Software eases conference planning headaches

ksaldarini@govexec.com

Federal meeting coordinators no longer need to reach for the aspirin when trying to put together all the details of travel planning. Thanks to the innovation of two Army majors, they can reach for a software remedy instead.

For federal planners, putting together an affordable conference for attendees scattered across the United States is a rigorous exercise in cost-benefit analysis. Travel coordinators must consider each potential site's per diem rates as well as the number of attendees, where attendees are departing from, the number of days the conference lasts, and the cost of flights.

But with Offsite, a software program developed by the Defense Logistics Agency's Office of Operations Research and Resource Analysis and the Army Training and Doctrine Command's Analysis Center, calculating the most cost-efficient sites for conferences, meetings or professional development training sessions can be done in a few steps.

Offsite can save travel planners 20 to 40 percent of the cost of putting together a conference, according to its developers, Maj. Randy Zimmerman, a DLA operations research analyst in Richmond, Va., and Maj. Jeffrey Huisingh, an instructor at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"One benefit of the software is that it provides counter-intuitive solutions," Zimmerman said. While the software's city of choice might not seem like an inexpensive location, all of the other factors calculated make it the cheapest choice. "Before Offsite, most travel planning was done through eyeballing and guesstimating," he said.

For example, Offsite calculated that it would be less expensive to send 100 people from the East coast (50 from Washington D.C., 50 from Detroit Mich.) to Denver, Colo. than it would be to send 50 Denverites to either Detroit or D.C.

"We're not trying to pinpoint costs down to the dime," Huisingh said, but rather to "provide a comparison of costs from geographic locations around the country."

Offsite users simply enter the number of days the event will last, the cities attendees will be arriving from, and the number of people coming from each location. The software will then calculate three solutions. The first restricts conference sites to cities attendees are departing from. The second ranks 274 cities in the continental United States that have government-contracted air fares by cost. The third calculates the cost of a site specified by the user.

By taking into account GSA contracted city-pair air fares, per diems, meals, incidental expenses and the standard personal vehicle reimbursement rate, Offsite assumes all the burden of cost analysis previously reserved for travel coordinators.

Certain assumptions are made, including that no government quarters or meals will be available and that no one is sharing a room. In addition, the program assumes that people will drive to destinations that are 100 miles or less from their departure city; otherwise, attendees will fly. The model also assumes drivers will arrive the day the event begins while fliers will arrive the night before. Both are assumed to leave the day the event ends.

Based on feedback from Offsite users, Zimmerman and Huisingh are in the process of developing a second version of Offsite that will include an improved user interface, automated links to zip codes and better maps. "If version one of Offsite was equivalent to the first version of Microsoft Word, then we are trying to get closer to the Office 97 version," Zimmerman said.

According to Zimmerman, the new version of Offsite should be available by May 1999.

The DLA's Defense Supply Center has made Offsite available to all federal agencies via the Federal Travel Optimization Reinvention Lab's Web site. Registered Offsite users are automatically sent updated versions of the software that reflect changes in per diems, mileage reimbursements, hotel and air fare rates.

For their achievement, Government Executive recognized Zimmerman and Huisingh as Travel Managers of the Year in our November 1998 Federal Travel Guide.

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