THE PRESS RELEASE came across my desk attached to a perky note from a PR person. “Thought this would be of great interest to your readers!” she enthused. The announcement: “VRRROOOM! MEETING PLANNERS GET REVVED UP OVER [X HOTEL'S] JAGUAR GIVEAWAY!”

That's right, Hotel Company X is offering a lease on a Jag X Type to five lucky meeting planners. All they need to do is book a meeting generating at least $50,000 in room revenue at one of four hotels this summer; the planners who generate the most room revenue get a car. Imagine that — “all for just doing your job!” the release proclaimed.

As if that weren't enough, the final lines really threw me: “Have your own Jaguar already? No problem, planners can opt out of the lease and exchange it for $10,000 cash.”

How many meeting executives do you know who own Jags? How many people do you know, in any position, who wouldn't salivate at $10,000 in cash?

If you get the same uncomfortable, pit-of-the-stomach feeling I got when you read this, good for you. I interpret that feeling — a mix of discomfort and annoyance — as a sign that something unethical is brewing.

Over-the-top booking incentives are far from unusual, and it's easy to see why hotels use them. There are too many underpaid and overworked planners out there who just might consider this offer and rationalize away their guilty feelings. And there are some unethical planners who will take the car and run. Hotels do these kinds of promotions because they work — but that doesn't mean they're good business.

To make things more complicated, most meeting planner incentives are not as blatantly unethical as this. And while Sarbanes-Oxley is forcing companies to hammer out their ethical guidelines, many still don't have any in place. Take site inspections: Is it OK to sleep in a suite on your site visit if employees will only be staying in doubles? Or small gifts: Is a $30 vinyl desk organizer acceptable, but not a $75 leather one? Or comp rooms: Is it acceptable to use the comp rooms that you get from booking a hotel for yourself, or are they meant for your meeting?

The best answer is the one that leaves no questions. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I say to Hotel Company X. And so should you.
Barbara Scofidio


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