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Commentary on the Justice Department Report on Government Meetings

Sep 28, 2011

Most U.S. taxpayers would agree with the need for restraint in government spending and for government agencies to follow established policies governing procurement of products and services. However, last week’s reported cost of a muffin at a government meeting was most likely inaccurate.

In contrast to the press reports that the Justice Department paid as much as $16 per muffin at a recent meeting in Washington, Hilton Worldwide noted last week that the contracted breakfast included fresh fruit, coffee, juice, and muffins, plus tax and gratuity for an all-inclusive price of $16 per person. That compares very favorably to the prices paid by the United States Senate for services provided by its own caterer.

According to the United States Senate Dining Services website, “the Catering Department of the U.S. Senate Restaurants is responsible for providing food and beverage service to Senators, Officials of the United States Senate and outside groups who are sponsored by them.” A review of the menus posted online show breakfast cost ranging from $12 up to $20 per person before tax and gratuity, lunch ranging from $15.50 for deli meats up to $42 for a 3 course hot plated lunch, and dinners from $49 to 69 per person, with most selections above the current GSA per diem rates for Washington, DC of $12/$18/$36 for breakfast, lunch and dinner respectively and some of the Justice Management Division’s conference policy limits listed in the report.

The now-infamous “muffin” meeting, organized by the Office on Violence Against Women, came to light as a result of a report by a Justice Department auditor. That report had a lot of good things to say about the meeting that the press have ignored. For example, in examining the meeting’s total expenses, the inspector general gave credit to the agency for saving money by not serving full meals at the five-day conference. The planner ordered far less (250-300 orders) than the actual attendance of 534 people, resulting in a $14.74 per person per day cost for beverages and light snacks. The report points out that this was a shocking two cents over the agency-established limit of $14.72! In my book, the meeting planner did an excellent job in controlling costs.

The auditor also noted in the report the common practice in the meetings industry of hotels waiving meeting room rental with a minimum food and beverage purchase. The report also goes on to say that there was no cost savings because the actual amount spent was $47,000 more than the minimum required food and beverage for free space. Most professional meetings planners would know of this practice and applaud the planner for an excellent job in negotiating the minimum far below what the actual spend would be, ensuring that meeting room rental would never come into play.

I am sure the hard working government auditor expended a significant amount of time on the audit and producing the 148-page report. Audits are necessary and I applaud the effort to reign in government spending and to make recommendations for effective cost control procedures. Surely there is room for improvement in controlling the cost of food and beverage items and in the process of bidding, contracting and reporting of outside meeting planning services.  What the objective eye of an accountant could not capture merely by looking at banquet checks from hotel bills were other factors, such as whether it was more cost effective to bring people together in one location than other methods of training and whether the outcomes of those live sessions are more effective.

The response from the Director of the Office on Violence Against Women noted that the organizations participating in their meeting in question, “have a wealth of experience working with judges and on the subject matter and there is evidence of the harm that can come to victims when judges do not understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence. We have experienced over the years that judges learn best in person and from other judges, which is why this is an in person training.”

The goals of the Convention Industry Council (CIC) include promoting best practices in the planning and delivery of meetings and elevating the professional practices of the meeting planning profession. A study by CIC on the value of face to face meetings, found that face-to-face meetings build trust and relationships; education and training are more effective in a live setting; live meetings actually save time and money; live meetings result in a more effective exchange of ideas.

I hope that future evaluations of meetings include a broader focus to include the benefits derived from face to face meetings. For more information on the study, visit the CIC website at

Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP
Chief Executive Officer
Convention Industry Council