In one forum of meeting professionals, a hotelier likened per diems to "price fixing." If off-season rates in Aspen are $75, but the published per diem is $160/night, what incentive do hotels have in giving government groups the same rates the public enjoys if the government is willing to pay more?
The response was even more interesting: Why would a government group even consider meeting in Aspen? Wouldn't it be a better use of taxpayer dollars to meet somewhere else?
To which the hotelier replied that shouldn't be the issue. If a destination offers the best value, he said, that should outweigh fears of perception. He pointed out that one government group his Aspen/Snowmass property lost elected to spend $5,000 more to meet in Denver.
During the height of the AIG hysteria, I remember hearing about groups that were paying as much as $2 million in cancellation fees to back out of meetings that had been contracted years ago — all because of perception. I don't remember anyone asking how that was fiscally responsible.
We need to stop focusing on what things cost and what people might think and concentrate on what's really important: The goals and objectives for meeting.
At a roundtable PYM hosted in Atlanta last month, a government meeting planner said, "I plan for the military, so meeting without clear and actionable goals would be unthinkable."
I spoke to a Society of Government Meeting Professionals chapter the next day. "You all know why you're meeting, right?" I asked. Some of them shook their heads. They obviously had homework to do. And that wasn't the only thing that was screwy. Most of the government meeting planners, I learned, were left completely cut out of the procurement process. There was no conversation between them and GSA procurement teams who were creating the RFPs and selecting vendors for the meetings. The government planners were just being handed the names of the people they were to supervise to execute the meetings.
What's worse, a friend who specializes in planning government meetings told me there are plenty of "independent planners" being awarded government contracts who have no prior meeting planning experience, they just know how to go through the bidding process. Seems to me that creating a meetings management system isn't going to fix anything at the GSA until they stop focusing on price and start talking about goals.
Internally, whether you work for a private or public company, government or an association, you need to be asking what the goals for meeting are. If you're awarding a contract to an outside vendor, whether it's only to find a destination or it's turnkey event management, you need to make them aware of what the meeting's objective is. If you're an independent contractor, you need to ask your clients what they're trying to achieve and guide them towards making decisions that will make the event successful.
If you do that, the question of whether or not it was appropriate to meet in Aspen, Las Vegas or Disneyland will never be an issue. Because if you did select one of those destinations, you did so with a clear goal in mind. One that you could articulate and explain to anyone who asks, whether they're members of Congress, a TV news crew, second-string reporter or your Aunt Irma. Same goes for every element of your meeting and line item on your budget.
If you don't, you're setting yourself, and this industry, up for failure. Because like it or not, we're all in this together. And I don't know about you, but I'm tired of a few idiots making things difficult for everyone else.