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HHS Conference Procurement and Planning Tookit

Procurement and Planning Requirements and Guidance for Conference Hosts

Chapter III – Programmatic Considerations

The following sections provide helpful tips, and cautions, to be observed in planning HHS conferences and establishing requirements.  These are intended to advise HHS staff on what should be considered in establishing the parameters of, and logistical considerations for, the conference and thereby inform the development of statements of work, agreements, etc., with support contractors and venues.

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Section 3.1 – Planning Tips

Choosing a Conference Venue:

  • Search for Government space before searching for commercial space.
  • Make sure the size of the venue can accommodate your projected number of attendees.
    • If this is the first time you are holding a particular conference, ensure you are not overestimating attendance needs.
  • If the meeting requires a sleeping room block, ensure the hotel can offer the government per-diem rate for the number of rooms you need for HHS-funded attendees.
  • Ask these questions to find out what the venue’s existing government-related policies are.
    • What are the venue’s standard cancelation and attrition policies for government conferences?
      • Preferably, can the meeting be rescheduled in order to avoid cancelation fees?
      • Can the meeting be replaced with another meeting to avoid cancelation fees?
      • Ensure the venue’s policies are consistent with HHS guidance on cancellation fees in Section 4.3.1 of the toolkit.
    • What if we don’t meet our sleeping room block?
    • Does the venue understand and observe the ethic-related standards and restrictions on the use of appropriated funds for food that are unique to the government?
    • Does the venue require use of their audio/visual services, or allow for an outside provider to support such requirements?
  • Tell the venue HHS has standard terms that need to be incorporated into all agreements (see Section 4.3 of the toolkit) and ensure the venue will accept them. 

 

Choosing a Conference Date:

  • Consider being flexible with your meeting dates.  The time of year can be a factor in the cost of your meeting space and whether the government per-diem will be available.

 

Working with a Venue:

  • The person who handles negotiations and signs the contract at the venue is not necessarily the person you will be working with when you start preparing your logistics with the venue and when you actually have your meeting. 
    • Ask the venue to assign a contact person who will be handling your meeting.
    • Try to make sure the individual does not have planned vacation or is leaving the job prior to the start of your meeting.
    • Turnover in the hotel industry is high, but if the venue is aware of your concern upfront, they are very careful with whom they assign to your meeting.
  • Make sure you schedule a monthly and/or weekly check-in time with your venue contact person.
    • If your meeting entails sleeping rooms, you will need to be updated regularly in order to provide deadline reminders to your attendees.
    • If you are using a support contractor to facilitate this exchange, the Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR), or other assigned program official, should participate in these meetings and/or be kept in the loop by the contractor and advised immediately of any concerns.
  • Make sure all arrangements are put in writing.
    • This will help prevent miscommunications between venue personnel and the government.
    • Requirements are often verbalized and then forgotten; therefore, the required actions are not performed.  If it is not in writing, the meeting venue cannot be held responsible.  This can make or break a meeting.

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Meeting Space:

  • Perform a site visit, either in person or virtually, to view the meeting space and determine how much space you need, and get your assigned meeting space in writing.  Do this before signing the contract, or allowing your support contractor to subcontract with the venue.
    • If you are unable to visualize your meeting space setup, you can ask the meeting venue to set up the room or let you know when someone is using the same setup so you can come by for a site visit, if the meeting is local.  If the meeting is remote, the hotel may be able to send you pictures of your desired setup.
    • Once you have signed the contract (or subcontract), the hotel may procrastinate on letting you view the space and/or attempt to change your space if it’s not part of the written agreement.
  • Ensure that a task of the contract requires that the venue check with you before attempting to make any changes to your space assignment and attach a financial penalty if your meeting space is changed without your consent.
    • This is a common practice for meeting venues.  They assign space and move groups around in order to maximize their revenue; however, your meeting could potentially be negatively affected if moved to a different meeting location.
  • Ask the venue if you can have access to the meeting space the night before to set up.
    • This can save a lot of time on the day of the meeting.
    • If there is a meeting in the room the day before, the hotel will usually let you have access in the late evening, usually for free or at a minimal cost; therefore, this should be established in the agreement at the outset.
    • If the room is not available until the next morning, insist on having access to the room at least 2 - 3 hours before your meeting starts and insist that the room is set up the night before. If the venue waits until the morning to set up your room, it will cut into your or your support contractor’s set-up time.

 

Transportation:

  • Make sure the venue is accessible to reliable transportation, i.e., shuttle service, metro/subway, and/or taxis.
    • The venue location should be near public transportation for local attendees.  Most government attendees will use public transportation or a taxi to travel to a local meeting in the D.C. area.
    • The venue location should also be accessible to out-of-town attendees.  Ask the venue to provide you with shuttle services and/or the local taxi company information.  Also ask them about the cost and availability of parking.  Some out-of-town attendees may need to rent a car.  This is helpful information to provide the attendees.
  • Ensure attendees know in advance that although time is planned in the agenda for breaks, they will need to purchase or bring their own food.

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Shipping, Security, Internet and Amenities:

  • Ask the venue how far in advance you can ship meeting materials to their location. 
    • The cost for overnight courier service is more expensive than using FedEx and UPS three-day service.
  • Make sure you label and/or color code your boxes.
    • It will be easier to find a box if you tell the venue all of your boxes have neon green labels, as an example.
    • Provide the template for your labels to speakers and/or attendees.  If all of the labels have the exact same conference title, it will be helpful to the venue and easier to find.
    • For large conferences, color-coded labels can also instruct venues on where boxes need to be taken for setup.
  • Ask the venue about their security.
    • Attendees’ traveling alone and/or from out of town need to feel the meeting is in a secure location or security is available after hours.
    • Meeting material and equipment that is delivered and/or set up in a meeting room must be secured.  Ask the venue for a key to your meeting room so you can lock it.
    • Ask the venue if they can provide you with a small office area.  This is usually provided complementary as part of the service.  This room can be used to store laptops, purses, luggage and personal belonging of meeting staff.
  • Ask the venue about internet service and/or computer stations.
    • Is internet service complementary to all guests?
    • Is internet service only available in certain parts of the hotel?
    • Is internet service included in the meeting room and/or guest room rental charge?
    • Provide the Wi-Fi address before the conference/meeting.
  • Ask the venue about all the amenities provided to hotel/venue guest, such as pool, fitness center, spa, etc., so you can inform your attendees.
    • Use of appropriated funds for such amenities is prohibited.

 

Conference Materials:

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Audio/Visual (A/V):

  • Ask the venue if you can use an outside A/V contractor.
    • If so, ask if there is a “patch” fee (cost for using the venue’s internal audio system) and how much it is.
    • Some A/V companies will not leave their equipment at a venue overnight and will need to begin setting up as early as 5 a.m.  Ensure the venue will accommodate this.
  • Ask which software programs presenters will use to create their presentations so the A/V setup can include those requirements.  If you have software restrictions, ensure they are communicated to presenters in advance. 

 

Accessibility:

  • During registration, ask for any special needs your guests have.  Conferences that are open to the public may have additional disability access requirements.
  • Make sure the venue can accommodate specific accommodations or access needs required by your participants.  Ensure accessible sleeping rooms are available for your conference if needed.
  • You may cut costs if presenters or those creating materials for the conference website are required to make their materials Section 508 (http://www.hhs.gov/web/508/index.html) compliant in advance.

 

Billing Requirements:

  • Ask the venue about their accounting requirements and for a billing template, or provide them with the billing template you want them to use.
    • The government has a reputation of not paying bills on time, which can interfere with negotiations.  The venue needs to be assured that they are going to get paid on a timely basis, whether under a direct contract with the government or subcontract with a support contractor.  Discussing accounting and billing requirements in advance and reaching an agreement can help avoid billing delays.  Make sure you include your contracting officer on billing/invoicing and payment discussions.

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Section 3.2 – What to Avoid

General Guidance:

  • Unless circumstances are unavoidable, do not cancel your conference within 30 days of the start date which likely would result in cancellation penalties to government.  If cancellation is required within this timeframe, circumstances should fall under the required Force Majeure clause which must be incorporated into all conference contracts (see Section 4.3).
  • Do not share your budget with support contractors or venues prior to award.
  • Do not hold sleeping rooms or conference facilities on a purchase card before signing a contract with a venue or support contractor/conference planner that includes HHS required cancellation policies.
    • In the absence of a signed contract, you will be liable to the hotel’s cancellation policy which does not meet HHS’ standards. 
  • If using a support contractor, and because contracting officers will likely not be aware of or not review “side agreements” with conference venues, CORs or other program officials should be on the alert for any apparent side-agreements between the contractor and venue.
  • Use support contractors with expertise in events management/planning, such as those under the contract vehicles listed in Section 4.1.2 of the toolkit.
  • If contracting directly with a venue, such agreements must be signed by the Contracting Officer, preferably those with subject matter expertise in negotiating agreements with venues. 

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Section 3.3 – Conference Approval Requirements

When planning or working with a support contractor/event planner on an HHS conference, follow the requirements below to best comply with efficient spending policies and help ensure your conference will be approved at the Department level.

 

Advanced Planning Lowers Costs

  • Conference hosts must plan in advance.  Those who do not plan ahead will risk paying higher prices, which may require a reduction in scope to stay within budget. 
  • Conference requests that do not meet efficient spending policy deadlines will not likely be approved. 
    • Requests that require Departmental approval must be submitted at least 90 days prior to the conference start date and at least 30 days prior to the issuance of a solicitation to support the event (e.g., to obtain a support contractor or sign an agreement with a venue.)
  • If government space is not being used, be prepared to provide justification as to why.
    • Adequate government space may not available and sometimes comes at a higher direct cost than a commercial venue.

 

Negotiate for Best Pricing

  • Research with conference subject matter experts indicates that the following terms should be available to HHS conferences.  You may not be getting the best pricing/terms if your venue agreement does not reflect the following conditions:
    • Room block price should be the lowest government per diem room rate, and this should be stated in the Statement of Work.
    • Don’t agree to a cut-off date for a room block (after which the price for rooms will go up).
    • Do not agree to pay attrition costs (receiving fewer attendees than planned and not meeting a certain percentage of your room block commitment).
    • Do not agree to pay a penalty if you don’t meet a minimum conference attendance number (applicable if the venue charges a per-attendee meeting rate or requires a higher price be paid for meeting space if a minimum number of sleeping rooms is not met).

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Use Conference Logistics Contract Separate from Other Types of Work

  • During the conference approval process, the HHS Office of Grants and Acquisition Policy and Accountability (OGAPA) may want to know if the event is a task under a technical support contract.  It can be difficult to get transparency on true conference costs when they are included within a larger contract.  Additionally, these contracts are usually:
    • Not with event management companies skilled in this service and in reducing costs.
    • Issued on a cost-reimbursement or time and materials, or labor-hour basis, which offer little incentive to the contractor to reduce costs.
  • HHS conference hosts are encouraged, as a best practice, to use one of HHS conference contracts (see Section 4.1.2 of the toolkit), or to justify the need to use another option.  Going forward, conference hosts are encouraged to separate conference-related tasks out of non-conference-specific contracts.
    • Since Section 3003 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, restricts the use of funds available for obligation during FY 2013 for travel and conference activities unless they are consistent with OMB Memorandum M-12-12, and thus, makes it an Antideficiency Act (ADA) violation to use any FY 2013 funds for travel and conferences that are inconsistent with OMB Memorandum M-12-12.
    • To avoid ADA violation, conferences in excess of $75,000 must be approved prior to the obligation of funds.
    • Therefore, separating conference related support from a larger contract into a stand-alone contractor or separately identified and numbered Contract Line Item is critical.

 

Traveler Costs

  • There must be a good justification for the number of travelers – both federal and non-federal – for your conference.  During the approval process, you may be asked what determining factors were used to decide who/how many can attend your conference and about steps you have taken to review and reduce unnecessary/duplicative attendance.  
  • HHS is placing increased scrutiny on requests to pay for non-federal attendee travel.  Ensure you examine non-federal attendee travel requests and that one of the five exceptions listed in the efficient spending policy applies to your situation.

 

Registration fees

  • If HHS, other federal, or non-federal attendees are paying registration fees for an HHS-hosted conference, this needs to be explained and in most cases is not permissible as it does not comply with appropriations law. 
  • Event planners cannot charge a registration fee to pay for food at an HHS conference.

 

AV Costs

  • Ensure AV costs are reasonable (see Section 4.2 of the toolkit), and examine proposed services carefully to ensure you are not committing to more than you need.  Engage a subject matter expert within HHS to validate the proposal against your requirements, if necessary. 

 

Double Check for Prohibited Items

  • Check the services being provided by the venue/event planner to ensure they do not include prohibited items, including food/beverage, complimentary room, guess passes, etc., which would lead to the conference request being denied.  During the approval process, you may be asked for a copy of the service contract/agreement with the venue. 

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Section 3.4 – Considerations for Scientific Conferences

Use Conference Logistics Contracts

  • It is not recommended to use a scientific, technical, or research contractor to plan a meeting.  The labor cost for their meeting planning services would be billed at the same rate for doing research, thus causing the price for planning a meeting to be inflated.
  • Event Planners who are content or subject matter experts for scientific conferences often do not have the necessary skills to negotiate for the venue or plan conference logistics. 
  • HHS conference hosts should consider separating these services to get the best service and pricing.

 

When to Use Subject Matter Experts

  • Writers/editors with subject matter expertise may be needed to summarize or transcribe a conference; this should be handled with a separate contract to get the best terms.  If a verbatim transcription is needed, agreements should include specific terms regarding turnaround time.

 

Logistical Issues

  • Ensure adequate power is available if a high-powered microscope or other scientific instruments will be set up.
  • For “poster sessions,” using smaller poster sizes will allow you to save money on stands and display more posters in a smaller conference space.
  • Discuss hours of availability with the venue.  Scientific conference attendees often want to begin a conference at 6 a.m. and continue until 10 p.m.
  • Ask venues about their ability to provide value pricing and government rates during or immediately following industry group conferences with which your conference would like to co-locate.

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Related Information

Chapter I – HHS Conference Standard Operating Procedure

Chapter II – Conference Cost Drivers

Chapter IV – Contracting Considerations

Appendices:

Attachment:


Content created by Assist. Sec./Financial Resources-Grants/Acquisition Policy
Content last reviewed on October 10, 2014