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BizBash C.E.O. David Adler: Learning the Right Lesson From the G.S.A. Scandal

The following is an opinion column by David Adler, C.E.O. and founder of BizBash Media.

The uproar sparked by the General Services Administration’s conference in Las Vegas in 2010 provides us with one of those teachable moments that educators talk about. We can salvage some value from the situation by learning from this training and teambuilding opportunity that was hijacked by an outmoded and inappropriate, "budgets gone wild," crony-driven, party-centric mentality.

To an event professional, the G.S.A. gaffe is like an episode of Mad Men, a study in thinking and behaviors that are no longer viable in the present environment. The time when conventions and conferences were about hook-ups and mischief is long past. 
The scandal here is not the what—that they brought their people together for some face-to-face time—but the how—that they seem to have viewed their event as a fling, and not as an opportunity to increase the knowledge and capabilities of the attendees.

Those of us who have been in the event business for a long time know that a highly publicized caper like the G.S.A.’s can lead to an ill-advised reduction in meetings of all kinds. How do we know that this is the wrong response? Because we’ve lived through that cycle in the private sector. 

The combination of the economic crisis, during which President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark about junkets to Las Vegas that caused a tsunami of negative press for the meetings industry, and the immense wake of 9/11 led businesses to cut travel spending, and corporate events largely disappeared. Many companies tried to keep costs down by not resuming their events. When a few corporations recommenced their business meetings and promotional events, people responded strongly and hailed them as important signs of recovery. Events proved to be essential to how people relate and work together, and cities and states around the country are now working to build facilities that will draw more events and the economic activity associated with them. 

While it is controversial, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal for a 3.8-million-square-foot, $4 billion convention-center complex, complete with up to 3,000 hotel rooms, in Queens, is testament to the importance of conferences, trade shows, and events. Las Vegas has also become the equivalent of America’s town square, hosting hundreds of major industry gatherings, including the Consumer Electronics Show and its 140,000 attendees.

Today, despite all the predictions that technology would make face-to-face gatherings unnecessary, there are more than 900,000 business events a year, and they serve critical purposes in our economy. It turns out that humans are still wired to respond to each other in person. Often, events are still the best strategy for helping people build their intellectual capital so they can do their jobs better, inspiring employees, and making sure everyone is on the same page. 

In the business and nonprofit worlds today, events are produced under fiscal restraints and measured by the value they deliver. And they are most often created and executed with help from professional event planners. As events have evolved, the disciplines and processes required to do them correctly have grown into a distinct specialty.

Event professionals have an impressive range of skills and can take care of logistics, risk management, content creation, and education programs. They also ask the tough strategic questions and provide an essential outside perspective on the optics of an event—what it communicates about a company, its products, and its values, to both employees and customers. In a sense, today’s event planners serve as the “mayors” of the events for which they are responsible.

If the G.S.A. had brought one of these professionals onto the team for this event in Las Vegas, things might be different. Instead of hearing about a boondoggle, we might be hearing about how the G.S.A. used taxpayers’ dollars to generate value by having a hardworking event, packed with education and the sharing of practical tips and case histories of excellence in the field.

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