Oh, for the days of the $16 muffin. Although the mundane reality of that “scandal” never quite caught up with the sensational headlines—the muffin morphed into a continental breakfast, complete with tax and tip—last year’s uproar over federal government meetings seems almost welcome comic relief in the wake of this year’s bombshell.
The public outrage that exploded in early April over a report that the General Services Administration (GSA) spent $823,000 for an internal, 300-person meeting at a Las Vegas resort forced the agency head to resign and may very well send to prison the GSA official who expressly ordered an “over-the-top” event.
Congress already rushed to enact legislation to slash federal meetings expenditures and ratchet up oversight. The House passed a measure to cap all government nonmilitary meeting travel at 80 percent of fiscal 2010 levels and limit spending on any one event to $500,000. Another congressional proposal requires government managers to obtain Inspector General (IG) approval for any meeting costing over $20,000.
In addition, the scandal has widened to other GSA meetings, including those in Palm Springs and Hawaii, and it may possibly bleed over to other federal agencies. The House Oversight Committee is reviewing travel records for nearly two dozen federal agencies dating back to 2005. It’s likely the committee will find some new perceived outrage, producing more sensational headlines and more calls for cuts in government meetings.
As is usually the case, the meetings industry will probably suffer much of the collateral damage. Such proposals don’t bode well for the hotel industry either, particularly in resort destinations, and doubly for Las Vegas, as nervous bureaucrats cancel meetings for fear of being hauled before Congress. Already, a one-day GSA meeting for fewer than 100 people, scheduled for April 25 at the Hampton Inn Tropicana, was cancelled, according to Las Vegas news reports.
Joan Eisenstodt, principal of event consultancy Eisenstodt Associates and a noted speaker at industry events, compares the scandal’s potential impact to the one that broke in 2008 over insurance giant AIG’s decision to proceed with a meeting at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, in Dana Point, Calif., shortly after the company received a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout.