Army Bans Attendance at Non-DoD Conferences

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I awoke a bit late this morning after staying up to watch the election returns and speeches. Upon pulling out my phone to scan my inbox, I was stunned to see this headline from Defense Systems:

Army Attendance at Non-DOD Conferences Banned for the Rest of the Year

After the crackdown on internal conferences due to questionable expenditures (think GSA and VA), we knew it was only a matter of time before third-party events would be directly affected.

It turns out Secretary of the Army John McHugh released an October 17 memo titled “Interim Guidance for Implementation of New OSD Conference Policy.” According to the memo, McHugh is “suspending Army attendance at non-DoD conferences between now and 31 December 2012” unless attendance was previously approved or an exception granted, with exception requests requiring endorsement by commanders of Army Commands, among others. The memo reminded recipients of their obligations to “adhere strictly to all applicable law, regulation, and policy,” and it emphasized the need to “implement more cost-effective and efficient methods to train, plan, collaborate and disseminate information.”

McHugh stated a goal of publishing an updated Army directive during the first quarter of FY13, with an effective date of January 1, 2013, to “develop a more detailed and comprehensive approach” related to Army participation in conferences. The Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army (AASA) will lead and manage Army conference efforts, draft new policies, and develop processes to analyze, track, and report on conference activities.

Considering the importance of face-to-face events in federal marketing activities, particularly as they relate to DoD, it’s disheartening to hear that individuals from Army will not be able to participate. We don’t yet know how this will impact non-DoD events in 2013, but I’d guess participation will continue to suffer. We’ve already heard that DoDIIS 2013 and the AFCEA TechNet events will be undergoing some changes. USSTRATCOM Cyber & Space Symposium, scheduled for next week, has already been cancelled for this year.

We recommend keeping some flexibility in your 2013 event marketing plans and budgets until we see how this plays out. We’ll update you through Government Sales Insider when we learn more.

House Committee Approves Bills to Lock in Travel Spending Cuts

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

Yesterday Government Executive reported that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved, and sent to the House, two bills targeting excessive government spending. The actions aim to cut agency travel spending by 30 percent with a particular focus on travel to conferences.

An amendment added more teeth to this request. The amendment would restrict agencies from paying travel expenses for more than 50 employees to attend a single international conference (unless they are approved in advance by the Secretary of State). Further, it requires each agency to post on its public Web site each quarter the details of any travel expenses paid for conferences during the previous quarter.

Personally I think the Secretary of State has more important things to do than sign off on travel requests. But my larger concern is with the increased scrutiny around individual travel details and the chilling impact it will have on demand among prospective attendees of government conferences and events. Since the details emerged from the GSA conference scandal, it seems that any government employee who wants (or needs) to attend an event in another city has to sign away his or her life and risk public humiliation, not to mention career growth, just to get approval.

Is the government over-reacting here? More importantly, will anyone in government have the appetite to go through the approval process (or face the risk) to attend any of the events at which we promote our products and services? Will they be discouraged from attending local events too? Or have those become an even more important tool for marketing professionals?

We’ll be following this bill as it winds its way through the House. And as always, we’re watching our attendance rates to see if our marketing ROI has been (or will be) impacted by these continuing changes. I urge you to do the same.

DoD Freezes Conference & Travel Spending

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

Last week I wrote about the cancellation of the Air Force Information Technology Conference (AFITC) which was slated for August 2012. Today I was greeted with news that the Defense Department has ordered an immediate freeze on all conferences and related travel (see related articles on Defense Systems and USA Today).

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has ordered military service chiefs to review all upcoming conferences costing more than $100,000, which will require approval from top Pentagon officials.

Events have always been an important part of most federal marketers’ lead generation and brand awareness plans. IT companies targeting the DoD in particular tend to rely heavily on defense-related conferences and trade shows. Is that reliance about to change? Are we going to see much larger crowds at the local AFCEA breakfasts or other events that do not tax the travel budget? What role will social media, webinars, and virtual events play in picking up the slack?

We’re developing some new ideas to help our clients deal with these changes in the market. Let me know what you’re doing!

Conference Spending Cuts Continue: Six Tips for Marketers

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I predicted in a previous post that recent concerns with government conferences and travel would spill outside the responsible agencies and impact spending overall, making it more difficult for federal marketers to leverage events in their marketing programs. Those who thought the restrictions would be limited to events hosted by the government itself, or to specific recent offenders like GSA, should follow this topic closely and consider the potential impact on their marketing plans.

On Friday, the Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients, released a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies (not just GSA) regarding the efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Highlights include:

  • In FY 2013, each agency must spend at least 30 percent less on travel than in FY 2010 and maintain this level through FY 2016; savings will be used to increase transparency and investigate abuses, a detail that will likely make federal employees less eager to leave the office. Agencies have 90 days to report on proposed travel reductions and also must specify how they will make these reductions sustainable in their FY 2014 budget submissions.
  • Agencies are being directed to focus on expenses related to attendance of Federal employees at conferences sponsored or hosted by non-federal entities. Many of the new rules require approval for high-dollar spending and increased transparency of expenses.

This comes on top of the House’s approval of the DATA Act in late April, which includes a provision that would cap spending on nonmilitary travel to attend a conference at 80 percent of fiscal 2010 levels. And let’s not forget about proposed changes to ethics rules that could force contractors to face many of the same limitations previously intended for lobbyists.

If lead generation events are important to your marketing mix, here are six recommendations to consider based on our reading of these evolving situations:

  1. Stay Local – Federal employees are going to be less inclined to hop on a plane in this highly charged environment.
  2. Go On-Site – Give agency tabletop events another look. They’re cost-effective for everyone, and there’s no risk for an employee to attend an event held in his/her own building. immixGroup’s Agency Expo program can help you here.
  3. Keep it Simple – If you host your own events, avoid flashy venues or anything that looks or sounds over-the-top. Be conservative and stay on the right side of the lines or you can expect low registration and attendance numbers.
  4. Stick Together – Your prospects will be more comfortable attending events sponsored by multiple vendors to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Find one or more complementary vendors with whom you can co-brand your events and share costs. immixGroup frequently creates multi-vendor events and trade show kiosks to make this easier for our clients.
  5. Go Virtual – Targeted Webinars should play a larger role in your programs as agencies are explicitly instructing employees to turn to the Web to reduce travel costs. immixGroup offers several flavors of turn-key webinar programs for clients. The key is to make them relevant to your intended audience.
  6. Go with a Chaperone – Ethics rules favor events hosted by third-parties such as media companies and non-profits. We have seen tremendous success with these and can find or create events that fit your marketing plans and objectives.

To learn about any of these programs, contact your immixGroup account team or email me at allan_rubin@immixgroup.com.

Smaller Event Audiences are on the Way

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

We’re starting to hear how the recent GSA event scandals will impact the ability of government employees to attend our marketing events. If you rely on trade shows, conferences, seminars, and other in-person events to interact with your federal customers and prospects, you might want to take another look at your marketing mix.

I’d start by reading the article Jason Miller posted today on FederalNewsRadio.com. The good news, if you can call it that, is GSA employees will still be able to travel to staples like GSA Expo, ACT/IAC’s Management of Change Conference, and other events over the next four months (albeit with specific rules and restrictions). Even with this allowance, approvals will be harder to get, and GSA workers will be encouraged to use other means to communicate.

Miller cites an April memo in which acting GSA administrator Dan Tangherlini announced the suspension of travel to various events unless certain criteria, justifications, and budget restrictions are met. That’s understandable on both practical and political grounds.

More ominous for federal marketers is the specter of GSA’s top-down review of agency operations, which will include a close look at the travel policy. Miller’s sources speculate that “GSA participation in vendor dinners or events will be much lower, maybe by more than half.” So much for marketing ROI.

So far, I’ve only heard specifics about how this will impact GSA employees; the agency has “cancelled more than 35 conferences” already. But I don’t think it will stop there. DoD killed its annual procurement conference. NOAA solicited, and then stopped, a bid solicitation for a magician for its June leadership conference, earning more negative press at a time when government events didn’t really need it. Early reports from this week’s DISA conference indicate lower attendance numbers. We’ve seen this at other recent shows that are not connected to GSA.

We continue to recommend that IT companies take another look at virtual marketing activities and look for teaming opportunities to sponsor conferences, trade shows, and hosted seminars with complementary vendors. We have several programs in place to support these types of initiatives and make it easy (and cost-effective) for our clients and partners to pull them off. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you’re worried about how these changes will impact your marketing spend or lead generation activities.

Conference Travel Under the Microscope

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

The fallout from the recent GSA conference scandal (has “ClownGate” been coined as a name yet?) has spawned resignations, YouTube videos, criminal investigations, and lots of articles. And what election-year story would be complete without Congressional hearings? We’ve got those too.

A story on Federal News Radio’s Web site today provides a glimpse of where this may go next. According to the article, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is investigating GSA’s 2010 Las Vegas event on behalf of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee,  has written to the heads of 23 departments and agencies to request conference records for the past seven years, to be delivered by April 23.

Specifically, Rep. Issa wants to know about all overnight conferences funded by the government and attended by more than 50 employees since the start of 2005, including the dates, locations, costs, funding sources, and number of attendees for each. He also wants to know which government employees planned those events, and how much money they make.

So far the inquiries and finger-pointing seem to be limited to events and conferences that are hosted by agencies themselves, with or without the support of contractors. However, I think it’s a short leap from there to greater scrutiny of travel and spending on other industry events, such as the trade shows, conferences, seminars, training sessions, and other vehicles through which many government contractors gain face time, generate leads, and build both awareness and legitimate relationships with customers and prospects.

All of this comes on top of the recent restrictions on travel spending that will likely have an even larger impact on event attendance. Our event marketing team just returned from two trade shows and reported mixed results: the DoDIIS event had strong attendance, while the  AFCEA TechNet Southwest (a smaller, newly regionalized version of LandWarNet) did not.

An article in Friday’s Washington Business Journal FedBiz Daily highlighted how sensitive things have become. According to ACT-IAC Executive Director Ken Allen, registrations for the organization’s annual Management of Change (MOC) event are in line with those of past years. He acknowledged, however, that they are “not using the word ‘conference'” but instead are referring to MOC as an education and training event. And for its Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in October, ACT-IAC “plans to invest in Web technologies…which will enable virtual participation for those that can’t attend in person.”

My takeaway: recognize that your government customers may be somewhat reluctant to travel to industry events in the coming months, and find other ways to engage with them, including over the Web or through local events hosted by third parties such as media companies. If trade show exhibits are in your future, prepare for the possibility of smaller audiences, and make sure your sales teams are working the phones to schedule meetings in advance. If possible, join with complementary vendors to share co-branded booth space to lower costs without skipping the event entirely.

If you’re hosting your own events or spending a lot on trade shows, pay close attention to your cost-per-attendee and ROI metrics, and make sure you set appropriate expectations.

Event Spending is No Laughing Matter

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

It sounds like the opening of a very bad joke: “A clown, a mind reader, and a comedian walk into a hotel in Vegas.”

Unfortunately, it’s no laughing matter for the public officials, including GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, who just lost their jobs over an $835,000 training conference for 300 employees. According to a story in today’s Washington Post, the expenses “included $147,000 in airfare and lodging at the hotel for six planning trips by a team of organizers. Among the other expenses were $3,200 for a mind reader; $6,300 on commemorative coin set displayed in velvet boxes and $75,000 on a training exercise to build a bicycle.” Oh, and let’s not forget the comedian and the clown.

Apparently, President Obama was not entertained. The Post quoted White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who said the president “was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors, and disregard for taxpayer dollars, and called for all those responsible to be held fully accountable.”

And it appears there’s more to come: the story noted the “resignations come as the agency’s inspector general prepares to release a scathing report on the training conference, held at a luxury hotel outside Las Vegas in October 2010.” Sounds like another large, floppy red shoe is about to drop.

Those who followed the recent “Muffingate” scandal know there’s usually more to these stories than meets the eye, and often what looks like waste really isn’t. I don’t know much about this specific event, and there may be another side to the story. We’ll find out if that’s true in this case.

Either way, those of us who make a living by marketing products and services to the government understand the importance of relationship-building through face-to-face events. Will increased oversight of government-hosted conferences trickle down to impact widely attended gatherings? Will attendance suffer at your seminars as a result of these recent issues? Will live events decrease in effectiveness as vehicles for lead generation, branding, awareness, and thought leadership? This part of the story caught my eye, and it’s consistent with other changes we’ve been tracking for the last few months:

“Accounting procedures are being revamped, and there will be more oversight over conference planners and contractors, [GSA spokesman Greg] Mecher said. All employees will be required to take mandatory training in conference planning. Travel budgets for several regional offices have been reduced, and future conferences in the western region, which hosted the Nevada event, were canceled.”

At immixGroup, we’re already seeing anecdotal evidence of smaller trade show audiences since September 2011 when, according to today’s article on GovExec.com, “the administration ordered all federal agencies to review conference spending in the wake of a report on potentially excessive spending on a Justice Department event.”

We’re finding more interest in online marketing activities, such as webinars and video. And we’ve had strong results from co-branded events that are led by third-party media companies and sponsored by multiple vendors. Luckily, we have the resources to help our clients adjust to these new realities. Many federal marketers don’t.

As always, we’ll keep an eye on this and let you know what we see. In the meantime, we recommend you follow this story as it unfolds. You should also brush up on your knowledge of the government’s ethics rules around events and widely attended gatherings, and make sure you comply with both the letter and spirit of the rules. Most of us are neither mind readers nor magicians. And nobody wants to look like a clown in front of the government.

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