For meetings and events, the coasts still dominate.

Those of us who have been in the marketing field over the past three or four decades have witnessed some pretty fundamental changes in the role that professional meetings and events play in business.

“Way back when,” national trade shows and professional meetings were one of the most effective ways to interact with industry colleagues.  In terms of people gathered together in one place, it was difficult to top trade shows for the convenience of staying in touch on a personal level.

Things are much different now, with advances in communications technology and all. Today, webinars and virtual meetings are on my calendar far more frequently than events where I need to hop a plane to get there.

In-person meetings and events won’t ever go away, of course. There’s really no substitute for real-time pressing the flesh, and it’s still how some of the best business relationships are built and maintained.

This truism is underscored in reporting by Carlson Wagonlit Travel Meetings & Events. The Minneapolis-based firm – part of the Carlson Companies group of hospitality-sector businesses – analyzes proprietary and industry booking data each year to determine which cities are North America’s top locations for meetings and events.

CWT’s 2020 forecast has just been published, and what it shows is that despite the vicissitudes of the business cycle or economic uncertainties, meeting and event activity continues to grow.

And once again, cities on the coasts are the most popular meeting destinations.

As one who lives on the East Coast and who doesn’t particularly relish the idea of flying all the way across the country to attend a 2- or 3-day event, I would have thought that in today’s time-pressed environment, mid-continent locations such as Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas and Houston would be growing in popularity at the expense of East Coast and West Coast destinations.

Moreover, the cost of holding meetings and events in many coastal cities like New York, Boston, DC, LA and San Francisco is measurably higher than many locations in the middle of the continent that are simply more affordable.  Surely that must count for something, too.

The Carlson “Top Ten” meeting destination ranking tells us otherwise, however:

#1. New York City

#2. San Francisco

#3. Chicago

#4. Atlanta

#5. Toronto

#6. San Diego

#7. Seattle

#8. Orlando

#9. Dallas-Ft. worth

#10. Las Vegas

Of the Top Ten meeting destination cities, only two could be classified as truly “mid-continent” locations (Chicago and Dallas). And while it’s technically true that Toronto, Atlanta and Las Vegas aren’t “coastal,” they’re far enough east (or west) to make them almost as inconvenient to get to for people traveling from the other side of the country.

Going beyond the factor of travel inconvenience, there’s another issue I’ve had with certain meeting locations.  It seem that some are chosen due to their attraction as a recreation destination as much as for their appropriateness for a business event.

For a trade show exhibitor, an event held in Orlando (Disneyworld) or in Las Vegas (The Strip) often has the sorry result of an exhibit hall so empty that you can roll a bowling ball down the aisle and have it pick up speed. (And it isn’t just on the final day of the show.)

It may be a minority view, but speaking personally, give me more meetings in plain-Jane Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis than in sunny California or Nevada. My travel time is more precious than that.

Click here to access more information from the most recent Carlson Wagonlit trends report.

Chalk one up for the taxpayers: Government travel-related spending declines significantly.

dollarcutsCan it be possible that widespread public revulsion at the level of federal government conference and travel expenditures has actually had a positive impact?

It seems so, if new financial reporting is to be believed.

According to recent reports filed by the General Services Administration, federal travel card spending has declined ~17% so far in FY 2013 compared with the same period last year. 

That’s for the GSA’s SmartPay charge card program which covers more than 2.5 million cardholders.  And it’s the second year in a row that we’ve seen a drop in expenditures:

  • FY 2011:  $9.6 billion
  • FY 2012:  $8.9 billion
  • FY 2013 (YTD):  $6.0 billionGSA conference follies

According to GSA officials, the decline in travel-related spending has happened because of “aggressive steps” taken to cut conference spending in the wake of embarrassing revelations that a single GSA conference in Las Vegas in 2010 had cost American taxpayers nearly $825,000. 

The fact that this meeting included paying clowns and mindreaders to lead group discussions added an absurd twist on the entire affair.

clownIn May 2012, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo directing federal agencies to reduce their travel-related spending by 30% compared to 2010 levels – and to maintain those levels through FY 2016.

Another directive required agencies to report spending on any conference that exceeds $100,000.

Looking out over the government agency landscape, it appears that most agencies have made some pretty big strides towards meeting the new standards. 

Comparative travel expense figures released by the GSA for FY 2013 through July against FY 2012 over the same period show these declines:

  • General Services Administration:  -62%
  • Veterans Administration:  -31%
  • Treasury:  -30%
  • Energy:  -25%
  • Commerce:  -23%
  • Labor:  -23%
  • Environmental Protection Administration:  -21%
  • Housing & Urban Development:  -21%
  • Defense:  -19%
  • Justice:  -19%
  • Transportation:  -18%
  • State:  -16%
  • Interior:  -12%

A few agencies did show increased travel expenditures.  Most significantly, the Small Business Administration doubled its expenses due to Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters that required additional travel associated with putting manpower on location to provide financial assistance to homeowners, renters and businesses.

But taken as a whole, these expenditure drops are unprecedented. 

I wonder how many people would have predicted it – even though most people I know figure that there’s plenty of “fat” to cut within these agencies without hurting the programs.

It’s just that … we so rarely hear of reports like this in government.

And of course, there’s plenty of grousing to go around about the new realities.  One Department of Defense official who requested anonymity was quoted as saying, “When someone craps their pants, we all have to wear diapers.  This is hardly the way to run the DOD efficiently.”

And then there’s this:  Lest you think that we’ve put a lid on excess travel-related expenditures for good, the GSA has just announced that it will be unfreezing per diem rates for FY 2014.

That is correct:  The GSA is now increasing the lodging, meal and incidental allowances that federal employees are reimbursed for expenses incurred while on official travel.  It’s going up to $129 in most markets within the 48 contiguous states.

Maybe they think people won’t notice …