The show floor at last year's Association of the United States Army convention. Army Secretary John McHugh has approved Army attendance at this year's show. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
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WASHINGTON — It wasn’t until just days before the last year’s annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) convention in Washington that Army Secretary John McHugh signed off on a memo authorizing uniformed personnel to attend.
Budget cuts, the looming uncertainty over sequestration, and recent conference scandals that exposed millions spent by the General Services Administration and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on pricey boondoggles led to an air of caution, both over the real costs as well as the images those meetings projected.
But even with his blessing — which he renewed on Monday for this year’s convention — the Army’s presence last year was down from previous years. Overall, the Army gutted spending at AUSA by close to 90 percent from 2011, from about $10 million in 2011 to $1.3 million, while limiting itself to only one display space on the convention floor.
Still, 6,000 soldiers walked through the front door of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capitol last October, a number that conference organizers expect to at least be matched this year.
With this year’s event just about a month away, McHugh has already signed off on uniformed attendance. In an authorizing memo released on Monday, McHugh wrote that AUSA “is one of the Army’s three key strategic communication and outreach platforms, and also serves as a professional development forum for the entire Army, including its civilians and family members.”
But AUSA spokesman David Liddle said he expects the number of uniformed participants will actually be larger than last year, both because of the earlier approval and since all of the speeches and question-and-answer sessions with Army leadership will be streamed online, where soldiers around the world will be able to listen in and ask questions in real time.
The private organization also said this year’s event will again occupy two floors in the convention center, and that about 400 exhibitors will show off their gear.
While the fall event looks to be shoring up its base, there is also AUSA Winter, which almost ground to a halt last year due to the absence of Army participation, combined with industry wariness.
Taking the more fiscally restrained times into account, AUSA Winter is about to undergo some serious changes. Housed for the past 14 years in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each February, the convention will hit the road in upcoming years, Liddle said.
This February the show will land in Huntsville, Ala., close to the Army Material Command and Redstone Arsenal.
The idea is to cut travel costs for soldiers and give different commands a chance to host the event. This year, Army Material Command will host, but next year the show will move to another town with a large Army footprint.
“We’ll go to where the Army is” Little said.
Just as the Washington AUSA event took a hit last year, the AUSA Winter event really bottomed out in 2013. Fewer than 100 soldiers were allowed to attend the event, down from the 500 who went to South Florida in 2012.
Other AUSA events, such as the annual Army Aviation or Army Fires conferences, will likely also shrink and consolidate. Instead of two or three day events in places such as Nashville and Fort Worth, they may come back to DC and last only a day, Liddle said. No final decision has been made about those conferences, however.