the conference was secure. But on Tuesday night, Oct. 8 — just hours after Convene talked to Thornton — the client made the decision to cancel.
Courtesy had plenty of company. According to a Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) member survey released on Oct. 11, 57 percent of respondents had canceled meetings or business opportunities, and 50 percent canceled bookings. The U.S. Travel Association tallied the total cost of the shutdown in lost travel-related revenue at $2.2 billion.
Within the government, the Federal Depository Library Program’s 2013 Depository Library Council Meeting and Federal Depository Library Conference, scheduled for Oct. 21-23 at the U.S. Government Printing Office’s historic headquarters building in Washington, was tentatively moved to the spring, while the National Cancer Institute’s Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) Users Meeting, slated for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., on Oct. 2-3, was put off indefinitely. In the private sector, the 2013 Symantec Government Symposium — which describes itself as “the largest annual public sector focused gathering of the leading global IT thought leaders from government, academia, and industry” — was shifted from Oct. 2 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to March 11, 2014, at the Renaissance Hotel Washington DC. And in the association market, the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association canceled its Fall Intelligence Symposium, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Va., while the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation postponed its GEOINT 2013 Symposium from Oct. 13-16 at the Tampa Convention Center until spring.
One meeting with a significant government component that went ahead despite the shutdown was The Regulatory Convergence, hosted by the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in Boston on Sept. 28- Oct. 2 — meaning it was halfway over when the shutdown kicked in. As a result, several speakers and attendees from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were unable to participate. “As soon as the rumor started of the shutdown, we were very proactive trying to move sessions around,” said Marie Fredlake, a D.C.-based global conference manager with Conference Direct, who handled logistics for The Regulatory Conference. “It wasn’t until early on Tuesday, Oct. 1, that we officially found out who was ‘essential’ and who wasn’t.”
Fredlake and her team got some of the speakers who couldn’t make it to prerecord their presentations and then call in during Q&A, and worked with the other speakers in those sessions to cover any holes in the program. Still, RAPS ended up canceling three sessions. “Attendees were extremely disappointed,” Fredlake said, “because a lot of them attend to hear the FDA updates and research. Some come solely for the FDA content of our program.”
Transparency and communication have been key parts of the meeting community’s response to the shutdown — with employees, clients, and attendees. “We’ve made an increased effort to communicate to [attendees],” Thornton said, “to say, ‘Look, we’ve got these 20 [government] people hanging in the balance. We don’t know if they’re going to be here. If those are the 20 people you were coming to see, let’s see how we can get you connected to them after the fact.’”
Likewise, “We have a contingency plan to record the canceled sessions after the government reopens,” Fredlake said, “which I hope is soon, but there is no way to tell. In the meantime, our attendees suffer from not having this education to improve and advance their organizations and companies.”
Thornton thinks the fallout ultimately could be much worse. “It’s painful from the top down,” she said. “You’ve got hotels that are going to be hurting without these government meetings, and that translates into employees being laid off. Most importantly, it’s this continued perception that government business is bad and that it’s risky and it’s not desirable because you just never know.”