The Washington Post ran an article today covering an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would put a limit on conference-related spending by the Defense Department. If you click on the link to read the article, you may have to register with the Washington Post website. I'm not sure if they grant direct access to their stories. If you do, sorry for the extra step, but registration is free.
Senator Coburn pointed out that in 2005, the Pentagon sent 36,000 people to 6,600 conferences worldwide, at an average cost of $2,200 per person. The $79.2 million spending by the Department of Defense was more than was spent on conferences by the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Transportation and Treasury, and the EPA... Combined!
From 2000 to 2005, Coburn says that total federal conference spending increased by 70 percent. Coburn is doing a little rabble-rousing when he starts pointing out that of the 6,600 conferences, 663 were held in Florida in winter, 224 were in Las Vegas, and 98 were in Hawaii. I expect some Pentagon-related meetings in Hawaii, since that's the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet. And Orlando and Vegas are simply top conference locations for everyone, so I don't see it as a mark of underhanded selection on the part of attendees.
But the big question from my perspective is why online conferencing hasn't seemed to reduce in-person attendance at conferences at all. The economy took a serious tumble after 2000. Terrorism fears reduced travel among the general population after 9/11/01. I was working in tech marketing during that period and definitely saw a reduction in show attendance. Web conferencing was supposed to be the magic bullet that let organizations get the word out without requiring so much personal travel. Why did federal spending on conference attendance increase by so much?
Can webinars and web conferences really replace in-person affinity shows? I doubt it. They are built to do different things, and you can't make connections and press the flesh with other attendees when you attend an online event. But on the other hand, some percentage of the information communicated at all these events must be just as effective when delivered over the web. Perhaps organizers could start reducing the total length and number of topic tracks in their conference sessions to reduce the number of people needed for effective coverage and the length of time they have to be present. They could then supplement the live show with web-based sessions to deliver content in a more economical manner.