By Michelle R. Davis
It can be tricky in the meetings industry, where something that’s supposed to be an incentive can look an awful lot like a bribe. It’s up to planners and suppliers alike to take responsibility for avoiding improprieties.
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.
Jamal Aaron Hageb
“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.”
“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