|By Benjamin Spillman, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 17, 2009--Federal government workers shouldn't have to leave in the dead of night or slink off when the boss isn't looking to attend meetings in Las Vegas, say Sen. Harry Reid and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
That's Reid's take on a recent letter from Emanuel stating, "Federal policy should not dictate the location where such government events are held."
The letter from President Obama's right hand man was a response to Reid's request for a reversal of a perceived "informal federal policy" that was prompting government workers to cancel scheduled meetings and avoid booking new ones in Las Vegas to avoid any appearance that taxpayers are funding bureaucrat junkets to the biggest party town in America.
"We had concerns there could have been an informal policy directing people to not travel to Las Vegas," said Jon Summers, Reid's spokesman.
Summers said government workers have called Reid's office and complained they were discouraged from traveling to Las Vegas.
In one case, according to Reid, a meeting of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was moved on the orders of the FBI director. The June 26 letter from Reid referenced similar decisions by officials in the General Services Agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Summers says Emanuel's response, dated Tuesday, should put to rest the notion that government workers should avoid Las Vegas.
"You have the chief of Staff of the White House saying federal policy should not dictate the location of where government events are held," Summers said.
The letter, however, wasn't a presidential green light to drink and gamble on the taxpayers' dime.
Indeed, Emanuel's letter said the government, "should lead by example in tightening its belt and justifying its expenditures ... ."
But the important part for Las Vegas is that Emanuel says value -- not location -- should be the basis for booking a trip.
Chuck Bowling, executive vice president of Mandalay Bay, said that puts Las Vegas "back at the table" when it comes to competing for meetings and events.
Late last year and early this year as the economy unraveled, meeting and conference planners were canceling meetings planned up and down the Strip.
At first the sudden cancellations were blamed on the economy.
But the cancellations became political after a Feb. 9 speech Obama delivered in Elkhart, Ind.
"You can't take a trip to Las Vegas or down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime," Obama said.
It touched off several rounds of competitive umbrage taking between Las Vegas boosters led by Mayor Oscar Goodman who demanded a presidential apology and Obama apologists who said the president's remark was just prudent policy.
The cable network CNN got into the act, too. During a segment titled "Keeping Them Honest" that reported on the government's efforts to undo damage to the economy, the network slammed bankers for attending and sponsoring an event at The Venetian.
The report cited "$300 hotel rooms" as an example of extravagance, even though rooms at The Venetian were actually going for $189 per night during the meeting, according to Las Vegas hotel-booking Web sites.
Bowling said government meetings and conferences account for less than 5 percent of professional bookings at Mandalay Bay and parent company MGM Mirage.
But the perception of an informal government policy against meeting in Las Vegas spread well beyond the government and had many private sector meeting planners backing out of Las Vegas engagements.
"Before we couldn't sit at the table to bid on a piece of business," said Bowling of the weeks and months when the controversy was at its peak. "It was very frustrating."
Adding insult to injury, banking giant Goldman Sachs backed out of a meeting in Las Vegas in February and moved the event to San Francisco, where both airfare and hotel rooms cost more.
It didn't matter.
"The decision to relocate the conference is based on our best efforts to operate according to the requirements of the new landscape of our industry," Goldman Sachs spokesman Ed Canaday told The Associated Press at the time.
Bowling said "irrational" cancellations like the one Goldman Sachs made have ended for the most part. Now Las Vegas is trying to rebuild its meeting and convention business, which is down 22.5 percent for the year.
"We are working harder for less," Bowling said.
But the letter will help the cause, he said, because it is a clear sign from the top that destination decisions should be made based on cost-benefit analyses, not fear that a city's reputation could land the meeting organizers in hot water.
"If we lose it then, that's fine," Bowling said. "All we want to do is be at the table."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.
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