Last October, legal and policy interpretations associated with the government shutdown led to the postponement of the GEOINT Symposium, one of the largest geospatial technology conferences. With so many senior level intelligence executives and military commanders slated to speak, the postponement drew national attention and put a fine point on the calamitous shutdown that curtailed so many important meetings and briefings.
"This was a really tough challenge for the foundation," said U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) CEO Keith Masback. "As I've said repeatedly, these are challenging times for everyone; a time of furloughs and layoffs and then the shutdown. And there is pain being felt across our country in many sectors of our economy. We recognize that we are not unique in suffering a significant setback."
USGIF reluctantly made the decision to postpone the Symposium until April 14-17, 2014, to be held in Tampa, Florida, site of the original event. The city of Tampa estimated that the postponement represented a $5 million loss to the local economy, as the convention center and thousands of hotel rooms sat empty, and multiple vendors and individuals were suddenly without work.
"We are a relatively small organization," commented Masback. "Our revenue comes from membership fees and our events, so with this as our largest annual event, this was not insignificant. What made it particularly brutal was the way it went down. The shutdown itself was not going to be a determining factor. Given the “excepted” status of the bulk of our speakers and key government attendees, we were still a go but it was DoD’s subsequent interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act that led us to postpone the event. DoD employees were told that during the shutdown, the only travel they could do was in direct support of operations. There were funds available for travel, and government registration was complimentary, but the issue was really about a policy decision. Additional policy guidance issued by the services specifically curtailed attending and speaking at public events during the shutdown out of concern over public perception.”
According to Masback, 85% of the speakers were government personnel, and the value proposition of the event hinged on the interaction of the government/military, industry and academia. Therefore, it simply was not viable to go forward once those limitations emerged. Still, the impact of the Symposium's postponement was felt beyond the foundation and the city. Product announcements were delayed. Sales meetings were curtailed. Small companies and organizations that depend on the Symposium to jumpstart business for the year saw their growth prospects radically impacted.
As USGIF moved to mitigate the impact of the postponement, Masback’s relatively small team of dedicated professionals moved from crisis mode back to execution. They found that postponement made their already close ties to Tampa’s city government and local businesses even stronger. USGIF members and other exhibitors, sponsors and stakeholders worked closely with USGIF as well, creating a network of partnerships which gave the foundation the support needed to proceed with the Symposium despite the fact that the delay would be close to six months. Flexibility from all parties was the watchword.
“The GEOINT Symposium has always been, and continues to be, an extremely effective and efficient use of government dollars,” said Masback. “Where else can you find 265+ companies, organizations and academic institutions with which to engage all in one place? Government folks can take advantage of City Pair airfares, government hotel rates, and there is no need for a rental car with everything clustered within walking distance in downtown Tampa.”
USGIF sees the event as a crossover for other disciplines, not just for the defense, intelligence and homeland security communities. There are other disciplines and applications that can benefit from attending the symposium, including organizations that support sustainability and environmental security, as well as myriad areas of business.
Currently, as the April date for the Symposium approaches, the exhibit floor is 98% sold and over 3,000 attendees have already registered. All four official hotels are fully booked. Most of the keynote speakers, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Letitia Long and Defense Intelligence Agency Director LTG Michael Flynn, have committed to speak. Despite the challenges faced by the foundation and everyone involved, the event promises to be worth the wait.