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GSA Scandal May Damage Travel Industry

April 16, 2012 By: George Dooley Travel Agent

Reflecting concerns with the economic impact of the ongoing General Services Administration (GSA) scandal, the U.S. Travel Association is asking for industry input and reports it is actively working with policymakers and the industry to contain the crisis.

The goal is to reinforce the perception that this is an issue of poor decision-making by the GSA during a Las Vegas conference and not a reflection on the value of government conferences or meetings. The association does not want a repeat of 2009 when private sector meetings were cancelled because of comments by federal policymakers.

In a letter to the industry Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel asked the industry for input and promised to represent the industry as Congress probes the scandal.

"We are seeking as much information as possible from the industry, including meeting planners, so that we can better tell their story on Capitol Hill."

Details of what U.S. Travel needs are provided in the letter Dow sent to the industry.
"As you know, the head of the General Services Administration was forced to resign following reports of excessive spending for a meeting near Las Vegas and the controversy has continued to receive ample attention on Capitol Hill and in the media. With this being an election year and with the highly partisan political climate in Washington, this story has the potential to lead to further attempts to cut travel for meetings and conferences and could pose serious consequences for our industry," Dow said.

U.S. Travel noted that it quickly issued a statement arguing that the controversy is about poor decision-making, not the value of travel. "It is critical that we reinforce the value of legitimate business travel and government meetings to make sure that there is not a repeat of 2009 - when private sector meetings were cancelled because of comments by federal policymakers," Dow said.

"These kinds of potential threats affect the entire industry. If the value of travel is questioned, it has residual impact on all travel. Let's work together to ensure policymakers understand why travel matters and protect the travel community from unintended consequences as policymakers work to ensure a more responsible government," Dow said.

This message was brought to the Hill through meetings with representatives from each committee holding hearings this week, including Chairman Darrell Issa, Chairman John Mica, Chairman Jeff Denham, Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ranking Member Cummings, U.S. Travel said.

"Leaders on Capitol Hill were receptive to the message and reinforced that the issue was about government waste and poor decision-making - not the value of government conferences or meetings. We have reached out to the Society of Government Travel Professionals and the Society of Government Meeting Planners and will be coordinating with the myriad associations involved with meetings and event planning to amplify the industry's message to policymakers," Dow said.

U.S. Travel's summary of events to date:

Capitol Hill Reaction
    •    U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has requested that 23 federal agencies report on their meetings and conferences held dating back to 2005.
    •    Rep. Issa wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting documentation for meetings and conferences: "As families around the country are having to spend less to make ends meet, the federal government must follow suit. The American people have an expectation that the federal government is not using their tax dollars to pay for lavish conferences or to fund the salaries of event planners."
    •    U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said GSA officials spent a week in Hawaii for a one-hour ribbon-cutting ceremony, and issued a press release expressing concern about the Las Vegas conference and one held in Palm Springs. "The Las Vegas conference was the tip of the iceberg. GSA has been spreading the taxpayers' wealth, providing luxurious junkets not only for high-level executives but for its interns as well."
    •    U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee:
"As we continue to learn of GSA's extreme misuse of funds, now adding 'opulent' intern retreats to our taxpayers' tabs, there must be serious action taken for this type of blatant waste of tax dollars by the General Services Administration."

    •    Three Congressional hearings are scheduled for this week that will examine this controversy:
    ◦    House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Monday, April 16;
    ◦    House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee; Tuesday, April 17; and
    ◦    Senate Energy and Public Works Committee; Wednesday, April 18.

U.S. Travel's  response included:
    •    U.S. Travel issued a statement calling for a measured response and reminding policymakers the issue is not about the value of travel.
    •    During the past week, meetings were held with members' staff to encourage them to focus on government waste and poor decision-making, while at the same time asking members to reinforce the importance of government travel.
    •    U.S. Travel said it will coordinate with others in the industry to work with Congress to ensure that adequate oversight and ethical standards are in place for federal travel. "This is the only way that federal travel will continue," Dow wrote.
"So far we have been successful; the debate has stayed focused on government waste. Travel is not being attacked as unneeded or frivolous. That said, expect federal agencies to be cautious. This is an election year where government spending will be a major issue. So this will be all about politics, politics, politics," Dow said.

U.S. Travel urged companies to provide information, including:
    •    Has a federal agency cancelled a conference or meeting at your hotel, convention center or destination?
    •    Do you have a positive story about federal conference or meeting that stayed within the guidelines?
    •    Have you hosted a federal conference or meeting that provided value to the taxpayer - i.e. on issues of safety, national security, or government efficiency?

Relevant information should be sent to Erik Hansen, U.S. Travel's director of domestic policy.


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About the Author

George Dooley
George Dooley, Travel Agent’s senior contributing editor covering retail and technology, has a long-standing reputation as one of the top travel industry journalists. He notes...

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By George Dooley | April 16, 2012
The U.S. Travel Association asks for industry input and warns of dangers to industry.