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Do Government Cutbacks Have Your Association Singing the Blues?

By Christina Green
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Governments are slashing travel allowances in an attempt to tighten budgets and improve PR. How can your association’s meeting survive these cuts?

EMB_image_Do Government Cut Backs Have Your Association Singing the Blues_

Deficit Reduction and Budget Cuts

In May of 2012, the U.S. Office of Management & Budget (OMB) called on all federal agencies to reduce their travel expenses 30% from FY 2010 through FY 2016. Two years later congress got involved after the inspector general released a report detailing the $4 million the Internal Revenue Service spent on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas. But the United States isn’t the only country concerned about overspending and looking to limit budgets. The U.K.’s Ministry of Justice recently announced an additional £144m will be saved by cutting travel, among other things.

How It Affects Associations and What to Expect

If your conference depends on a large number of government-employed attendees, numbers may decrease as budgets get tighter. At first employees were told to pay for their own attendance and travel costs, using vacation time. OBM has since reconsidered this stance but restrictions are still in place, and with greater scrutiny from legislative bodies, we can assume these budgets may get even tighter. Some associations have been so disheartened by the crackdowns that they’ve canceled events. The Association of Old Crows canceled its 43rd Annual Collaborative Electronic Warfare Symposium instead of risking a low attendance after the Department of Defense told agencies to tighten their belts.

With H.R. 2810 bill commonly referred to as the “Stay in Place, Cut the Waste Act”, sitting in Committees on Oversight and Government Reform and Appropriations, associations may be experiencing even more strict limitations on government employees’ travel.

What Can Associations Do to Reach Government Employees?

Have Materials Available Early
The government approval process can be lengthy. If you want government employees to attend make sure conference materials are available early so approval can be obtained with plenty of time to qualify for the early bird discount rate. The OMB allows employees to seek preapproval for reoccurring conferences. Providing information about your conference not only for this year, but next year as well, can help attendees get multiple years approved and avoid delay in the future.

Have a Reason for Face-to-Face or Provide a Virtual Ticket
Agencies looking to cut waste and trim budgets are questioning the need for face-to-face conferences due to the expense behind travel. If you can’t provide a concrete reason why attendees need to be present, you should consider creating a virtual ticket. This would allow government employees (and others with limited travel budgets) to avail themselves of the professional development opportunities of your association’s conference without spending the money on travel and the time spent out of the office.

Consider Moving Your Event
If federal employees make up a large percentage of your attendee base, consider moving your meeting to a nearby location. For instance, in the US this may be Washington, D.C., not only do many federal employees work and live in that area, there are also a number of inexpensive transportation options up and down the east coast.

If you don’t want to be locked into the capital of your country, avoid lush vacation paradises as your venue. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold your meeting in a nice locale, but an overly expensive resort location will look more like an extended vacation than a place for serious work to be done. While the host city is a draw, you don’t want attendees to be turned down because it looks more like a junket than a professional association meeting.

Offer Discounts and Other Marketing Pieces
The largest cost in attending a conference is often the travel, not the ticket price. Even if you discount the rate for federal employees, the travel costs remain significant plus discounts devalue your ticket price. A smarter approach is to offer scholarships to those who can’t attend otherwise.

At the very least, you’ll need to create additional marketing materials for government employees so they can present them to their agencies for approval. Examples of return on investment in attending will help you gain more attendees by helping them persuade the people with the purse strings.

Shorten Timelines
Most association conferences are several (full) days long. If you include travel days, an attendee could miss an entire week of work, not to mention travel costs for food, lodging, and airfare. If you want more government employees at your next event, consider shortening the length of it or creating regional mini-versions of your conference. These consolidated events can allow government employees to attend a meeting nearby, greatly reducing the time away from the office and the travel costs. You can use these mini events as a way to get them excited about your main annual meeting. They might be so excited they may consider using their own time to come next year.

In Conclusion

As budgets tighten among governments around the globe, convincing employees and agencies to set aside the money to attend association events may be increasingly harder.

You’ll need to change the way you market, providing good solid examples of return on investment and make your collaterals available early so approval can be done in enough time for travel savings.

about the author

Christina Green
Christina R. Green is a digital storyteller and writer for associations and businesses, including journals such as the Midwestern Society of Association Executive's magazine and industry blogs. She's a voracious reader but has been known to stop reading if there are too many exclamation points used.
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