By Mark K. Matthews and Sara K. Clarke, courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel/McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
As conferences go, this one was supposed to be pretty standard: a 7,000-person affair at the Orange County Convention Center that -- although not among Orlando's biggest shows -- still would have brought a $13 million economic boost to the Orlando area.
But thanks to cutbacks in government travel, officials at the General Services Administration scrapped the training forum, scheduled for this past week, and instead told its government and industry partners to save money by doing their training online or through local resources.
The canceled GSA expo appears to be the biggest casualty yet of government cutbacks in Orlando's meetings and convention industry. But it's not the only one -- though the worst fears of the travel industry have not come to pass.
Another victim: the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, a major event held every year in Orlando. Organizers saw attendance at the annual show drop from more than 20,000 in 2011 to about 16,500 this past December and attributed the decline to federal travel restrictions among the military and a negative perception of conferences.
The National Training & Simulation Association, which hosts I/ITSEC, also canceled a 300-person meeting at Rosen Centre that was slated for this August and expects attendance at this year's I/ITSEC to suffer again.
"The purpose of the organization is to be a liaison between government and industry. So if government can't be there, there's no one to liaise with," said Barbara McDaniel, director of conferences and programs for the National Training & Simulation Association.
Word of the cancellations led U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson -- an outspoken opponent of the federal belt-tightening known as sequestration -- to rail against the across-the-board cuts.
"Clearly these cancellations are detrimental to the local economy, and they did not have to happen," said Grayson, D-Orlando. "Sequestration causes pain for hardworking Central Floridians and our tourism-driven economy. There is a simple way to solve the problem of sequestration: repeal it."
Congress, however, appears unlikely to do that. And there's an equally small chance that federal travel to Orlando -- or anywhere in the country -- will increase anytime soon.
A year ago, the White House budget office ordered its agencies to cap their 2013 travel budgets at 30 percent less than the amount they spent in 2010. This cap will continue until at least 2016.
Many of the cuts have already happened, but they're not over yet.
A top budget official told Congress this year that annual spending on federal travel fell by $2 billion from 2010 to 2012. (It was $11.7 billion in 2010). An additional $1 billion reduction is expected this year, bringing the estimated yearly total to about $8.7 billion in 2013, not including exemptions for travel deemed essential for national security, international diplomacy or other "critical government functions."
The 2012 White House directive also added new layers of oversight to travel and federal conferences.
The goal is to avoid another scandal such as the one that followed revelations that the GSA in 2010 spent more than $820,000 on a conference just outside Las Vegas that included catered in-room parties and a "red carpet" awards ceremony.
Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said his trade organization has heard "constantly" from its members that federal travel is on the decline. And to some degree it makes sense, he said, given that "times are tight."
But blanket cutbacks, such as the one dictated by the administration for fears of another conference scandal, aren't smart either, he said.
"Part of that is irrational policies from Washington," Hansen said.
Even so, with hundreds of meetings and conventions hosted each year in Orlando, local tourism officials seemed almost relieved to have relatively few major cancellations.
"It really hasn't been as harsh as what we anticipated it might be," said Jan Addison, deputy general manager of the Orange County Convention Center.
Still, Addison says the sequestration has the possibility to affect the meetings and convention industry in ways beyond just canceled events. Lines at airports caused by cutbacks in Transportation Security Administration agents or at customs for international visitors could make travel unwieldy and dissuade even private-sector workers from traveling to a meeting in Orlando.
As for this past week, the convention center was unable to book another show to replace the GSA Training and Expo, which was canceled in February. The show did have a clause in its contract that would force the GSA to pay $262,755 for the last-minute cancellation of rented space at the center.
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