Months of planning went down the drain this week for at least a half dozen conferences and events. The government shutdown caused the postponement of events large and small around the country, and it especially hit the Washington, D.C., area hard.
This is just the beginning of what many are calling the trickledown effect of the shutdown and things are expected to get worse if the government remains partially closed deep into October, as many experts are predicting.
At least four major events had to be postponed this week, including Symantec’s cybersecurity symposium at the Washington Convention Center, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s mobile and cloud workshop in Gaithersburg, Md., and IBM’s Federal Cloud Innovation Forum.
Many others also lost their federal government speakers or participation.
Kent Schneider, the president of AFCEA International, said his organization felt the pain of the shutdown immediately.
“The uncertainty is probably the biggest issue. Any event scheduled this week is obviously at risk,” he said. “In fact, we had to postpone one of our events. One of the two classified TSS-CI intelligence symposia that we do each year. It was scheduled for [Tuesday] and [Wednesday], and because it was scheduled in a government facility and because it relied on a number of government speakers, we had to cancel it. We hope to reschedule it sometime later in the year.”
Schneider said the AFCEA Northern Virginia chapter will hold a luncheon Friday with Air Force Gen. Brian Kilough, the director of Warfighter Systems Integration, but only because the general is a uniformed service member, so he’s not furloughed.
If this shutdown continues for another week or two, the list of postponed events will increase by dozens and the impact will be even greater, experts say.
Busiest month of the year
Kerry Rea, the president of GovEvents.com, said organizations scheduled about 257 government events for October, including 100 that are live events in the Washington area. In the next two weeks alone, Rea said 114 events are expected to happen. So, if the shutdown goes into late October, the impact will be even greater.
Conferences and events are a major part of the federal community and support a host of other industries from food service to hotels to taxi cabs. A plethora of companies build their businesses around event support services, such as photographers and videographers, promoters and speaker bureaus.
And, of course, some non-profit organizations use the events to raise money and bring government and industry together.
Ronnie Burt, the vice president of sales and services for DestinationDC, a private, non-profit corporation with a membership of 850 businesses and organizations that support the DC travel and tourism sector, said the Symantec cyber event that was postponed until March shows the immediate trickledown effect of the shutdown.
Burt said the postponement of the conference means convention staff that help with registration and moving people around didn’t work this week.
Burt said the shutdown also is impacting non-government conferences.
“We do have a couple of large conventions coming in the first week of October that do have reception events planned in the Smithsonian, and without knowing what is the end, if there is an end in sight, some of those convention organizers have already started asking to identify availability. Because while their event is unrelated to government, American College of Surgeons, they were planning on using some of the government facilities,” he said. “Without knowing if those facilities will be open, those events still have to happen, so they have been asking us to identify some availability.”
Burt said DestinationDC is in touch with several hotels, and together they are creating a list of available ballrooms, detailing the size of them and the dates they are free, so if customers have to move events, they know where and what’s possible.
Conference attendance already was hurting
The shutdown comes as the federal conference industry took a hit from several high profile boondoggles at the General Services Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department and the IRS to name a few of the most visible examples, as well as budget cuts from sequestration.
A recent survey by Boscobel Marketing Communications and Market Connections found nearly 72 percent of the respondents said they have attended fewer events in fiscal 2013 than they did last year. About 57 percent of respondents also said their agencies had hosted fewer events this year compared to fiscal 2012.
Mike Smoyer, the president of the Digital Government Institute, which puts on about seven one-day conferences a year and dozens of webinars aimed at federal employees and contractors, said even if the government reopens early next week, feds will have to play catch up on work, so they will not be coming to conferences immediately. He said that fact will lengthen the impact of the shutdown.
“There’s a lot of issues in moving a date. You have to reconfirm all the speakers. You have to go to all your sponsors, and you pretty much have to treat it like a new event,” he said. “Any time you change a date, not everyone who would pre-register knows if they can attend at the future date. So, that’s where your intangible additional costs come in. You almost have to start from scratch again and it’s a lot of work.”
Smoyer said October through mid-November is the busy time for conferences and events, so finding a new date in the short term will not be easy.
The shutdown also is impacting the work he and other conference organizers give to subcontractors.
“I have an independent photographer that comes. We have these two individuals that do video for us at the event, and then there is another company in Northern Virginia that edits that video,” Smoyer said. “You have the caterers on staff at the Reagan building. You have the audio visual people there. At some of the bigger events, then there will be the registration suppliers and general services contractors if there are a lot of exhibit booths. There is a whole sub-business community that will be severely impacted.”
And, of course, the trickledown effect is hitting all the peripheral businesses, including hotels, restaurants, taxi cabs and other services, said DestinationDC’s Burt.
As the shutdown continues, several other events are teetering on the edge.
Future is uncertain
For example, AFFIRM still plans to hold its luncheon on cybersecurity Thursday.
Meritalk is hosting a cloud computing event and Akamai is hosting its government forum next week as well. Both events depend on both government speakers and government attendees.
Schneider said AFCEA International has no events scheduled for the next few weeks, but the local chapters do. He said those decisions will be made locally and on a case-by-case basis.
Smoyer said Digital Government Institute’s big data conference set for Thursday is up in the air and he will make a go or no-go decision Friday afternoon or Monday morning at the latest.
Schneider said the long term impact of conferences being postponed because of the shutdown can’t be overlooked either.
“The biggest cost is the loss of effective dialogue among government, industry and academia. That’s what we are all about and certainly it’s an important part of the national defense community,” he said. “If you go back to the GAO report on 22 January on IT acquisition and management, they site billions of dollars being lost every year due to lack of effective communication both within government, and between government and industry. So any constraints on communication will just aggravate that problem and that’s likely to occur if this extends on a long-term basis. Not only will more conferences likely be canceled, but other means of communication between government and industry will be affected as well because contracts will be affected. The government can’t even communicate with those contract holders as long as they are held in advance.”
So, for now, a good majority of these events are up in the air with people such as Smoyer — joining many federal employees and contractors — crossing his fingers and toes hoping for a quick resolution to this shutdown.