As the drama surrounding the partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government continues to unfold in Washington, the meetings industry is feeling its impact in a variety of ways. High-profile events are losing attendees, and planners of government meetings are being furloughed, while travel is being affected by the limiting of government employees and resources. But overall, industry members remain upbeat about their ability to hold events in the midst of disruption.
"The federal government partial shutdown is having a negative impact on the meetings industry," said Michelle A. Milligan, MSW, LMSW, CGMP, national president of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. She said that SGMP is aware of conferences that have been canceled and others that have been affected by a loss of attendees due to government employees now unable to attend. The CERSI Innovations in Regulatory Science Summit, part of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference scheduled for this week, has been put on hiatus until Food and Drug Administration staffers -- who make up a sizable number of the event's approximately 250 registrants and scheduled speakers -- return to their jobs, according to the San Francisco Business Times. Five FDA officials were scheduled to speak at the conference.
Scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were notified last Thursday that, due to the shutdown, they had to cancel plans to attend the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting -- the largest annual gathering in the world focused on weather, water and climate -- held in Phoenix, Jan. 6–10. According to Milligan, more than 400 governmental scientists had attended this conference in previous years. Sessions that were to be led by governmental employees have been canceled.
"The current partial government shutdown is frustrating for all of us, but especially for our government-employee colleagues who are directly affected," said Roger Wakimoto, president of the American Meteorological Society Council, in a statement. "We continue to be hopeful that it will be resolved in time for many of those colleagues to join us for the 99th AMS Annual Meeting."
The organization shifted its registration cancellation deadline in response, offering full refunds up to Jan. 3 (it had previously been set at Dec. 21, 2018), and noted that convention hotels are allowing cancellations just 24 hours out from arrival.
Even those events that are not specifically targeted to government employees are affected in ways large and small, from governmental building closures to the need to replace speakers, as planners for the AMS meeting have had to do.
"It can be very difficult to locate last-minute speaker replacements and/or new locations to hold your meeting or event," said Milligan. "The change in speakers and/or location also must be communicated to your expected attendees, which could cause additional cancellations if attendees were coming to see a particular speaker."
And then there are the planners who are themselves being furloughed, if they plan events for the federal government. A number of SGMP members, when reached for comment, had out-of-office messages citing the government shutdown.
"Once the shutdown is resolved, many of our SGMP members, both planners and suppliers, will have a heavier workload in rescheduling or reformatting meetings, trainings and conferences, as well as catching up for events planned to occur in the near future," said Milligan. "All the above directly effects the meeting industry but does not address the potential financial hardship the partial shutdown may have on individuals. For everyone's benefit, SGMP hopes a resolution is reached soon."
MaryLou Wallace, AAS, CGMP, program assistant for the Center for Bioethics & Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and a member of SGMP, has not been directly affected by the government shutdown since she works at the state level, but sees how its impact will be felt by others. "I imagine that in the bigger picture, meetings and travel are looked at as probably lower on the list of priorities during the shutdown," she noted. "An even bigger concern will be with any event contracts already in place and for those planned or scheduled meetings directly affected by the government shutdown, and what that means regarding any liabilities that might be at stake."
Wallace urged government event planners to do their best to get in touch with their suppliers and host properties to keep them in the loop on any meetings affected. "They need to be sure to keep the communication lines open during the shutdown. Once the federal government is open and back up for normal business, budgets will have taken a hit, and any unnecessary travel will not be a priority and will be one of the areas of spending that will be cut. Planners may have to come up with some other creative ways to conduct a meeting or event."
The shutdown's impact on the travel industry more broadly is creating challenges for groups traveling. While Transportation Security Administration officers and air-traffic controllers are still working as usual (though without a paycheck), there are growing reports of TSA agents calling in sick. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association stated that a halt to training due to the shutdown has meant that, "along with 3,000 other aviation-safety professionals represented by NATCA, many new hires who have recently graduated from the academy and begun working at their first air-traffic control facility are furloughed, their critical training halted along with their pay."
International travel has been complicated by the closing of passport agencies located within government buildings while the Global Entry program is not currently processing applications, creating potential issues for those seeking to attend or plan events overseas. Domestically, government-funded attractions including national parks, Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are also closed to visitors.
Though the full financial impact of the shutdown will depend on how long it actually lasts, the U.S. Travel Association estimated that the last such federal closings, in October 2013, cost the U.S. travel industry an estimated $2.2 billion. That shutdown lasted 16 days, while the current one reached day 17 today.
Open During the Shutdown
While all eyes have turned to Washington, D.C., as negotiations over funding the government continue, the city's destination marketing organization, Destination DC, has emphasized that the district remains open for group business. The CVB relaunched its DC Is Open campaign, saying there is plenty more to the city than the monuments and museums that are affected by the shutdown.
"It's a great time to find deals on hotels and attractions and explore our Michelin-rated dining scene, watch a hockey or basketball game or see a show," said Elliott L. Ferguson, II, president and CEO of Destination DC. "Our DC Is Open campaign continues to relay to visitors that we are ready to welcome business and leisure travelers alike."
Ferguson pointed to a pair of citywide meetings scheduled for January, including the 13,000-person Transportation Research Board event beginning on Jan. 13. "Luckily, they're not using any of the impacted attractions for offsite events, and we've been in constant communication with the planners so they can understand what's open for business and communicate the information on washington.org/dcisopen with their attendees," he said. "If a planner was utilizing a museum funded by the federal government, we will facilitate other options, such as new venues at the Wharf or the Newseum."
Other organizations hosting large-scale events have emphasized that the impact from the shutdown is minimal. Sherrif Karamat, CAE, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, which kicked off its Convening Leaders event in Pittsburgh on Jan. 6, said that, "The U.S. federal government shutdown is affecting many across the country, but we're pleased to say that it has yet to impact the 4,000 or so attendees and speakers coming to our annual Convening Leaders event."