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Government Shutdown: What It Could Mean for Meetings

Will they or won’t they pass the federal budget? Government meeting professionals and planners whose attendees include a large number of federal employees will be scrambling if Congress shuts down the government this weekend.

If members of the U.S. House and Senate can’t pass spending legislation by September 30 to avoid a government shutdown, millions of Americans who work for the federal government or rely on federal services will be affected.

For meeting professionals who are federal employees or who run events with a significant number of attendees who are federal employees, this is a nerve-wracking week as they wait to see the outcome of lawmakers’ maneuvering.

Nicole Roames, CMP, CGMP, DES, president of the National Capitol Chapter of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals, had meetings affected during the last two shutdowns: a 17-day episode in October 2013 and a 34-day episode from late 2018 to early 2019. While she can breathe easier this time around—the association she works for attracts state-government employees to its events, not federal—she has advice for planners who may be impacted.

“You should have started talking to your hotels already to let them know what's going on,” Roames says. “The hotels are difficult to work with in the post-Covid environment, but not telling them what's going on is only going to make it worse when [the shutdown] actually happens—because I have no doubt that we're shutting down.”

In addition to having conversations with your hotel, the most important thing is to read over the clauses in your contract. “I work with really good contracts that list one of the reasons we can cancel with no penalty is if the government has shutdown,” she adds.

Meetings industry attorney Joshua Grimes, Esq., of Grimes Law Offices, notes that a shutdown could invoke a force-majeure clause, depending on how it is written. For example, consider a conference anticipating a large number of federal government employees who will be barred from traveling during a shutdown. If the force-majeure clause covers only occurrences which make the meeting "impossible or illegal," then it probably wouldn't be a force-majeure situation, Grimes says. However, if the clause also covers situations that “make the meeting ‘commercially impracticable’ then it would more likely be a force majeure.” Likewise, if a group’s clause “mentions ‘act of government’ or similar language, then a force majeure would be more likely,” he notes.

The challenges of a government shutdown “once again demonstrate the need to have a force-majeure clause that adequately protects the group in situations where the meeting [in practical terms] can't go forward,” says Grimes. “The hotel-drafted clauses are really insufficient from that perspective. This is an important clause to negotiate, so both parties are fairly protected.”

Another bit of advice from Roames is to brace for the shutdown’s ambiguity. “You can't really know when it will end,” she says, “so, you'd have to keep all of your discussions open-ended. And the decision makers—if you're not the final decision maker—may not be working until the government opens back up.”

Up to 2.2 million civilian federal employees face the possibility of either a furlough or working without pay, according to the Federal News Network.

“One thing I learned,” Roames says, “is to rip the band aid off. If you feel like the meeting is going to need to cancel, talk to your leadership now” while they are around.

Other Shutdown Implications
Even for groups that don’t face cancellations or attendance issues from a shutdown, there are other repercussions to consider:

• Airports will stay open, but there could be travel delays. A couple weeks into the government shutdown in 2018-2019, airports began to see significant absenteeism from some air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents, who were required to work without pay. This caused longer security lines and some delays.

• All Smithsonian museums and Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo will close in the event of a government shutdown. In addition to cancellations for any special events planned in the 19 venues under the Smithsonian umbrella, it could also be a disappointment for attendees coming in for the three citywide conventions planned in October at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.: the Association of the United States Army, October 9-11; the American Academy of Pediatrics, October 20-24; and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, October 25-28.

Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination DC, is quick to point out that there’s a lot more of the city to enjoy. “We acknowledge the perception that when the federal government shuts down, D.C. does too. We want meeting attendees to know that most of D.C.’s attractions and experiences actually remain open,” says Ferguson. “Politics are beyond our control, but we’re spreading the word that visitors can still visit monuments and museums, dine in our acclaimed restaurants, and experience theater, sports, nightlife, arts and cultural events.”

While Washington will mostly be open for business, U.S. Travel Association is warning that a shutdown could affect travelers’ desire to fly, whether for business or pleasure. According to a survey from Ipsos and U.S. Travel, 6 in 10 Americans would cancel or avoid trips by air in the event of a shutdown. By the U.S. Travel’s estimation, a federal-government shutdown could cost the U.S. travel industry as much as $140 million per day.

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