US government conference spending bubbling up
US government conference spending bubbling up
09 DECEMBER 2016 8:45 AM

After a sharp drop in 2013, the U.S. government is spending more on big conferences, which is good news for hoteliers.

HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee—Federal conference spending appears to be on the rise after a severe decline in fiscal year 2013. All federal agencies are required by Memorandum M-12-12 from the Office of Management and Budget to publicly list every conference costing more than $100,000 of taxpayer funds. (Note: Federal agencies are not required to report on their spending on meetings of less than $100,000. Presented results are limited to the most expensive conferences.)

Figures from fiscal 2015 departmental budgets indicate a slight nudge upward in federal conference spending over the previous two years. For this report, we looked at data collected for fiscal 2014 and 2015—from 1 October 2013 to 30 September 2014, and from 1 October 2014 to 30 September 2015.

A few key findings from our analysis:

  • In the past two years, overall spending rose by $16.6 million, nearly a 15% increase;
  • 2015 spending is still less than half of what was spent in 2012;
  • Total 2015 spending was $129,092,187 on 443 conferences with 129,276 estimated attendees;
  • A typical conference in 2015 (costing $100,000 or more) had 158 attendees and cost an average of $193,677; and
  • Washington, D.C., remained the most popular location for federal conferences.

By collecting the reported conference expenditures for both 2014 and 2015, we are able to track the full four-year span of spending since M-12-12 was issued. Our data shows that among the top 19 federal organizations, reported spending is starting to increase since crashing in 2013. With a combined 2014 expenditure of $128 million, government conference spending increased by about 13% from 2013—with a small additional boost of around $2 million in 2015. This is still less than half the $298 million expenses reported in 2012.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, and Department of Health and Human Services were responsible for nearly 64% of the overall total spending in 2015. This is a trend that has held true over each of the four years monitored in this study, with these three agencies grappling for the number one spot each year. Additionally, the Department of Justice landed back in the fourth-place spot in 2015, where it has been every year except for 2014.

The VA earned the top spot the past two years with the highest expense per conference, averaging $576,204 in 2015. In second place, the DOD spent an average of $315,372 per conference. The Department of State spent an average of $255,533 per conference for third place, though it ranked sixth for overall amount spent. The DOD held the most conferences costing more than $100,000, with a total of 96 in 2015. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Agriculture each held only two conferences costing more than $100,000—the fewest reported. The latter also had the lowest cost per conference, around $131,000 on average.

By examining the top three departments alongside the combined remaining departments, we can see a slightly clearer picture of overall spending trends over the past several years. Every department took a sharp nosedive after the first year of reporting in 2012—with the exception of the Social Security Administration and USAID, both of which saw an increase in spending from 2012 to 2013.

Most departments have been trending back upward since the sharp drop in 2013. There are three exceptions: The Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, and Department of Commerce have all seen a steady decrease in spending on their largest meetings in every year covered in this study.

As the chart above shows, a major boost in VA spending in 2014 played a significant role in contributing to the lift in total spending figures that year. Steady gains in Defense spending (and a small jump from all other reporting departments) have helped keep overall spending on an even keel from 2014 to 2015.

Attendance figures are somewhat less than reliable, given the differences in reporting methodology for each department, but our best estimates put overall attendance at close to 130,000 conference attendees in 2015. DOD meetings netted the highest total attendance with 36,355 reported conference-goers in 2015. Meanwhile, the Department of Education had the highest attendance rates per conference—just over 1,000 people on average.

Finally, it comes as no surprise that Washington, D.C., was chosen more often than any other location as a meeting site for federal conferences. Across the Potomac, Arlington was also a top contender. Other popular locations included Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas and Orlando.

As spending is starting to bubble up after the 2013 plunge, we stand ready to report on 2016 as soon as figures are available early next year. Stay tuned for a follow up article in Q2 2017.

This article represents an interpretation of data collected by STR, parent company of HNN. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

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