ACCOUNTABILITY IS THE NEW WATCH WORD for U.S. companies. Tarnished by shady behavior in the executive suite, many once-solid companies are struggling to regain the public's confidence, and a common tactic is to stress propriety throughout the organization.
As a result, some corporate meeting planners may be evaluating how customary perks — including fam trips, gifts, personal rewards for bookings, complimentary air tickets, hotel rooms, and meals — square with the new era of corporate responsibility. Often these decisions boil down to a personal sense of ethics.
The scandals “are having a trickle-down effect, but unfortunately, it's not nearly enough,” says John Di Frances, who provides consulting and executive advisory services to large companies, government agencies, and foundations. Di Frances, author of the recent book Reclaiming the Ethical High Ground: Developing Organizations of Character, believes that the CEO also must serve as “chief ethical officer,” setting a tone for the organization.
“But I'm not seeing a whole lot of that happening,” he admits. “A lot of organizations either have no code or [have] one that's so general and vague that it doesn't really impact where they live.”
“People are more aware of ethical issues,” says Joan Eisenstodt, a Washington, D.C.-based independent planner and moderator of the MIMlist, a meeting industry listserv. “But it doesn't mean they're paying attention. People are very, very good at rationalizing their behavior, especially when it's not ethical. And many organizations don't have ethics on their [meeting] schedule — so how important could it be to them?”
Daphne Meyers, CMM, a senior event manager with Microsoft Corp. in Fargo, N.D., says her employer has gotten used to a lot of public scrutiny and, as such, long ago developed a set of core values and policies regarding limits on gifts. But, as she points out, it would be difficult for any company to develop rules that could address every ethical dilemma a meeting planner might face. “There's nothing that mentions a fam trip by name,” she says. “It wouldn't make sense for my company to have a really defined policy for meeting planners. It has to come down to a team policy or a personal work code.”
Deloitte Touche's Maureen Karon, CMP, CMM, agrees that a sense of personal ethics probably is more meaningful than any corporate mandate could be. “We've always operated in an ethical manner here,” says Karon, manager of global meetings for the New York City-based firm. “We don't do most fam trips, and we don't accept gifts.”
Deloitte & Touche has specific rules regarding hotel reward programs (they can't be banked by an individual planner), fam trips (they must make sense for the firm), and gifts (they are discouraged). “We do not participate in any promotions that are beneficial to the individual meeting planner,” says Margaret Moynihan, the company's director of global conferences and travel.
Crooked Ethical Line
For every principled meeting planner, there are many who walk a more convoluted path through the ethical forest. They may have no clue that accepting a fam trip with no intention of ever booking a meeting at the destination, asking for a weeklong comp room with family in tow, or agreeing to schedule an event at a hotel simply to fatten a personal frequent travel account program might be considered suspect behavior.
While these obvious transgressions are not uncommon, most meeting professionals' ethical questions aren't so black and white. Where should a meeting planner draw the line?
Take fam trips. Di Frances says they can benefit an organization if they don't excessively sway a planner's decision. Say, for example, a planner is considering three different hotels. “If one gives me the opportunity to spend a weekend, am I going to be influenced? Yes. But unduly? I may know the property better and therefore feel more comfortable booking it. But I don't think that's undue.”
He says a good reality check for a meeting planner is to ask, “Is this reasonable? Does this make me obligated?” Often, though, it's a challenge to quantify when that line has been crossed.
Meyers, for example, says she once refused a free spa treatment during a site visit because she knew the spa wouldn't be on her group's schedule. “It seemed like a very obvious decision,” she says. But, after she has booked business with a property, she would see no problem with accepting a spa comp as a thank-you.
It's tough to argue, however, that dumping 100,000 frequent guest or frequent flyer points into a personal account won't sway a planner. “If you think about how many people are underpaid and overworked and feel unappreciated, and someone comes along and says, ‘If you book a meeting with me, I will give you X,’ most people will take it,” Eisenstodt says.
Moore says she would never make a decision about a hotel based on collecting points or pricey incentives. But she doesn't automatically condemn planners who take the rewards. “If a planner is putting his group into a site that isn't meeting the group's requirements just because that individual is getting something, that's bad. But if those two things are convergent, I don't have a problem with it,” she says.
And David DuBois, vice president of the Meeting Professionals International Foundation and interim MPI COO, says that accepting reward points doesn't breach any ethical rule, provided that the planner discloses the transaction. A planner could line up a program with competitive rates, a great food and beverage package, and perfect dates. “But if I don't tell my boss, ‘Oh, by the way, I get 50,000 miles deposited in my Starwood account, and I can transfer those to my airline account,’ that's a problem,” he says.
Eisenstodt says she finds incentives specific to the meeting — an option in many hotel reward programs — more compelling. “I would rather have a hotel say, ‘If you book with us, we'll give you a free coffee break or snack, or tell me what would enhance your meeting.’”
Shame on You
To screen out the planner unable to resist travel invitations even when inappropriate to his or her meeting needs, cities, hotels, and airlines are eyeballing their invitation lists a little more closely. Planners who accept may be asked to provide a list of past and near-term hotel bookings for verification.
Pete Hyland, president of Arlington, Va.-based Hyland Group, says that hotels, airlines, and companies like his that represent properties “want to make sure they get a return on their investment.” Screening also reduces the chance for embarrassment. “Nobody wants to be at the opening night dinner on a fam and have a client tell the GM, ‘Thanks for having me, but we'd never book a group here,’” says Hyland.
DuBois says no shrewd fam host hotel or destination should ever be caught in that position. “It works both ways,” he says. “Shame on the meeting planner who goes on a fam trip when he or she has no potential to do business with that city or hotel. And shame on the hotelier or CVB executive who invites the meeting planner to attend having not done some homework.”
Eisenstodt says fams are diminishing partly because of hotel and city budget cuts. “There isn't money to bring in people to have a good time,” she observes. Today, it's more common for a destination to facilitate individual visits by meeting planners who aren't familiar with the venue. Similarly, Hyland says many companies aren't sending representatives on resort fams because their budgets don't allow for resort meetings.
And, like everyone else, most meeting planners are simply stretched too thin at work to accept a lot of invitations. “I don't usually have time to go on fam trips, although there is value in them if they are run by a local CVB and not a particular hotel, and they give you a broad view of the entire product that city has to offer,” Karon says.
Meyers, who guesses she hasn't taken a fam trip in a decade, says a planner has to do what's right for the company, regardless of the incentive. “It can't be about gifts and stroking.”
And, while he doesn't have any statistics to prove it, DuBois senses that more meeting planners and suppliers are behaving ethically, a result both of corporate appearance consciousness and a growing sense of professionalism.
“At the end of the day, in order to be a considered a true profession, you have to act like professionals.”
What the Codes Say
A number of meeting and incentive trade associations require members to sign a code of conduct or ethics. What do those codes say about free travel, hotel rooms, rewards, and gifts? And how are they enforced?
Meeting Professionals International's Principles of Professionalism mentions comps and gifts, but leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Members agree to “avoid actions which are or could be perceived as a conflict of interest or for individual gain,” and “accept only appropriate incentives, goods and services in business transactions.”
David DuBois, vice president of the MPI Foundation and interim COO of MPI, says judgments about what is and is not acceptable are between the meeting planner and his or her employer. As long as the planner discloses a gift or comp to the employer, and the booking represents the company's best interest, he doesn't see a problem. “We would discourage a meeting planner leveraging his or her business by saying ‘If I book this meeting in your hotel, I want double points,’ because then it becomes self-serving. But if a hotel says, ‘We would really like this business, so we'll double your points,’ then that's just good business,” he notes.
DuBois says MPI has only been called on to enforce its code a handful of times each year in the five years he has been with the organization. Those incidents, he says, have involved planner/supplier disputes, and most have been worked out through legal channels.
The Society of Incentive & Travel Executives also addresses meeting planner incentives in its Code of Ethics and Conduct, with specific rules regarding fams: “No member shall use a supplier's complimentary services to visit a destination for an inspection without specific present or future interest on the part of the member to place business at that destination and with that supplier.”