Reno, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Biloxi For Our Next NHA Symposium? How About It!

Article by CAPT Bill Personius, USN (Ret.), NHA Executive Director, 
CDR Brannon Bickel, USN, NHA National President

The question has been asked, and suggestions have been made, so NHA has done the research to investigate a few options.  This subject was discussed with the Wing Commodores/Deputies at the December 2017 NHA National meeting and we would like to provide our members feedback explaining why it is not feasible to host the NHA Symposium event in locations other than Fleet Concentration Areas.  Bottom Line Up FrontThe explanation is very simple and boils down to an overall lack of TAD funding  which drives unacceptable risk planning an event in locations other than Fleet Concentration Areas, with primary emphasis on Norfolk or San Diego. The good news is that we have some flexibility where we go in these areas and are able to mix it up by going to some different venues in and around Norfolk and San Diego.  Jacksonville has not recently been an option, given the reduced numbers of squadrons located there and a high op tempo/deployment schedule that has not supported desired attendance numbers.  The 2018 and 2020 Symposiums will be at the Marriott Waterside Hotel in Norfolk due to the multi-year contract NHA signed in 2016.

Department of the Navy TAD funding is a primary factor NHA considers when determining where to hold the Symposiums, as most people are unwilling to fund their own travel expenses. Overall TAD expenditure is limited to $500K, which includes NALO airlift expenses and commercial flight expenses. Yes…even the NALO aircraft cost per flight hour is figured into the overall TAD expenses.  Allowed TAD dollars fund approximately 250 personnel traveling East to West when the Symposium is held in San Diego and 375 people traveling West to East when the Symposium is in Norfolk.  The difference in numbers of personnel is driven by the fact that San Diego is a higher cost, more expensive TAD location.  Of those people traveling on funded orders, prioritization must account for the Key Note Address Speaker, Flag Officer Panelists, Briefers/Presenters, Detailers, NHA National Award Winners, with the remainder of funds being shared across all Fleet Squadrons within the six NHA Regions.  As a point of reference, the fleet has been unable to support/fund a total of $500K of TAD for the past three years due to an overall lack of TAD funding.

To be clear… NHA does not fund any TAD travel expenses for those attending the Symposium, so allTAD money comes from the fleet/Navy.  In 2017, the fleet used almost all of its annual TAD funding on Disaster Relief and therefore limited the number of travelers able to attend the Symposium in San Diego.  The overall lack of funds, coupled with an early departure of the NALO airlift, further reduced attendance during the last day of the 2017 Symposium. The shortage ultimately cost NHA $10K in contracted hotel room fees at the Bahia Resort.  That specific example highlights the risk to meeting travel requirements, which compete with other fleet needs for less than predictable NALO flight availability.  

The NHA Symposium has grown to the point where many hotels cannot accommodate all our exhibit space requirements.  For this reason, NHA signs hotel contracts for per diem room nights and exhibit space at least one, if not two, years in advance to lock in hotels with sufficient exhibit space and to take advantage of better rates for rooms, food and beverages.  Every location and venue has benefits and detractors requiring tradeoffs between desires and specific symposium needs.  NHA’s first priority is securing per diem room rates for our travelers (or they would not likely travel) and then having a venue large enough to accommodate all our exhibits.  It is worth noting that NHA Symposium exhibits are the organization’s main form of revenue for the year.  As many will remember from last year at the Bahia Resort, our exhibit spaces were located in two separate areas with one on the other side of the hotel property.  As a result, the main exhibit space (where we had helicopters on static display) saw reduced foot traffic during the intermissions between symposium events in the main briefing space.  We received negative feedback from you, our members, as well as from our exhibitors/corporate sponsors, indicating dissatisfaction with that setup.         

Maintaining a balance between good business decisions and our corporate/individual members’ desires is easier said than done.  

Every location and venue has tradeoffs and very few have everything that we desire, given our specific needs.  

For example, few hotels sell blocks of rooms at the per diem room rate in the numbers we need (200-250+).  The more popular  hotels (in either San Diego or Norfolk) don’t have problems filling occupancy and would lose revenue on rooms they discounted at per diem rates. What’s typical is that hotels will offer some number of rooms at the per diem rate (~50-100) and then require  additional attendees to pay full price for the rest of the rooms, and no one likes that.  NHA would prefer to have everyone in the same location/hotel to simplify transportation requirements, particularly since rental cars are not authorized for symposium travel. 

With 250 or 375 people being paid to travel, the remainder of the personnel who make up the typical 1,000 - 1,200 Symposium attendees come from our Fleet Concentration Areas.  Attendees who are geographically collocated do not require TAD funding to attend the Symposium.  In order for NHA to go to another area/location other than San Diego or Norfolk, an additional 600-700 people would need to be funded on TAD orders to keep the attendance figures at approximately 1,000 people.  This would require an additional $1-$1.5M TAD dollars, which is an unreasonable expectation.  Furthermore, our corporate sponsors and vendors would not likely provide the same sponsorship support to the NHA Symposium without the expectation of exposure to 1,000+ attendees.  One poor NHA Symposium showing could cause future NHA events to fail or potentially even bankrupt the NHA organization.  

The Tailhook Convention in Reno, Nevada is often used as a comparison to our NHA Symposium events.  Now that both the HSM and HSC communities deploy on the aircraft carrier, several personnel (often to include the Commodores and Deputies) from the helicopter community are attending the Tailhook Convention each year and comparing the differences.  Tailhook has the benefit of being held in conjunction with the Air Warfare Commanders Conference (AIRWARCOM) and an AIRWING FALLON each year.  Every Aviation O-6 in command, most Aviation Flag Officers, and a majority of the CVW squadron’s personnel, are in the Reno area on funded TAD orders and can attend the Tailhook Convention.  Like NHA, Tailhook is limited to $500K in TAD funds for active duty aviators to attend their convention.  In contrast, Tailhook has a large contingent of retired personnel who make up the majority of their membership and who fund their own travel to the convention each year.  NHA highly encourages folks to go to Tailhook if you haven’t in the past.  Like NHA, it’s a venue to interact with other Naval Aviators and senior leadership at meetings or on the exhibit floor to share ideas and effect change.  It’s a great time to learn, have fun, and share some fellowship with folks in the Carrier Airwings. 

Many Tailhook members state that they would rather go someplace other than the Nugget Hotel each year for a change of pace.  However, Hook is tied to Reno and the Nugget due to their proximity to Fallon and the AIRWARCOM Conference, much like NHA is tied to the Fleet Concentration Areas.  NHA has had a strong working relationship with the Town and Country Hotel for many years, which is why it remains on our list as a potential venue for hosting the NHA Symposium in San Diego.  That said, we have listened to our membership who asked for diversity in location and are exploring different options that meet our criteria for per diem rooms and exhibit space requirements.  I’ve also heard concerns from NHA members who live and work in the Symposium’s host city about not getting time off from work throughout the week of NHA.  Those who travel from out of town tend to enjoy the benefits of the symposium more than those folks who are local because of competing flight schedules, squadron duties, and family commitments.  To address those concerns, we are exploring a shift in the schedule to Wednesday through Saturday.  NHA will be asking those commands not on deployment to consider taking a Thursday and Friday off to better support local Symposium attendance, as operational flexibility allows. 

NHA is a 501 C 6 non-profit business and, while we need the support of our corporate sponsors to exist, NHA tries to balance membership and sponsor desires to promote a professional/fun and rewarding event each year.  Let’s take a minute and explain what a 501 c 6 non-profit organization is.  A 501 c 6 organization exists for the benefit of its membership.  In other words, NHA profits go toward running the organization and giving back to our membership.  That is why a $95.00 ticket to attend a Padres Game in a select group seating area that includes food and beverages may cost you $20.00 per person…our sponsorship and your membership buys the cost down for you and your guests. 501 c 3 organizations like the NHA Scholarship Fund (NHASF) and NHA Historical Society (NHAHS) exist to benefit others, and is therefore tax deductible for your charitable donation to either of these organizations.    

So the answer is easy, maybe not what everyone wanted to hear… but easy. The Navy/Fleet cannot afford to leave the Fleet Concentration Areas for NHA hosted events for many reasons, with the main reason being the cost of funding an additional 600-700 people to travel to an off-site location like Las Vegas, Biloxi, etc. is not feasible or cost effective.  We want to make sure that the largest numbers of NHA members have access to our annual Symposium.  We want to keep the cost down be good stewards of our TAD funds.  Lastly, we want to make NHA a fun professional engagement that encourages participation of the junior officers and enlisted aircrewmen who will one day fill our shoes as leaders of this organization.   Given the explanation above, if you have ideas on how to improve the Symposium or NHA in general please let us know…it is your organization.