It’s nearly impossible to get a final tally of the shutdown’s impact but it’s safe to say the meeting industry was harmed. Now, experts advise planners to take caution.
The trickle-down effect of the recent 35-day government shutdown on the meeting industry was vast—so much so that it’s still being determined. But a few weeks after the stalemate ended, several points of impact are clear.
Many meetings had to be canceled, or were impacted by attrition, particularly government training and education programs that lost funding, or events where government employees were slated to attend but the dollars to pay for their travel, lodging, and registration no longer were available.
That had a domino effect on venues, their vendors and employees, others that benefit from meetings, and an industry association, which is now working to ready planners in the event of another government closure.
“As those members affected by the partial federal government shutdown get back to work, they are focused on their jobs and getting caught up on their many events that were either scheduled during or soon after the shutdown, as well as a flood of emails,” said Pamela Valenzuela, executive director of the Society of Government Meeting Planners. “We will be conducting a survey of our members to better understand how the shutdown affected them.”
Planners of impacted meetings need to understand how suppliers were affected and treat them as partners, not adversaries, advised attorney Lisa Sommer Devlin, who represents hotels. “If you’re the group, don’t go to the hotel saying ‘By God you have to let me out!’ Go hat in hand and say ‘How can we ease both of our pain, how can you work with me?’”
Assessing The Damage
While meeting organizers are assessing the damage, the impact clearly was felt on the supplier side. “Our first quarter government business is tracking 58 percent below Q1 2018,” said Chuck Ocheltree, chief marketing officer of The National Conference Center, in Leesburg, Va. “This is reflective of cancellations of programs booked into Q1 as well as Q1 programs that would have if not for the shutdown.”
He continued, “The uncertainty created with the shutdown reached well beyond the Department of Homeland Security [the National’s main client] as other government agencies and government contractors put programs and events — as well as decisions/commitments — on hold. First quarter government volume is projected to finish 78 percent below budgeted levels, reflecting the impact on all government programs.”
Additionally, Ocheltree noted, the shutdown led to “reduced hours for our associates, reduced spend with our vendors and a ripple effect within our community—including ground transportation, area restaurants, stores, and other services traditionally servicing our government clients.”
Just as everyone works to recover, another shutdown could take hold if Congress and President Trump don’t reach an agreement on border security by February 15th. What can be done to get ready?
Garland Preddy, director of education and training at the Society of Government Meeting Planners, has several tips for government planners, and has added the advice to the risk management section of the manual for the association’s certification program.
“Monitor the federal budget and make contingency plans in the event that you have to reschedule. Keep in close communication with vendors and the venue, and create a plan for how to deal with a shutdown or budget crisis.”
In addition, she said, “Have a strong Force Majeure clause that addresses these issues, and include [possible circumstances] in the RFP because the hotel needs to know why you might cancel. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of good relationships.”
Just as important, added Valenzuela, is for planners to do a bit of forecasting. “Whether facing weather, government shutdown, travel ban or appropriations delay, a meeting professional’s job is to anticipate the unexpected and plan accordingly.”
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Photo credit: Security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta stretch more than an hour long amid the partial federal shutdown, causing some travelers to miss flights, Monday morning, Jan. 14, 2019. The long lines signaled staffing shortages at security checkpoints, as TSA officers have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began Dec. 22. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) 321378