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Business groups rethinking value of in-person lobbying

Business groups rethinking value of in-person lobbying
© Greg Nash

The upheaval in business travel prompted by the pandemic is expected to have long-term effects on how company executives lobby lawmakers and administration officials in Washington. 

Before the pandemic, business groups in almost every sector regularly held fly-ins that allowed for in-person meetings with members of Congress and agency officials. But over the past year, virtual fly-ins have become the norm.  

Trade associations are now rethinking the need for in-person lobbying and the travel costs that come with it. Many experts on K Street say engagement efforts are more likely to consist of a hybrid of meetings online and in Washington, along with fewer trips overall. 

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“In an ideal world, we will probably have both in-person and, now that we’ve seen the effectiveness of digital tools and bringing people together virtually for a fly-in, probably have some combination,” said Chris Vest, vice president of corporate communications and public relations at the American Society of Association Executives.

Fly-ins give business and advocacy groups the opportunity to walk the halls of Congress and meet with lawmakers and staff in their offices, and many industry leaders say they’re unlikely to eliminate the trips entirely.

“From our perspective, there is no substitute for an in-person meeting with lawmakers,” said Kip Eideberg, senior vice president at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

Still, he said, virtual fly-ins have their advantages. 

“The fact that we can much, much more easily gather three or four CEOs for a half-day or a day worth of meetings with lawmakers in a much, much, much easier and cost-effective way, that’s a game-changer. We never thought to do that before,” he said.

Virtual fly-ins also help lower the barrier of entry for advocacy because companies and groups aren’t spending nearly as much as they otherwise would sending employees to Washington, experts said.

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Kimberly Ross, senior vice president of federal relations at the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), said the online component has allowed for greater accessibility. 

“One of the benefits of virtual meetings is that they definitely have made it easier for ACLI members from all over the country to participate in advocating to Congress,” Ross said.

In addition to reducing the cost of meeting with lawmakers, the pandemic has also allowed for more meetings overall.

“We used to think of it as your fly-in is your one and only time in the entire year that you’re going to get the executives who bend their schedules to be there for you and to do all the things that you want them to do and they want to do with the elected officials in D.C. Now that doesn’t need to be one day. I can do that anytime I need to,” said Linda Moore, CEO of TechNet.

The group, whose members include Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Cisco, held a virtual fly-in during September and another last week.

Trade associations have time to weigh their options for this year, particularly as so many employees are still working from home. 

The National Confectioners Association, which holds a fly-in every fall, said its 2020 virtual fly-in was a success, but it hasn’t solidified plans for this year. 

“As for 2021, we have a little more time to make our decision — and we’ll be watching closely as COVID-19 safety protocols and security measures on the Capitol grounds continue to evolve,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, the association’s senior vice president of public affairs and communications.

Veterans of the in-person meetings say the fly-ins shouldn’t be abandoned altogether, mainly because they create a dynamic that’s hard to replicate through Zoom. 

“Those conversations that you have in the hallways can be very fruitful for both fly-in participants and staffers and members. With a fly-in, there’s maybe more of a — like you’re part of a team when you’re going up in person. Virtual can feel a little more isolating,” Vest said. 

Scott Gillespie, founder of tClara, an advisory service for the business travel industry, is confident that fly-ins will make a comeback. 

“An industry is lobbying Congress on an important issue and a CEO will hopefully recognize that. When the meeting is really important, that’s when you can expect the person to attend in person,” he said. “The importance is a big factor, the need to build trust and credibility is also a big factor.” 

For business travel overall, he estimates it can return to 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels by 2022. 

“There will always be a need for business travel, it’s a given. The question really is to what extent will we continue to need business travel,” Gillespie said. “My view is we will never see a full return to business travel.”  

In 2019, business travel spending in the U.S. was $313 billion for the year. It decreased to $122 billion in 2020 and is expected to only reach $145 billion in 2021. By 2024, it’s expected to reach $227 billion, according to the industry group Airlines for America. 

The U.S. Travel Association stressed that business travel must be a part of the economic recovery. The group supports the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act, which would provide tax credits to support the convention and trade show industry. 

“A national economic recovery depends on a recovery for travel, and that must include bringing back business travel,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy.

Updated: 8:41 p.m.