A panel of experts gathered at MeetNow! 2007 in New Haven, Conn., to delve into the sticky ethical issues that plague the meetings and hospitality industry. The panel, part of a conference sponsored by the WestField and Connecticut River Valley Chapters of Meeting Professionals International and held in February, focused on two main ethical areas: abuses of privilege in the industry, and idea theft from service providers. Panelists took turns role-playing several scenarios in each area, and while it was easy to see what was the right thing to do in some situations, other situations were not as black and white.
Negotiating for Points
Hotels often offer personal incentives — anything from iPods to guest program points — to planners in hopes of luring their business. While many planners consider it unethical to use those incentives unless it's for the benefit of their organization, those less scrupulous see these perks as personal rewards for doing an all-too-often thankless job.
Take Sarah, an association meeting planner who, in the panelists' scenario, is enticed to book her organization's program by hotelier John. John offers 5,000 points she can use toward a reunion she's planning for her family later that year at one of his chain's properties if she books her association meeting at his hotel. Sarah, as role-played by Barbara Taylor Carpender, CMM, CEO of Taylored Training, Denver, Colo., plays it coy, until John, played by Gregg Talley, CAE, president, Talley Management Group, Mount Royal, N.J., throws in some additional food and beverage for the event, along with 5,000 more points Sarah can have for her own personal use. The deal is struck.
Panelist Kitty Ratcliffe, president, St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, objected: “She's supposed to be negotiating the best deal, but it's supposed to be the best deal for her organization, not for her personally.” True, said Talley, nevertheless this sort of thing happens all the time. He said that part-time planners like administrative assistants often don't understand the ethical problem with taking personal perks — and hoteliers, knowing that this is a proven way to do business with a certain portion of their customer base, will continue to offer personal rewards for booking business.
Panelist Marta Hayden, CMP, special project marketing and partnerships consultant, Sonoma County (California) Tourism Bureau, said that this scenario has improved over the years; in the past, it wasn't unusual for properties to offer some pretty elaborate perks for planners who booked a certain amount of business, ranging from a TV for a smaller program all the way up to a fur coat.
Talley said that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has forced more transparency into situations like these. Ratcliffe, however, said that it has helped mainly on the corporate side. “There are still lots of issues with associations,” she said.
Session moderator Rick Weaver, chapter vice president of communication, and principle of professional coaching firm Lifeteacher, New York, then turned to panelist Bruce Harris, former president, Experient (formerly Conferon Global Services), Twinsburg, Ohio. What would Sarah do if her boss asked her to get an extra room rebate and have it credited to the organization's account, but not to disclose it to anyone. “Not disclosing it to the people who are paying for it — the attendees — is wrong,” Harris said. Sarah might try to rationalize it by telling herself that it's her boss that's asking for the rebate, not her, so it's not her problem. But, he said, Sarah should insist that the rebate be disclosed.
Weaver then raised the question of whether or not it was proper to ask for comp rooms for the planner after the event is over, so she can enjoy a little R&R time. Said Carpender, “If I'm still the evil Sarah, I'd have no problem with it.” Harris offered food for thought, if no solution, by asking if it made a difference to ask for something for your personal benefit after theis signed, instead of using the business as leverage to benefit you personally.
In yet another scenario: You've already been offered 5,000 points and another hotel comes along and offers 10,000 — is it OK to go back to the first hotel and ask them to match it? Ratcliffe said, “Personally, I wouldn't do anything that goes against my ethics. But the salesperson is under pressure to make his numbers, and I'm sure the most likely scenario is that he'd go to his boss and say, ‘They're offering this. What can we do to match it?’” Harris suggested that it's up to planners to set the ethical guidelines.
Muddying the Waters
Some situations are a little more difficult to parse, ethically speaking. For example, what would you do if a neighbor with a terminally ill child — who was in love with Disney but couldn't get a trip to Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation — approached you to use your contacts to get a free or discounted stay in Orlando for the child? So much would depend on transparency, said Ratcliffe. “Ethics are ethics, but I would make an exception for a terminally ill child. I would make the call after making sure it was OK with my boss. I also would make it clear that I expect the salesperson to talk with the public relations department to make sure it's something they want to do.” But, she cautioned, no matter what the level of transparency, the salesperson still might feel pressured to do it to preserve the relationship with the planner. Weaver clarified that it's important not to make the call based on your potential buying power. As Harris said, “Salespeople need to know that ‘no’ is a great answer. Take as much pressure off as you can. They shouldn't feel obligated to help.”
In this case, it's more a matter of asking a favor based on a relationship than a quid pro quo for a business deal, the panelists agreed. In general, though, when it comes to abusing a business relationship for personal gain, Carpender said, “We need to educate each other and ask not what's in it for me personally, but how does this work for both of our organizations?”
As a rule of thumb, Harris said, no matter how small the ethical lapse may be, don't let it happen. “These tiny things tend to be seductive,” he said, but if you never succumb to temptation on the tiny issues, you'll never have to face the big issues. Talley added that, while the industry is improving all the time, “We still have a way to go. I'd like to see no personal benefits across the board.”
Intellectual property “should be a huge conversation in our industry,” said Taylor. “There's a large contingent that doesn't seem to think there's a problem with stealing ideas.” So the panelists role-played an all-too-common scenario in which a destination management company calls independent meeting planner Margaret because her client, Steve, took some ideas from thefor an off-site event, then sidestepped the DMC and hired another firm to implement the ideas. Harris, playing devil's advocate in the role of Steve, points out that budget constraints could cause him to go directly to the venue to find the most cost-effective way to do the event. As Margaret, Taylor tried to find a diplomatic way to explain to Steve that intellectual property is the currency of a DMC's business, and what he did is basically stealing. Playing the contrarian, Harris said, “If I'm going to do the work anyway, why pay them?” Taylor countered by asking what he would do in her position. “Good question,” Harris said. “I'm glad I'm not you!”
Ratcliffe, taking on the role of the DMC, said, “My relationship with Steve is through Margaret as the third party who recommended me in the first place. I'm not going to like Steve, but I'll follow Margaret's lead.” And, she adds, that next time, she would make sure to get in writing an agreement that her ideas not be used if her services aren't contracted. As the restaurateur at the place the off-site was to occur, Talley had a tough role to play. “All three are my customers,” he said. “I'd go back to my regular customers — the DMC and the planner — and ask what we should do. I'm the one caught in the middle.”
And what would you do if your large event-planning company made a proposal for a last-minute sales meeting, never heard back from the client, then just happened to be at the hotel where the event occurred and saw all your ideas — down to the centerpieces and linens — being implemented by a competitor? Would you confront the other planner?
The panelists agreed that they would hold off on the confrontation until later. Ratcliffe said she would talk with the other planner to see how her ideas ended up being implemented by another planner. She would let that planner know that the idea actually was hers. She also suggested that the other planner should let the client know he now was aware that the ideas belonged to the original planner and see what the client had to say about it. One way to avoid these types of situations, said Hayden, is to charge a fee for the proposal, then deduct the fee from the actual program cost if the client books the planner for the event. That way, you'll be paid for your ideas, whoever ends up implementing them.
Harris reminded the audience that an unethical act may have some short-term benefits, but the harm to your reputation can last a lifetime. Take the high road, he said. You won't regret it.
How to Gauge an Ethical Dilemma
Rick Weaver, principle of professional coaching firm Lifeteacher, New York, offered guidelines for planners at the MeetNow! 2007 MPI chapter conference held in New Haven, Conn., in February.
“When you are trying to make a hard ethical decision, consider these factors:
- Would my boss, co-workers, and family be proud of me?
- Will someone be hurt by this?
- Do I think it's fair?
- Would I want this done to me?
- Would I want this on the front page of my local newspaper?”
Ethical Questions, Answered
The audience at the MeetNow! 2007 MPI chapter conference held in New Haven, Conn., in February leapt at the chance to bring up their own ethical issues, such as, “Is it ethical for hoteliers to blackball unethical planners?”
“It's not blackballing — it's intelligence gathering,” said Barbara Taylor Carpender, CMM, CEO of Taylored Training, Denver, Colo. “This is a small business, and we know who the unethical people are on both sides of the fence,” added Gregg Talley, CAE, president, Talley Management Group, Mount Royal, N.J. “The best business decision,” said Bruce Harris, former president, Conferon Global Services, Twinsburg, Ohio, “is not to do business with them.”
Another subject that came up was Marriott's recent requirement that planners booking meetings to be held after June 1 at their properties must be accredited by the International Airlines Travel Agent Network, the International Air Transport Association, or the Airline Reporting Corp. to receive a commission. Talley said, “I think it's time to have that conversation. The chains should start it, as the airlines started a similar conversation with travel agents.” Harris said that the move is due in large part to the proliferation of third parties. “This is a shoe that has fallen, and if anyone doesn't think there's another shoe left to fall, they're not wearing shoes.”
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