Free purses and spa treatments. iPad giveaways. Contest drawings where the winner gets $10,000. Thousands of gratis hotel nights and airline miles. Countless five-star dinners. All-expenses-paid vacations for friends and family to beautiful destinations.
This isn’t a description of lifestyles of the rich and famous. These are all incentives that have been given to or requested by meeting planners, according to some of the meeting professionals interviewed for this story. It’s a part of the industry, and not all of it is a problem. In fact, many “freebies” that people outside the business might view as perks are actually part of the work of determining the best location for an event. But there are also times where people on both sides of the table — planners and suppliers — cross the line into unethical behavior that could signal a lapse of integrity or improperly influence the process of choosing a venue or service provider.
“Ethics is a subject that a lot of industry people tend to keep in the closet,” said Jamal Aaron Hageb, senior meetings manager for the American Bar Association (ABA). “We have to be able to justify our actions and behave in a way that we’d like to see reflected on our name and organization.”
But that favorable path isn’t always clear. A lack of universally adopted professional guidelines or enforceable restrictions often leaves people to make their own personal rules. That can mean gray areas, especially for newcomers to the industry who may see their more experienced peers taking advantage of gifts or other special offers from suppliers. “It’s a slippery slope, but it doesn’t need to be,” said Joan Eisenstodt, a meetings and hospitality consultant, facilitator, and trainer for Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, who has spent years speaking on the topic of ethics. “People need to understand that our industry needs to look more professional. This reflects on all of us.”
STANDARDS AND PRACTICES
How are meeting professionals supposed to navigate this world? It begins in part with guidelines from industry associations. PCMA’s Principles of Professional and Ethical Conduct call for members to avoid conflicts of interest or activities that would reflect poorly on an individual, organization, or the industry. The principles also call for professionals to “refuse inappropriate gifts, incentives, and/or services in any business dealings that may be offered as a result of my position and could be perceived as personal gain.”
Likewise, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) has a CMP Code of Ethics, for people who have attained CIC’s Certified Meeting Professional credential, that includes a prohibition on using one’s “position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest.”
People need to understand that our industry needs to look more professional. This reflects on all of us.
“In the current environment you have to be careful of the perception of both what is real and how someone might interpret actions,” said Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP, CIC’s chief executive officer. “My advice would be that if it’s something you would be proud of if your boss or mother knew about it, or if it was in the news, then it’s okay.”
But Kotowski admits that even though CIC does have a disciplinary policy that could result in the revocation of certification if the CMP Code of Ethics were violated, those standards are seldom enforced. For that to occur, a CMP would have to be reported through a complaint process, she said, and “that is very rare.”
Meanwhile, fam (familiarization) trips and other hosted events remain a common and often legitimate tool for planners with limited travel budgets but the need to perform due diligence when it comes to site selection. But fams have also gained a negative reputation, Hageb said, because it’s not unheard of for planners to travel to places they’re not truly considering for an event, or take family and friends along on the excursion, or request “extras” such as limousine rides or tickets to a sporting event. At ABA, employees must provide justification for going on a fam trip. “I find it repulsive when people take advantage of the system and go on every fam that’s possible,” Hageb said. “If you know your organization is never going to do an event there, you’re doing your organization a disservice as well as the destination … and taking an opportunity away from another planner who has a legitimate reason for going.”
Another gray area: loyalty programs. Hotel points and airline miles frequently are awarded to organizations for their business, but typically need to be credited under one person’s name — often a planner’s. That’s fine if an organization knows about it and permits it, which many do, according to Andre Cholewinski, associate director of meetings and global events at McLean, Virginia–based Meetings Management Group. But planners who don’t disclose the points they were awarded may not make their organization or client aware of the impact it could have on the decision-making process. Cholewinski said he always allows the clients he works for to take any reward points he generates on their behalf, to help them underwrite travel for their own employees, and he includes wording to that effect in his contracts. “I’ve seen independent planners arrange it so the hotel gives them all the points for the meeting and the association is none the wiser because it’s not in the contract,” he said. “People hide behind the fact that there’s not a clear policy.”
WHAT DO PLANNERS THINK?
Many people also don’t seem to think this sort of behavior is that big of a deal. In a 2010 Convene survey, 73 percent of respondents said their organization had a written ethics policy or code of conduct — while 71 percent said that it was ethical for planners to keep the reward points they accumulate through professional work, and 67 percent said it was okay for suppliers to invite planners to events when business is on the table, and for planners to accept.
But Eisenstodt is adamant that those sorts of perks do influence decision-making. “Anyone who says this doesn’t have an impact is not telling the truth,” she said. “We are influenced by relationships, gifts given, and a lot of other things.”
Cholewinski agrees. He says he’s constantly being offered gift baskets, concert tickets, and trips that aren’t related to projects he’s doing. So are the people he works for. Recently an association client was debating between two hotels for a 2016 event. When a vote on the venue was due to be taken at the association’s board meeting, one of the hotels sent a large gift basket full of chocolate, fruit, and other treats to board members. The association didn’t have a policy on gifts, Cholewinski said, so he withheld the basket until after the vote. If it had been something more significant, he said, he would have sent it back. “I didn’t want a $150 gift basket influencing a $3-million conference decision,” he said. “You have to be so careful about how things are perceived.”
And it’s not only about perception, said Rich Harrill, the acting director of the University of South Carolina School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management, who noted that there can be tax implications to accepting large gifts. Meeting professionals need to know they can run afoul of local, state, and federal laws surrounding influence and bribery. “The legal context of the hospitality industry is changing,” Harrill said, “and business is not conducted as informally as it used to be.”
But again, it’s not always clear-cut. In the Convene survey, 65 percent of respondents said it was acceptable to have all of their stay, including meals, comped during a site visit, while 63 percent said it was okay to accept amenities like free wine, fruit baskets, spa treatments, and golf outings during a site visit.
While the onus might be on planners to police themselves, industry professionals say that suppliers also need to think more clearly about what they’re offering and whether it accomplishes the goal of providing information about their city, service, or venue. “If the offer-ers would stop offering,” Eisenstodt said, “then we could clean this up.”
Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, said his organization vets planners and organizations it’s considering hosting, making sure that Puerto Rico is on their short list for an upcoming event and that the event would bring a certain level of business to the destination. If a potential meeting is small, sometimes Meet Puerto Rico won’t pay airfare for a fam visit. “We have a very strict code of ethics when we do any particular promotion,” Segarra said.
Meet Puerto Rico also never gives money directly to planners — as Segarra says he has seen other destinations do — in exchange for business. As an incentive, Meet Puerto Rico might pay for transportation or some other service during a convention or meeting, to make sure taxpayer dollars have the desired economic impact. In addition, if Meet Puerto Rico arranges a sweepstakes for a prize during a fam trip or industry event, the rules are explicitly spelled out that it’s an open drawing that anyone can win as opposed to a drawing that purports to give everyone an even chance at winning but is really designed to reward one particular person — as several of our sources said they’ve seen done.
But this can be a tricky world for suppliers. If your competitors are giving gifts and offering questionable incentives, it can feel important to keep up. Establishing positive relationships and experiences is key, according to John Brich, director of sales for the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, who says his organization’s fam trips focus on what the city has to offer meeting attendees. There are strict criteria about who is offered trips, often based in part on the potential number of peak room nights in play. And because planners are busy, the CVB focuses on doing 24-hour visits. One of this year’s fam programs offered planners a hotel stay, nice restaurant meals, and tickets to a concert by Bruce Springsteen, who was kicking off his 2014 tour in Cincinnati. Other giveaways highlighting what Cincinnati has to offer included spice packets for the city’s famous chili, hand-turned Graeter’s ice cream, and drawings for gift cards from Macy’s, which is headquartered there. “We don’t want it to be a boondoggle,” Brich said. “We want it to be worth their time. We’re trying to change old perceptions and create new ones.”
Brich said that inappropriate requests from planners are rare — and fielding them can be tricky. He’s had planners bring their families on visits and subtly ask for accommodations for them or tickets to events. Most often, the CVB tries to accommodate them. “It’s difficult,” Brich said, “but we don’t want them to leave with a negative feeling.”
David Geiger, senior director of sales and industry relations for Hilton Worldwide, said that’s the case for most suppliers. Hilton offers hotel and airfare points to reward loyalty and recognize the volume of business that a planner or organization is delivering. If Geiger has a positive relationship with a customer and that person asks for help getting rooms or a better rate for a vacation, he said, “I’ll try to help them the same as I would with a family member or a non-client friend.”
That said, Geiger stressed that Hilton is focused on ethics; employees take online ethics classes annually. “The incentives we provide,” he said, “are done in the spirit of ‘Thanks for your business’ or ‘We want to familiarize you with this product of ours.’ Good judgment has to prevail on both sides.”
GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT ETHICS
There are ways for planners and suppliers alike to set boundaries and prevent or at least minimize gray areas. Young meeting professionals should cultivate mentors they respect who can provide advice in unclear situations, said Victor Robinson, senior director of meetings and exhibits for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). When a supplier offers him incentives, Robinson asks himself whether they would be on the table if there weren’t a potential piece of business at stake. “This is a business where there is so much that is offered, it can get confusing,” he said. “A mentor or a supervisor who can answer questions on ethics is so important.”
This is a business where there is so much that is offered, it can get confusing.
Organizations should adopt their own guidelines that are “clear and measurable,” said Peter Hanley, president and chief operations officer at PlanNet, a McLean, Virginia–based association-services company, who has given presentations on ethics in the industry. “There is a lot of discussion about ethics, but few have defined specific guidelines that build a conscience or empower accountability,” Hanley said. “Nobody wants to be judged, especially if they didn’t have clear definition on what they were going to be judged on before the action.”
This can mean being specific about the intent of a gift and the dollar value that would be okay to accept, who is representing whom in a negotiation or transaction, what criteria should be used in deciding to go on a hosted-buyer trip, and what services can be accepted on such a trip, Hanley said. For gifts from suppliers, Eisenstodt added, such as fruit baskets and food, it’s often best just to share them with the entire office or donate them to charity, or to return more expensive items.
When doing business with a vendor or supplier, she said, organizations with strict ethics policies should make it clear up front what they can and can’t accept — which can be good business. A supplier who says “we want your business and we know other vendors or cities are giving you personal gifts, but we believe it’s important to … stay within your ethics policies” could influence some organizations positively, Eisenstodt said. Segarra agrees. “Bona fide meeting planners will take that into consideration,” he said, “and stay away from destinations, organizations, or suppliers” that don’t operate in an ethical manner. Large or high-profile companies in particular don’t want to have to worry about being exposed — even inadvertently — to behaviors that could be considered unscrupulous.
But Hanley also notes that meeting professionals work hard, long hours, often taking time away from their families to travel and do their job. Without guidelines, it’s easy to get persuaded or make a mistake. “You don’t want to cross the line,” he said, “but you can also still have fun.”