Take this quick ethics quiz: A destination that you have no foreseeable interest in booking offers an exotic familiarization (FAM) trip. Do you go?
The host hotel offers to put its reward points on your personal credit card. Do you accept the points or ask that they be given to the organization?
A supplier offers free tickets to attractions, a free hotel room and a five-star dinner for a relative or friend not involved in making site decisions. Your response?
You receive a ‘swag bag’ that includes an iPad. Do you keep it?
The vast majority of planners make the right decisions when facing tempting and challenging ethical situations. However, some planners cross the line.
Julie Schmidt, CMP, CMM, founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based Lithium Logistics Group, cites an example: “I know of one case where the person in charge of trade show space gave a vendor a free booth for a pair of diamond earrings, and it resulted in her departure from the organization,” Schmidt says. “She was caught doing it by a person in the organization who told me about it when I started working with them.”
“I know of one case where the person in charge of trade show space gave a vendor a free booth for a pair of diamond earrings, and it resulted in her departure from the organization.” Julie Schmidt, CMP, CMM
Experts say planners face ethical challenges as part of their jobs. Planners get offered so much so often that making an ethical decision can be confusing and tempting even for the most seasoned and well-intentioned planners.
Sometimes the right ethical choice is clear, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes an ethically correct decision can appear unethical or inappropriate. Sometimes a supplier’s incentive looks like a bribe and sometimes it is a bribe.
Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, a visionary, entrepreneur, master strategist and author with New Jersey-based Strategic Meetings & Events, cites another example: “I know a corporate planner who bills charges on-site to her credit card as I do. One day, I complimented her on her beautiful bag, and she said it was a gift from a supplier. I said, ‘They bought you a handbag?’ She said, ‘They don’t know it, but they did.’”
Lamagna continues, “Her attitude was — she deserves it, because she works very hard. I also have seen people bury a Rolex watch in a meeting budget, because the budget was so huge and easy enough to do.”
Even veteran ethical planners can be tempted. “Regardless of how moral and ethical you are, everybody is human, and there is always the nobody-will-ever-know factor just like nobody knows how hard we really work,” Lamagna says.
Planners who either willfully or unknowingly act unethically can damage their reputations and careers.
According to Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Global DMC Partners, “Let’s face it. This industry is extremely connected. Word-of-mouth spreads very quickly for the bad and the good. A planner showcasing fairness and ethical behavior is highly appreciated and everyone knows them. Unethical ones are also known in the industry. Interestingly enough, they usually do not last in their positions.”
The best approach to unethical temptation — is not yielding to it. That was Chaulet’s approach to an incident she encountered.
“We had a situation a while back where a corporate planner would award a program to the company who would offer her the best personal gifts,” Chaulet says. “It was a very challenging situation as these programs were quite consequential. But we simply decided not to play on that basis and agreed to possibly lose this piece of business.”
Chaulet continues, “We wanted to be selected only on the basis of being the best. In the end, we won the program and the planner was ultimately let go by the company. Most of the time these behaviors are identified within the corporations, who act swiftly and promptly. They do not want to be associated with such unethical behaviors.”
Sometimes planners must determine when, for the good of a client, to take an action that appears unethical, but isn’t.
Says Lamagna, “I found out once that there is a line you need to cross. As a third-party planner, I was in Tahiti on a visit with two other people at a hotel we had chosen for a top-notch incentive program. I was walking through the spa and I was asking some people about their experience. They were polite, but nobody gave a direct answer.”
She adds, “After that, I took advantage of a free spa day for myself and the two others. We agreed that it was the worst massage we ever had. One might think the free spa day was a boondoggle. But had we done that before choosing the property, we would have had a better program.”
The lesson: “Ever since then, whenever I do an incentive trip, somebody on our team gets a free facial and massage to check out the spa,” Lamagna says.
Other planners may have handled the previous situation differently. There are several shades of ethical gray in planning and even veterans don’t see ethical issues precisely the same way. That’s especially true regarding an issue that is rarely discussed openly in the meeting industry – appropriating intellectual property.
‘Borrowing’ and then slightly altering creative ideas is common among planners, DMCs and others in the industry. However, actively soliciting and then copying ideas is another matter.
According to Chaulet, “Our industry is constantly looking for new, more creative ideas and planners bear huge pressure to seek innovative ideas all the time. But a very delicate situation is taking ideas from companies you ultimately will not work with.”
She adds, “Reaching out to third parties and getting ideas through their proposals is a wonderful way to expand creativity. However, it may lead to very sensitive situations where an idea in a proposal is perfect, yet the company proposing it might not be chosen for the meeting, but the planner uses the idea anyway.”
Chaulet offers the following solution: “Be honest with the other party and explain that the idea is terrific, and you wish to replicate it, but will do so separately,” Chaulet says. “Through discussions, find mutually agreeable ways to fairly compensate for access to the idea. Most third parties will appreciate such an ethical approach.”
Handling intellectual property illustrates that it can sometimes be tricky for planners to be ethical while making the best decisions for clients.
Lamagna offers the following advice: “What I preach is that it’s never about you,” Lamagna says. “If what you are doing is, at the end of the day, in the best interests of the client, then gray areas become much easier to decide.”
She continues, “Do you need to try that fishing excursion that a client wants? You might because you need to know if the DMC recommending it understands your vision of what you need. Will saying ‘Yes’ to an iPad help the client? Not if I keep it.”
There are also instances in which planners face temptation to be unethical to cover mistakes without anybody knowing. Lamagna provides an example from very early in her nearly 30-year career.
“When I was brand new at planning, as a third-party planner, I forgot to add the taxes and service charges to the budget for a large event, and the budget had already been approved,” Lamagna says. “It occurred to me that I could hide at least half of the mistake by moving stuff around and cutting the budget. Instead, I called the client, apologized, and volunteered to eat my fee and make up the difference. But the client decided not to make me pay for it.”
Factors that contribute to ethical lapses among planners include a lack of education on the topic, ethically gray areas and a lack of uniform, defined and enforceable code of ethics, although some companies and individual organizations have their own policies.
For example, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) has an ethics code for planners who earn its Certified Meeting Professional program. The CIC’s CMP Code of Ethics asks planners to avoid using one’s “position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest.” The code’s disciplinary policy can result in certification revocation, but that rarely happens.
Also the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) has a Professional and Ethical Conduct code that calls on members to avoid conflicts of interests or activities that reflect negatively on an organization, industry or person.
The principles ask members 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.”
Since there are no uniform industry-wide policies which apply to all meeting and event planners, they are often left to apply their own personal ethics on a case-by-case basis.
Instead, experts say, corporate and independent planners should write and regularly update their own clear and concise ethics policies and procedures that include which gifts and services are acceptable, value limits and accountability measures. Policies should cover areas such as FAM trips, meals and entertainment, gifts, points and other perks.
Says Lamagna, “The better we are with our codes of ethics and conduct, the more respectfully we will be looked at as an industry. We have work to do until we get information out there and the industry adopts a code of ethics or a standard that is known and everyone follows.”
Some of the most common ethical challenges involve the following areas:
Familiarization trips are valued tools planners use to select the right properties and destinations. However, FAM trips are easy and tempting to abuse.
That’s why the meeting industry has a term called ‘FAM scam’ to describe the practice of improperly using expenses-paid trips that hotels, venues and CVBs offer planners to experience properties and destinations. Lamagna refers to planners who routinely abuse FAM trips as “professional Fammers.”
According to Schmidt, “I know there are people in the industry who think FAM trips are giveaways, but I find them to be useful tools for planners to be educated about destinations,” Schmidt says. “The place where there can be conflict is if somebody accepts a trip to someplace that they know they will never sell, or they represent that they will be able to sell a destination knowing they can’t. It’s mostly a combination of people being unethical and suppliers not being good about qualifying people for the trips.”
Schmidt explains why FAM abuse can be tempting. “With FAM trips, the destination is basically rolling out a red carpet to someplace a planner might want to go,” Schmidt says. “Familiarization trips are easy to take advantage of because they are often to fabulous places. So, the temptation is to say, ‘Sure, I’m considering that destination even though there is a very small chance I will choose it.’ It requires ethics and a certain maturity to turn it down.”
Hotels and airlines often award points and airline miles to organizations that usually must be credited under a person’s name. The name, in the case of meetings and events, is often that of a planner.
Some planners accept points and miles only if their organizations allow it. But other planners accept the points for their own use.
According to Schmidt, “Travel points is an issue that always comes up in the industry. Companies have very different policies. I never thought it was wrong for a planner to take travel points from hotels. When it comes to flying, it’s the person who is flying that gets the points, so there is no question there.”
“With hotels,” Schmidt continues, “A lot of them give points to the person who pays for the rooms. So, if a company pays for the rooms of 50 people, then the company keeps the points; if a person pays, then the person keeps the points. I think that’s fair.”
Various types of gifts are part of the planner experience, especially when suppliers are trying to land first-time meetings.
Suppliers routinely offer gifts to planners that include iPads, spa treatments, handbags, free hotel nights, five-star dinners, free limousine rides and tickets to sporting and entertainment events.
However, experts say, planners offered expensive gifts should ask themselves the following questions: When is a gift a bribe? Should planners accept or reject a gift based on value alone or should they also consider the perceived intent of the supplier?
Some planners say that gifts are abused less frequently these days.
According to Schmidt, “The whole culture of gifting from vendors, hotels, convention centers and CVBs isn’t there in the same way. With all the issues about gifting, companies have gotten more rigid and it has given vendors and suppliers an excuse to not do it as much and save money.”
Experts say there are several reasons why planners are sometimes ethically challenged. Some planners, particularly novices, may not realize what they did is unethical. In addition, many people who plan meetings aren’t professional planners, don’t do it full time and know little about industry ethics issues.
According to Lamagna, “In many instances planners who plan meetings for companies are those who are interested in taking on the responsibility or are given it, but they have no professional experience or ethics to guide them. So, if a property says come check out a place for free and receive an iPad, they don’t necessarily know that’s not appropriate for the industry as whole and could make a mistake without knowing it.”
In addition, ethics is a topic that planners and others in the meetings industry have traditionally avoided. In recent years, however, some industry organizations and leaders have addressed the topic through seminars, speeches and writings.
Schmidt says the topic of ethics has become more prominent in the industry than when she started 15 years ago. “Planners coming up are in a more ethical environment,” Schmidt notes. “Ethics is a topic that my colleagues and I talk about, and I have a group of colleagues who think that being ethical is a highly important part of the job.”
While planners bear the responsibility to monitor their ethics, suppliers must also police their own actions by, for example, vetting planners for FAM trips. Instead, planners say, suppliers feel compelled to keep up with competitors who offer questionable freebies and get results.
•Address ethics topics head-on to enhance the industry’s reputation and make planners appear more professional.
•Planners, hotels, vendors and suppliers should all disclose their ethics policies to each other.
•Consult with peers, supervisors and stakeholders when faced with ethics challenges, especially those that aren’t clear and cause indecisiveness.
•Be aware of how the acceptance of some technically ethical gifts and favors can be perceived. Ask what you would think if your actions were published on social media.
•Corporate planners should push for the creation of written planner codes for their companies. Experts say that creating policies is especially important for third-party planners because they are perceived to face ethical challenges more often.
•Planners should educate themselves and their staffs on ethics.
Ethical education will eventually expand into new areas. According to Schmidt, “What we are talking about as ethical challenges in the industry will be different in the future. Those areas will probably revolve around technology and how it is used by planners.”
Lamagna offers this basic advice for current and future ethical challenges: “If it feels wrong, then don’t do it.” C&IT