Brett Sterenson has had a front-row seat to the volatile world of government meetings over the last decade. In addition to running his own business, Hotel Lobbyists, which provides third-party conference site selection for coordinators including government meeting professionals nationwide, he’s also coming up on his second term as a board member of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals.
After “Muffingate” and the General Services Administration scandals made national headlines, Sterenson, who has a mix of government, association and corporate clients, says he’s on a mission to change public perception through his work with SGMP. Here, he discusses his public relations efforts, how SGMP has pushed to regulate the industry and where he sees government meetings headed.
What does SGMP provide planners?
The thing we’re most proud of is the CGMP, the Certified Government Meeting Professional designation, which has been around 10 years. It’s a specialized designation for meeting and hospitality professionals who plan government meetings.
What’s the objective of the designation?
The goal is to raise awareness. When you see these stories of ridiculous spending— which are few and far between, but always make the front page—our goal is to certify these government planners so those things don’t happen. We want them to know the ethics and for them to never get involved. This certification also goes a long way toward assuring taxpayers that meetings are being managed judiciously and with the utmost fiduciary responsibility.
What are some differences between government planners and corporate or association planners?
The rules of a government planner are different for sure. They take their advice and rules from office and general counsel. It varies agency to agency. Some are very strict, and some are looser, with different interpretations. But you would be hard-pressed to find a government meeting planner on any kind of FAM tour. It would be considered an unethical use of taxpayer money if salaried government employees accepted a gift from a CVB.
What are some of the complications that make site visits difficult?
If a government planner has made a decision about a certain hotel, they have to be careful of any gifts, and that includes transportation. If a hotel is offering transportation to everyone, like shuttle service, that’s perfectly fine. It’s considered an amenity of hotel. But if the hotel offered to pick them up at the airport, technically, the planner would have to pay the hotel for whatever it cost.
The same goes for food. The rules are a little crazy. If there’s going to be food on the tour and it’s necessary for the planner to evaluate it as part of the site visit, that’s one thing. But in simply accepting a lunch, the strictest interpretation of the rules says they must pay the hotel per diem for cost.
For an overnight stay, the government planner needs to pay for the room, because the rules say accepting a comp room could sway your opinion of the hotel.
“Maybe someday on the front page, there will be a story about an exceptionally planned government conference with no issues. Obviously it’s not a sexy story, but that’s the goal.”
Sounds tough to keep that straight.
In my business, I have to switch gears quickly based on who I’m talking to. The CGMP speaks to those rules. When someone is done taking that course, they will have a much clearer understanding of the guidelines and the ethics, and the expectation is that someone with that designation wouldn’t break the rules.
How has SGMP repositioned itself since the “Muffingate” scandal (in which the $16 muffin turned out to be a false claim) in 2011?
We weren’t well known at the time, so people weren’t even asking us about it. We were disappointed we didn’t have a bigger voice at that table. We’ve since changed our mission to have a greater voice. Now, our executive director goes to sessions where Congressional subcommittees are talking about how to make changes to the rules, so at least we’re not invisible. We were not a lobbying organization then and we’re still not, but during the scandal we weren’t the least bit political.
How was the meeting industry affected after the news came out?
I saw an immediate change. Meetings were almost immediately canceled, and for no good reason, really, other than for fear they would be scrutinized. But when you think about how much money is now being spent on getting approval for conferences, now we’re in the opposite extreme. Maybe someday on the front page, there will be a story about an exceptionally planned government conference with no issues. Obviously it’s not a sexy story, but that’s the goal.
What are your thoughts on the oversight for government conferences?
Meeting planners will interpret the approval process as so cumbersome and so long that they don’t even try [to plan]. Some meetings are going away that don’t have to simply because it’s too much effort. Sometimes it costs more to cancel a meeting than to just have it. If taxpayers knew how much went into canceling the conferences, they’d be appalled.
But I’m optimistic. In the last year or two, meetings that went away for me in 2012 and 2013 came back in 2014 and even stronger in 2015. At least some of the planners are going through the process and doing the right thing.
Do you have any examples of a government conference that’s making a big comeback?
There was one very large meeting that from 2008-11 grew substantially each year, but went away in 2012-13 as a direct result of public scrutiny. The plan for that meeting in 2014 was for it to be a virtual meeting for more than 1,000 people. For a meeting that size to be virtual, including a trade show, I was curious to see what it would look like. But it never happened. There was such a push to do [in person] again—and it’s happening this year. It’s not as big as it was the day it died in 2011, but maybe it has the chance to grow again. I think they knew that meeting was necessary and that the void it left for two years was too big. I was very encouraged by that.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, any upsetting tales?
A friend of mine had an important conference to attend in Phoenix. It was for the American Medical Association, and he was a government employee for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it was getting near impossible to get him approved to go, so he was planning to do the meeting via three full days of conference call, with a three-hour time difference from D.C. Then at very last minute, he got approval to go. However, because of the short time frame, transportation cost more. He was not permitted to stay at the hotel, Arizona Biltmore, even though they had offered him the per diem rate, because the government was worried about perception. So he to stay at an Embassy Suites near the airport, rent a car and get up an hour earlier every day to drive to the hotel. It ended up costing even more. That’s a great example of a waste. It’s irrational to think that a taxpayer would prefer that.
What do you see in the future for government meetings?
The CGMP folks are real professionals and are doing their jobs better than they did 10 years ago. Slowly but surely, I think you’re going to see fewer of these scandals stories in the paper. I think we’re in a better place now.
For more, look for an in-depth report on the state of government meetings by Senior Editor Matt Swenson in the May/June issue of Connect.