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Agency Bans on Las Vegas, Orlando Visits Kick Up a Storm

By Ed O'Keefe

Meetings and conferences for federal agencies could continue as normal at or near the Magic Kingdom, Las Vegas and other cities if a new Senate bill passes. (Getty)

Have no fear, traveling bureaucrats: In between your off-site meetings packed with team-building exercises, guest speakers and meetings with management consultants, a key lawmaker is fighting to ensure you get to squeeze in a visit to Mickey Mouse or the craps table.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reacted angrily this week to recent news reports that the departments of Agriculture and Justice have avoided resort destinations including Orlando and Las Vegas in favor of less exciting cities like St. Louis, Denver or Minneapolis in order to avoid any negative press about taxpayer dollars footing the bill for meetings at lavish hotels or resorts.

Saying he was "absolutely floored," Nelson noted that Orlando, the Sunshine State's prime resort destination, has experienced an 8 percent drop in hotel bookings from last year.

"Talk about a double whammy in tough economic times, when we have seen tourism and business travel dropping like a rock," he said from the Senate floor on Monday.

The decision especially frustrates Nelson, because tourist-friendly cities in Florida and other resort locations often offer hotel rooms and air fares at considerably lower prices than other cities.

"It is one thing to avoid nonessential trips for the government to save taxpayers money, but it is taking it a little far when it is another thing... if it is legitimate travel and you then avoid certain cities just because they are where they are," Nelson said.

The senator plans to offer amendments either to the budgets of agencies with travel policies that steer business away from resort cities like Orlando or Las Vegas or else introduce an amendment to the Travel Promotion Act, a major bill still pending before Congress.

Such legislation may be unnecessary however, since a recent series of letters between White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Sin City's senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stated that federal policy does not dictate where government events should be held, but instead requires that costs and the reasons for travel be justified.

So breathe easy, government employees: You may still get to enjoy that Cirque de Soleil show after all.

By Ed O'Keefe  | July 29, 2009; 2:29 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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It’s about time somebody said it.

If the federal government were to take a hard, look at conferences attended by/attended by government employees, a quantitative and qualitative assessment would show a lot of them to be boondoggles, especially the one’s set up by federal employees working in Washington DC to be held some other place. Even though most conference attendees may be from the DC area, you’ll still find out-of-DC conferences. How can a DC based federal employee get a chance to travel and visit new places (especially places like Disney World or San Diego around Spring break, Garmisch, Germany around Octoberfest or Honolulu anytime) on Uncle Sam’s nickel if the conferences were held in DC?

After all, it’s not the federal employee’s money. It’s what they call “Other peoples money” which means as long as it isn’t coming out of their pocket, why not spend it? There always is a “good reason” and no one in their agency is going to tell them “no.”

There is no doubt in my mind that auditors would find that if the value of the conference were based on what was actually accomplished, there could have been some VTC’s or e-mail exchanges that would have accomplished more than the conference did. I’d love to see government employees (or agency heads) have to pay back the conferences costs out of their own pockets when this determination were made. Have this happen once or twice and you would see the number of “essential” conferences dwindle and the number of VTCs (or e-mail exchanges) increase.

What I recommend next is nothing negative about Chicago nor do I say it because the President is from Chicago.

If a federally sponsored conference is really necessary, or if federal employees need to attend a conference, the federal government should require conferences to be held in Chicago ONLY during January-February and July-August timeframes (The people of Chicago know exactly what I mean). No one could ever complain that a federal employee was on a “paid vacation,” junket or boondoggle or that the conference was unnecessary because no one would voluntarily face the winter wind off Lake Michigan or the humid summer heat that melts the pavement unless they really had to.

Why do I think that conferences will continue to be held in San Diego, Honolulu, Las Vegas and Florida? Once again, as far as federal agencies and employees are concerned, it’s the taxpayers money, not their own.

Posted by: highexpectations | July 29, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

I had this discussion with my VP a few years ago. I do about 14 business trips a year for my company, and have had occasion to do 2 to 3 day meetings in both Vegas and Orlando. Our group comes from 35 different utilities scattered all over the country, so it doesn't really matter where we meet. I like Vegas because it's a short flight and extremely kind to my travel budget. Airfare and hotel rates are both extremely competitive, and the food's decent. Even better, I don't need a rental car, which can run $150 for a 3 or 4 day trip, mostly to sit in a parking lot while I work. Orlando's a little pricier than Vegas - but generally competitive with more 'mundane' spots, like Phoenix, DC or Kansas City. Flights are competitive and no rental car is needed.

I don't gamble, or hit the shows or theme parks - certainly not on my company's dime. I may take an extra day to sight see *on my own nickel.*

Bottom line - When your people are coming from multiple locations, having a business meeting or conference in a "tourist town" makes a lot of fiscal sense.

Posted by: mysticmoods | July 31, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

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