Ethics: Stealing or Sharing?September 1, 2014

Planners Need to Know the Difference and Pledge to Act Accordingly By
September 1, 2014

Ethics: Stealing or Sharing?

Planners Need to Know the Difference and Pledge to Act Accordingly

76_2698149When they take up the CMP designation, meeting planners must pledge to perform all responsibilities in accordance with the laws and regulations of the local, state or national governments under which they reside and communicate all relevant information to their employers in a truthful and accurate manner to facilitate the execution of their fiduciary responsibilities.

But while this and other meeting planning ethics codes paint things in black and white, their generalizations often do not account for the shades of gray that meeting planners encounter in the field in the everyday tasks of doing their jobs. In the case of the Convention Industry Council (CIC) CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct, this particularly comes into play in the first two rules: maintain exemplary standards of professional conduct at all times and actively model and encourage the integration of ethics into all aspects of the performance of one’s duties.

Most everyone would agree that accepting an unrelated gift, such as a purse or an iPad, from a hotel or vendor could be construed as a form of bribery, but what happens when a planner goes on a FAM (familiarization) trip and has no intention of booking the destination or finds it is not appropriate for the group’s needs? Would that be viewed as abusing a free trip? Or what if a planner reviewed proposals from a DMC, didn’t use them but implemented their ideas? Is that considered sharing or stealing intellectual property? And, if so, what are the repercussions of these violations?

What Is the Best Way to Research Destinations?

FAM trips are a core issue in meeting planning ethics, both because they are often necessary and because they are an easy ethical gray area, but they really stand for the entire area of accepting free items from potential future contract-holders. “In terms of FAM trips, I think that’s a place where ethics can get very dicey,” says Marcy DeBiccari, CMP, senior meeting planner at Albany, New York-based Sematech. “It presents an opportunity for people to go away for some fun, and that’s not fair for the vendors or cities or whoever is hosting. If you’re not serious about having a meeting there, you’re taking away from people who are.”

Many companies, like DeBiccari’s, have a loose official policy regarding FAM trips that relies heavily on trust in the planner’s own personal ethics. “We don’t have a formal policy in place; I need to present a justification presentation, showing this, this and this meeting might be a good fit for this place,” she says. “By presenting the justification prior to going, you have to prove why you’re going so it ensures the trip is an appropriate use of your time.”

Ronald E. Havens, CMP, MBA, senior meeting planner and group travel coordinator at Culver City, California-based Sony Pictures Entertainment, shares his company’s policy. “As long as they’re known about and the management is aware, we’re encouraged to familiarize ourselves, but if I’m lucky, I get one invitation a year,” he says. For both Havens and his colleagues, FAM trips have become a rarer occurrence of late. “There have been fewer trips in recent years both because we have less time to go on trips, and we receive fewer invitations.”

“To be honest with you, I can’t remember the last time I went on a trip,” DeBiccari concurs. “I don’t receive a lot of invitations to go on FAMs.” While the cost cutting and do-more-with-less meeting planning culture that has arisen from the recession clearly illuminates why planners have less time to go on FAMs, it’s less clear why there are fewer invitations in circulation.

Optics may play a large part, as hotels and CVBs are sensitive to the internal and external perception issues, but there also is a slow renaissance going on with destinations that do offer FAM trips as they reorganize their itineraries to provide a heavy education component on the trip.

Lynn Walstead, CMP, senior meeting planner at Mounds View, Minnesota-based Medtronic Inc., finds this change happening, particularly in the medical device industry, in which companies feel more optics pressure than in other industries. “There’s an overarching policy that you have to make the right ethics decision or your manager does,” she says. “On the whole, FAMs are discouraged unless you’re truly using that destination or considering it. In the medical devices industry, I think because it is becoming more frowned upon, more companies are clamping down.

“If I’m considering a trip, it has an education component, not just seeing the hotel, wining and dining, and then leaving,” she continues. “A broader FAM, if you want to call it that. Increasingly, I’m seeing truly educational content like you’d see in an industry event. Depending on the property, there will be a panel on F&B trends or a talk on the Sunshine Act or contract negotiation — stuff you’d find at a conference — given by industry speakers, other hoteliers or additional planners.”

Another factor in the diminished number of invitations meeting planners experience may be increased selectivity on the part of hotels and CVBs, who narrow their invitation list to focus on companies that are more likely to eventually use the destination and need the extra experience of the visit to make that decision.

“Way back then, it used to seem like the invitations were more broad,” says Walstead. “And it was about coming down and having a good time with a little bit of site visits in there as well, but now, when I talk to people I know about other trips they’ve been on, I haven’t heard of them.

“My guess is that they are segmenting different parts of their audience in terms of who should attend,” she continues. “There are certainly times I sell myself or the destination short on opportunity, and it may be something I would have considered if I attended, but when I am considering going on a trip, it’s a combination of my availability and if it’s a destination I would consider, but it also has to have an education component.”

“When I am considering going on a (FAM) trip…it also has to have an education component.” — Lynn Walstead, CMP

As Walstead points out, without going on FAM trips, it can be difficult to know if an unknown location is really the right place for them. Havens keeps up on destinations profiled in trade magazines and does a lot of scouting at trade shows, and also uses personal vacations to check out properties in lieu of FAM trips. While that in theory extricates the potential dilemma of going on a work-related FAM and treating it like vacation, it can also be unfair to planners with little vacation time to have to treat their time off like a work-related FAM just to get on the group experience scouting potential destinations.

Digital Privacy Issues

No matter the confidentiality level of your meeting, Internet access has become so necessary and pervasive both for presentations and meeting setup as well as attendee business responsibilities, that an entirely new area of meeting planning ethics has blossomed around attendees: information security concerns.

In her division of Medtronic, Wal­stead and her group have been very slow to bring technology into their meetings in any form because of these issues. “It’s a touchy issue for us because of the company we are. We only just used our first app,” she says.

“For our meetings, because they are so specific to products and materials, we do not engage social media as part of it,” she continues. “We have not yet incorporated it as part of the meeting, because we would need to create boundaries and firewalls etc. to keep it within the meeting context. But in a way, we have not incorporated anything with our meetings to encourage sharing, because they also don’t get a chance. They come together to meet and then they go home.

“Though I’m sure people are out there doing it on their own, that doesn’t fall under my purview,” Walstead explains. “There are medical forums out there that my manager monitors, and it’s part of his responsibilities to see some of the stuff that goes out there. You can’t really say you can’t do it, so it’s hard in this world of social media and access.”

DeBiccari, on the other hand, experiences both sides of the sharing spectrum, because she plans both confidential and non-confidential meetings. “When we plan confidential, we’re very careful about keeping track of what attendees are doing, because we deal with a lot of intellectual property,” she explains. “In our non-confidential meetings, we’re very free in allowing people to use their phones and social media, but for confidential meetings, we’re very careful in terms of monitoring.

“We actually have confidentiality agreements in place, and on the first issue, there is a mention or reminder, but if it becomes an issue, it escalates quickly to legal,” she continues. “We’ve never had issues actually, because most attendees deal with it in their day-to-day lives so it’s already ingrained in their behavior.”

While meeting planners are under corporate pressure — and face serious internal ethics repercussions — for failing to protect the security of their own proprietary information, the line has become less clear in recent years what counts as intellectual property violation in correspondence with third parties.

Intellectual Property, Sharing or Stealing?

Due to the recession and other changes in the meeting planning industry, more and more new and seasoned planners are going independent or third-party, and in-house planners now often work with a patchwork quilt of external providers to put together their events.

In the course of evaluating ideas and considering which external parties to work with, many proposals come across planners’ desks, from something simple like a destination hotel from a sourcing firm to something more unique, such as an entire gala concept from a DMC.

DeBiccari found herself on the other side of this issue at a previous job as a third-party planner, and it has forever changed how she handles her relationships with outside companies. “I had a client who was interested in doing something in Atlanta, Georgia, at the aquarium, and I had used a DMC there in the past, so I called and got a proposal and passed it on to my client,” she says. “They ended up not using the DMC or our company, but they used the ideas for their party.

“I had actually left the company by the time it happened, but the community is small, and the DMC found out what had happened through their contacts at the aquarium,” she continues. “The DMC was certainly wary of working with that client again, so I told them the name of the client, because I felt badly for them and in case that situation ever arose again, I wanted them to be prepared.

“Now, when I work with outside parties, I try to let the vendor or the DMC guide the ideas at least initially,” she explains. “If there’s anything I’ve seen in the past that I’d like to use, I use the baseline but make changes so I’m not stealing it. I think in this industry, a good idea goes a long way for everyone, and planners are willing to share ideas about what worked with them. They’re careful about IP (intellectual property) on the one hand, but on the other hand, they’re happy to share.”

Ethical Education

For Havens, ethical issues have few gray areas, because his company goes to great lengths to make sure that everyone on staff, regardless of department, knows what the company stance is on issues that affect all employees. “We have a yearly review that we take, that you take when you start as well,” he explains. “It’s a series of questions to make sure you’re aware of company policies, not specifically on meeting planning ethics.”

Offered similarly to how many companies offer sexual harassment training — online quiz style, to the whole company, with mandatory participation and passing — the training and test create a common knowledge base as well as trust level among employees and management. “It’s all about knowing what is considered ethical and what’s not, dealing with company policy, clients and customers,” Havens says.

“I think in general it’s good to keep aware of how the company approaches those kinds of questions and keep people on their toes regarding what they should and shouldn’t be doing,” he continues. Havens finds that having such a policy in place virtually eliminates doubts of any kind for his team on typical meeting planning ethics issues they might encounter.

For companies in certain industries, such as medical companies that interact with physicians in their meetings, this type of education also has become increasingly mandatory and standardized. Though Medtronic has separate meeting planning groups in different divisions and she herself is not involved in customer meetings and programs, Walstead has seen the overall move toward transparency affect the level of ethics awareness throughout the company.

“In our industry, we have to be so transparent with everything,” she says. “Luckily for me I’m not part of the customer world, and we have another group that is dedicated to Sunshine, but it makes it more work for everyone because you have to be an expert in what is a transfer of value. If you do something wrong, it’s going to be out there for everyone to see that this doctor was involved. I think its unfortunate because it takes away from the purpose of having meetings, and it puts a whole different twist on a meeting.”

Increased ethical scrutiny can come from press, government regulation or changes in technology, but through one means or another, it comes. Whether on the level of a professional organization or individual company, ethics codes and education resources must find ways to remain dynamic and contemporary.

“Very recently, there were some changes with the CMM that turned some people off,” says DeBiccari regarding planned changes to the name, qualification standards and testing procedure for the CMM, which caused a swift negative backlash among meeting planners.

“Companies and organizations need to look to planners and get their opinions. I’ve found, in many of my experiences, that we’re really supportive of each other and likely to band together not necessarily against the certification organization but on our opinions on these issues. There are really interesting ethics topics that come to play on a daily basis with planners as an industry, and it’s something we have to be careful of,” she says.

Final Thoughts

In meeting planning divisions across industries, ethics have come front and center as a result of meetings and events hitting general news outlets in a negative light, whether it’s finance companies taking ill-timed big budget trips or physician spending for medical meetings coming under tighter scrutiny due to the Sunshine Act.

On the ground in the lives of most meeting planners, though, ethical issues come in smaller, more muddled guises. Planners, who have becoming increasingly efficient and business-savvy due to other changes radiating from the recession, are relying on their strong intuition to make good choices and typically coming out on top, but increased codification and education in individual corporations can go a long way to keep everyone on the same page and operating along the same ethical lines. C&IT

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