President Obama’s Remark About Las Vegas Brings Event Travel to Forefront

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Washington, DC – The issue of curbing travel to meetings and trade shows was in the media spotlight after President Obama implied that trips for executives of financial companies receiving emergency taxpayer assistance were an unnecessary excess.

The February 9th remark that CEOs who accepted bailout funds “can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime” could not have come at a worse time for Las Vegas and the meetings industry in general. With corporate belt-tightening rampant, anything else that might spook companies into cancelling a trip because of the potential public opinion fallout was unwelcome news.

The flare up came as major travel companies and the meetings and exhibitions industry were taking the offensive to prevent the public perception that all business gatherings are leisure junkets rather than the critical economic activities that they are.

Mayor Oscar Goodman sent a letter the next day to the White House asking for an apology and pointing out that “events in Las Vegas attract more delegates, attract corporate decision-makers, and keep convention delegates focused on getting business done compared to other destinations.”

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said on the Senate floor that Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told him that the president’s criticism was aimed at unnecessary travel and not a swipe at Las Vegas. “Mr. Emanuel made it clear to me that President Obama’s criticism was aimed at the potential use of taxpayer funds,” Reid said. “We gave these banks a lot of money and they shouldn’t be taking junkets with any of the money, whether they are going to Las Vegas or Los Angeles, New York or Salt Lake City.”

At the same time, Wells Fargo ran a full-page ad in The New York Times on Sunday, February 9, defending incentive travel for its employees. The ad, in the form of a letter signed by John Stumpf, president and CEO, accused the media of being “deliberately misleading” and said the misperceptions had forced it to cancel its annual recognition events for its hard-working employees.

“Who loses besides our team members? The workers who depend on our business,” wrote Stumpf, who added that recognition events are not paid for by government aid.

Industry Tackles Image Issue

Associations representing the meetings industry have also been ramping up their efforts to publicize the benefits of events.

The MeetDifferent conference held by Meeting Professionals International (MPI) in mid-February focused on the so-called AIG effect, which is blamed for the cancellation of a number of corporate events. Sessions included a workshop on restrictions placed on companies receiving Federal assistance. Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel and a former chairwoman of MPI, told the audience that President Obama’s $150 million inauguration was hardly an exercise in restraint.

The Convention Industry Council on February 17 became the latest association to endorse a set of guidelines for meetings planned by companies receiving government help. The guidelines, which cover issues such as cost and attendee profiles, were developed by a large coalition of industry associations with the U.S. Travel Association in the lead. Other member groups included the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, the Professional Convention Management Association and the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners.

Reach Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, at (702) 892-2800 or rralenkotter@lvcva.com; Bruce MacMillan, MPI president and CEO, at (972) 702-3001 or bmacmillan@mpiweb.org; CIC Executive Director Eric Allen at (571) 527-3116 or eallen@kellencompany.com