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Why It's Time for Event Pros to Go Ballistic

Ted Spring13 5x3
Illustration: Joey Bouchard/BizBash

On October 17, 2012, Secretary of the Army John J. McHugh sent a four-page, single-spaced memo to, I guess, everyone who works there, which told them that participation in all non-Department of Defense conferences was to be canceled through the end of the year as a cost-savings measure. At the same time the memo also put forth all sorts of observations about how conferences were “expensive means” of accomplishing “training, planning, collaboration, and disseminating information,” and that “the physical collaboration associated with a conference activity is not required in most cases.”

Wait, is this the same Army that spends $10,000 on a toilet seat?  

Understandably, this bah-humbug fourth-quarter move putting the ix-nay on the oondoggles-bay for the entire Army got U.S. Travel Association head Roger Dow pretty upset. He promised the most dreaded of retaliations, a white paper memo “that includes data on the economic impact of government meetings and information from academic studies on the value of face-to-face meetings in the private sector.”

Please, please, Roger, anything but that.

But if you are in the conference or event planning business, when you hear people start questioning the need for “gatherings” or “face-to-face interactions,” you’d better be ready to go nuclear, I say.

I think the problem really came to a head last April when the government’s General Services Administration got caught with its pants down for organizing a Las Vegas confab, the details of which are too juicy not to revisit (as in, the guy who resigned, Jeffrey Neely, was memorably photographed in a hot tub during a pre-conference meeting).

According to Business Insider, the whole shebang cost $835,000 for 300 attendees, or just a smidge more than $2,783 a head. The airfare and lodging for the event organizers ran to $147,000. (How come I never got hired on an event like this?) There was a mind reader ($3,200), commemorative coin sets ($6,300, but I bet they were real shiny), a clown, and a teamwork exercise where groups built bicycles ($75,000), which I bet was really boring.

Jeffrey and his boss, Martha Johnson, resigned in disgrace, natch, but the damage was done. If your name tag reads “conference planner,” consider changing it pronto to something more respectable like “snake oil vendor” or “sexual predator.”

But these backlashes are not new. Just about every economic downturn features a round of number-crunching killjoys, and what’s the first thing they go after? The sales meetings, recognition events, and rewards trips.

I remember the beginning of the Bush recession. One year I was being flown down to Fisher Island by Condé Nast Traveler and being put up in a private bungalow for its advertiser flag show, and then just a few short months later cramming into the GQ conference room in Manhattan, which had been decorated with buoys and ship wheels to give a “nautical theme” to its sales review. Suggestion: If you are offering a “staycation” instead of a cruise, wise up and skip the tropics decor.

But the stakes are even higher now for hotels, resorts, airlines, and all the secondary service providers that the conference industry supports, because there are new enemies in the midst: Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting.

When my mother told me she was Skyping with my niece in college in Edinburgh, Scotland, I realized it was only a matter of time before companies started canceling spa weekends at Canyon Ranch and offering “home spa roulette” instead. Rather than flying employees in, you just ship “attendees” a box of some gels and goos and have them lather and blather.

Why organize the rope ladder and zip line Amazing Race day when there’s a perfectly good (read: cheap) Xbox game of Far Cry 3 waiting? There, on a “mysterious island overrun with violence and suffering ... you are taken captive and brutalized. Your only hope of survival is unraveling the dark secrets of the island and its deranged inhabitants.” Go Team Mohawk!

But there are others issues at play here, and the main one is: what exactly is lost by eliminating face-to-face interaction? When virtual meeting technology first debuted, the Stevens Institute did a study that found that while the performance, communication, and effectiveness could all be comparably achieved by virtual meetings, the one factor that could not be duplicated was satisfaction.

So you get the same quality of work out of your team; they just won’t feel as good about it for themselves. Should C.E.O.s really care?

From a completely nonscientific point of view, I think they should.

Hosting a seminar or conference at a location that requires travel for all the participants, by its nature, forces people to get out of their comfort zones a little bit. With email, then texting, now Twitter, people barely even get on the phone anymore, anyway, much less go to Atlantic City.

I, personally, completely dread attending trade shows and reunions. Will they make me wear a name tag? Will I have to run into people just trying to get my morning coffee? (And, if so, is there a chance that I could physically harm someone?)

I’ve written before about some of the really bad things that can happen: Office affairs are uncomfortably brought out in the open. Your V.I.P. press guest gets arrested for disturbing the peace at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and you have to spend all morning with a criminal defense attorney to get him out of jail. (Oops, this is all cutting a little close to home now.)

But when I think back over my career, it is precisely those kinds of things that I remember most clearly and vividly. Because having to show up in person and with clothes on and everything, having to dress up like cowboys and Indians for skit night—sure it is all super-humiliating, but you can’t just phone it in.

Shouldn’t the Army, an institution that puts so much emphasis on high morale and “unit cohesion,” understand that?

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