If you know you cannot be influenced to recommend or book a property simply because a hotel offers you planner points or expensive gifts, is it OK to take them? Is accepting an invitation to a FAM or a complimentary site visit inherently wrong…or never wrong? What should a planner do if he or she sees a colleague or boss doing something inappropriate that could also be unethical?
“Find a great mentor. …You are not alone; we have all made mistakes, and we can all learn from each other.”
— Nell Nicholas
Most associations that serve the meetings industry offer ethical guidelines and codes of conduct for planners to embrace. The Convention Industry Council, for example, has a CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy, and asks all CMP recipients to pledge, among other things, to:
Ethics should by definition be crystal clear. Things are either right or they’re wrong…right? Alas, the answer is not always as definitive as one would think. And not every meeting planner sees every ethical issue in exactly the same way. But most agree on this point: If it feels wrong, it probably is.
We went to a few industry experts — meeting planners — and asked them for their thoughts on a number of potential ethical dilemmas. Here’s what they had to say.
To start, there was no consensus on what the most prevalent ethical dilemmas for planners are. Blue Janis, an Experient national account manager based in Florida, says, “To me, there is really only one: Not putting the needs and best interest of the client before those of the planner.”
Nell Nicholas, senior director, global accounts, HelmsBriscoe, notes, “This is open to interpretation. One potential ethical issue is FAM abuse. If a planner has not booked a destination, should he/she accept a FAM trip into that destination? The flip side of that coin is, if a planner has not been to a destination, how is he/she able to sell it to stakeholders for future business? It’s a sticky wicket! Stringent qualification on the supplier side can certainly alleviate this potential issue, including real potential for business in that destination and overall volume of business booked, years in the business, how many FAMs the planner has already been on in that year, etc.,” Nicholas says.
“Another possible ethical issue is option abuse. Both planners and hoteliers need to be fully transparent on their holds prior to contracting. This goes for both sides. If hotels are holding a second option, it’s always helpful for planners to know what the possibility is of going to first option and what the parameters are on that second-option hold to properly communicate with their stakeholders about the viability of going to contract. For planners,” she says, “full transparency about how strongly the percentage of that hotel winning the business and why/why not is really helpful for a hotel to manage its dates more efficiently. Open and clear lines of communication are key for both parties to maximize revenues and create successful programs.”
Dayne P.S. Sullivan, CTA, meeting planner and event manager with Adventures LLC, a San Antonio, Texas, company offering meeting planning and DMC services, says, “One of the most prevalent ethics issues that we’ve experienced is hotel sales staff attempting to ‘persuade’ a planner to choose their hotel over another through gifts or freebies. This includes free hotel stays that can be used for sites or vacations.”
On the DMC front, he says, “Another issue we’ve experienced lately pertains to independent planners and hotels asking for commissions (which also could be considered kickbacks) from DMCs, venues, etc., for simply referring them or making the company a preferred vendor.
“Our company is a hybrid that provides meeting and event management as well as the work of a destination management company, so we get hit from multiple sides by this issue. It is not uncommon for an independent planner to contact our DMC division and ask us to create an experience or manage a meeting/event and then expect us to pay them a commission on the total event spend.
“I can understand commissions or fees being paid by a DMC, AV company or event company with inside or on-property sales offices at a hotel,” Sullivan says. “However, to ask for a commission simply for referring an event planner or DMC only drives up the cost to everyone concerned. The referrals should be based on the company’s knowledge and service level, not on how much they will pay to the referring planner or property. This also happens with many meeting planning and DMC networks.”
Sullivan says planners should not be afraid to ask a network or organization how they are funded or if they are paid commissions or referrals.
“I also find it appalling,” he continues, “when a hotel salesperson asks me to share what other hotels are offering in their proposals. We ask that they give us their best possible offer at the beginning, and the decision will be based on what is best for our client. By asking me to share what another property is offering, they diminish their credibility, and I immediately place that property at the bottom of my list.”
For Sam K. (not his real name), a planner in the automotive industry who wishes to remain anonymous, ethical dilemmas are made more difficult when a company does not have clear guidelines and rules in place, or does — but managers and other employees skirt around them. “My company has rules and guidelines,” he says, “but some policies are more ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
That leaves employees in murky territory.
Most planners agree that accepting invitations to FAMs or paid-for site inspections is not in itself inherently unethical. As Nicholas notes, planners need to see properties firsthand in order to be able to deliver the best information to clients. The ethics issue comes into play when planners accept an invitation to properties they know they won’t book or that they’ve been to multiple times.
Janis puts it this way: “As long as the planner is accepting invitations to FAMs or arranging site inspections to destinations that can be realistically selected by the client, I don’t think a planner has any ethical concerns. Planners that accept FAM invitations for personal pleasure reasons are in a serious ethical swamp.”
Sullivan points out that, unfortunately, many planners don’t know or are on the fence about what is and is not acceptable. “I understand the need to get planners to see your city, hotels and venues; however, it becomes an issue when a planner knowingly accepts a free trip or hotel stay to a property they or their client will never use. What I believe is a more ethical way to treat this issue,” he says, “is to have the planner pay for the trip with the possibility of being reimbursed if/when a group contract is signed.
“While we will accept complimentary hotel rooms for site visits,” he adds, “these are written into the hotel agreements for our groups and are strictly limited. I can only remember participating in three FAM trips during my 18 years as a planner, and I only attended if we had a client interested in booking business at that location. However, I have witnessed others on the same FAM trips, making the statement, ‘Oh this is a vacation I needed.’ I believe every FAM should be vetted, and I know it is hard to do so.”
Nicholas believes site inspection invitations are best for planners “when there is an RFP out to demonstrate the veracity of the site inspection.” She says getting the CVB involved with the RFP is a key factor in planning site inspections.
“CVBs are another layer of support to assist with complimentary site inspection visits,” she says. “Circumstances may arise when a hotel cannot comp the planner, say when visiting a hotel during high-demand dates. In that case, when one hotel is in contention of winning the business, a win/win situation is to charge the client the room rate for the site (hopefully it is discounted!) and credit the client that room rate off the master bill if the hotel is selected for the program.”
Admittedly, she adds, this gets a little dicey when a destination is in high demand and multiple hotels are on the site inspection list. “When there is no RFP out and a hotel offers a complimentary site inspection, it’s important that the planner offer full disclosure — before accepting the invitation — as to the potential for booking that destination.”
While planners in Sam K.’s company cannot accept complimentary airfare or attend organized FAMs or comped site inspections, “They can accept comped hotel nights during site inspections — but those are then worked into the subsequent contract so that everything is transparent.”
When it comes to hotel points offered to planners by properties, planners are divided. How gifts from hotels and CVBs should be handled also is not always clear.
In terms of points, “I represent a major third party,” Janis says. “Our company policy, one I completely agree with, prohibits me taking points.”
Nicholas believes that for the vast majority of planners, their ethics are not compromised if they accept hotel points. “There is no dilemma about collecting points as a planner for a program,” she says. “I have had this conversation with several planners, all of whom understand that the points are a perk of the role of meeting planner and can be used in any way the planner would like. I don’t know a single planner who punches a time clock, and the hours, especially onsite, are brutal. The demands of a planner onsite can be insane while their only focus is to execute a successful program. All the moving parts and details for a planner onsite to consider are exhausting. If a hotel wants to give points to a planner as a thank you, there should be no issue with that.”
She also doesn’t believe that the acceptance of points clouds a planner’s decision-making. “When selecting a property, the planner has a whole host of stakeholders to satisfy from a budgeting standpoint to the style and scope of the selected property. If a hotel is selected for personal gain, then, yes, the planner has compromised his or her position. But I don’t believe there is a planner out there who would compromise their position in a company for hotel points.”
For Sullivan, it’s about how those points are used. “On occasion, we have accepted hotel points. However, they are always used for site visits or business purposes. Every planner should make sure there are written guidelines in place and an understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable. This will also protect them from repercussions if something is said or done that goes against the guidelines. Make sure they are specific! I have never thought of hotel points as part of the discussion process. I would rather the hotel do something more for my client so their hotel is more of a value.”
Planners in Sam K’s company cannot accept planner points from a hotel, nor can they accept gifts over a value of $50. But that tricky ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ looseness makes some of these rules ineffective. Sam tells a couple of stories that show the dilemma planners face when the rules aren’t really the rules. Yet, he points out, checks and balances in the planning system and structures keep planners on more solid ground in his company.
“A hotel company sent a box to a manager at our company to thank him for booking multiple meetings at one of its resorts. Before opening it, he said to the employee who had planned those meetings, ‘You did all the work so you can keep it.’ But when he opened the gift, it turned out to be a very expensive sterling silver serving dish, which he promptly took home.”
On another occasion, Sam says, “A CVB gave two of us the newest iPads as a thanks for booking one of our largest meetings in its city. There was no way to not take them with the CEO of the CVB standing there, which presented me with a dilemma. My colleague took hers and quickly put it away. I kept mine unopened for several months then gave it to a relative.”
The thing is, Sam says, “An iPad would not induce me to book another meeting in that city to begin with. But I couldn’t mandate that even if I wanted to. Our company has many, many checks and balances in place for exactly that reason, and it’s the checks and balances that I believe make the big difference. The way site selection works for us is that planners come up with five potential destinations that will work for a meeting. Those are then narrowed down to two by directors within the company. Two planners will then go to those two destinations; either they pay their own air or the company does. The two planners come back with a recommendation for one of those destinations based on it meeting very specific, pre-identified criteria. Once a contract is in play, several people in the company review it. With this system, planners cannot show favoritism to any one property, CVB or destination, and gifts cannot influence any of the related decisions.”
For young or new planners facing these issues, the right path may be even less clear. Advice for them from the planners we talked to covered a range of suggestions and solutions, from personal attitudes to company policies.
Janis put it very succinctly. “Be sure you have a clear personal moral code. Always put the needs and best interests of the client before those of your own. If you have to wonder whether it’s inappropriate, it probably isn’t.”
Sullivan’s suggestions include company processes and systems as well as planner clarity. “Adopt a blind bid process,” he says. ”We are an independent planning company and have implemented a policy of blind bidding, whereby one planner in our office will gather all the RFP responses and place them in a comparative spreadsheet. This spreadsheet doesn’t contain any property names or affiliations. It’s then given to a different planner in our office to review, compare and determine which property is giving our client the most ‘bang for its buck.’ At that point, we will have a joint meeting and discuss the pros and cons of each property.”
He says planners should make sure there are specific policies and procedures in place regarding hotel points, gifts, FAM trips, site visits, etc., and they should be updated often. “Your position as a planner will also include being a teacher. Be proactive in helping to develop ethical practices at your company and make sure everything is addressed in the employee handbook or Code of Conduct. It will provide protection for you and your company.
“Lastly,” Sullivan recommends, “Ask questions and then question the answers! Make sure you have a clear understanding of what practices are acceptable and what practices are not. If your conscience or gut tells you something is wrong, it usually is and it needs to be addressed.”
Nicholas encourages planners to seek help from those more experienced. “Find a great mentor,” she says. “We are out there and available to help guide you through tough choices and compromising situations. You are not alone; we have all made mistakes, and we can all learn from each other.”
When it comes down to it, planners put their jobs on the line if they act unethically. “You don’t want to lose your job,” Sam K. says, “so consider whether breaching guidelines, such as accepting planner points when you know you should not, is worth it. As the saying goes, ‘If you would be embarrassed reading about something you did on the front page of the newspaper, don’t do it.’ ” C&IT