EthicsNovember 1, 2013

Why You Should Forget the Freebies and Go Down the Right Path By
November 1, 2013


Why You Should Forget the Freebies and Go Down the Right Path


There was a time when the term “business ethics” might have sounded like an oxymoron, but the term hardly raises an eyebrow today. A few years ago, Occupy Wall Street protestors took to the streets to challenge businesses “behaving badly” but the movement has mostly faded. Still, the fervor in some camps has not died down. In fact, the subject of ethics in business is a very relevant topic of conversation at meetings and events throughout the country, especially among insurance and financial services companies.

FICP and other industry associations such as MPI and PCMA regularly revise their codes of ethics and/or conduct for their members, especially now that connecting via social media is all the rage.

For example, the first item listed in PCMA’s E-Group Rules and  Etiquette section is “Don’t challenge or attack others. The discussions and comments are meant to stimulate conversation not to create contention. Let others have their say, just as you may.”

Furthermore, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) in 2011 released a revised version of its Ethics Statement and Policy for the CMP program “to protect the public against unprofessional and unethical conduct by certified meeting professionals.” All CMP hopefuls, as well as planners who wish to recertify, must sign a nine-point pledge in order to merit the CMP professional designation. Non-compliance with the code may result in stern enforcement from the CIC and loss of one’s professional designation as a CMP.

Ethics Enforcement:
'Do the Right Thing

Having an ethics code is one thing, enforcing it is quite another. That’s the hard part. But doing so will elevate everyone’s professional status in the meeting planning industry say many experts such as Bob Dawson, CITE.

Dawson dons many hats; however, all of them are tilted toward the incentive travel side of the meeting planning business. As managing consultant at San Francisco, CA-based i-Myth, an incentive management and research company, Dawson sometimes compares the meeting planning business to a candy store, full of treats. “But,” Dawson cautions, “it must be remembered that nothing is free. Someone has to pay the cost in the end. The industry has to realize that the cost of doing business ethically is a lot less than not. I say, forget the freebies and just give me the best value for my client.”

Dawson, who feels strongly that code enforcement is the next step to professionalizing meeting planning, answered the following questions:

IFMM: The Convention Industry Council expanded its code of ethics so that it includes an enforcement policy. What are your thoughts about this?

DAWSON: My main thought is that having a code of ethics is great for the profession and making it enforceable is even better. Both meeting and incentive planners have often been viewed, to some degree, as non-professional positions because planners weren’t truly answerable to any professional organization. Now, they are.

IFMM: Which of the nine points of the revised CIC code do you think are most relevant?

DAWSON: I think the first two bullets pretty much spell it out: “Maintain exemplary standards of professional conduct at all times,” and “Actively model and encourage the integration of ethics into professional conduct at all times.” That may mean reporting violations you see or hear about. I get that from clients all the time, where they say to me, “So-and-so asked me to ask you if we could get ‘extra miles’ for booking the XYZ hotel.” We can’t conduct business like that.

IFMM: What particular scenario have you experienced that needed enforcement?

DAWSON: A client we were working with said that they loved what we had proposed but decided to go with our competitor anyway because that competing agency said they could do what we proposed for less and that they would give some extra reward in the process. That competitor stole our creativity. We took the matter to Site but they were powerless and said that you cannot place a copyright on ideas. Well, not legally, but what is ethically correct? Now when clients approach me, I give them a rough outline of what we can do for them — but not the specifics unless they first buy a proprietary license. Then, they are free to do it themselves or hire us at which point we take the cost of the license off the bill.

IFMM: I know you mentioned the possibility of planners reporting abuse, but how else can a code be policed, if at all?

DAWSON: By both sides of the industry. Planners need to understand that they are not being professional or ethical when they accept a free offer to take their buddies on a golfing trip to Hawaii because some resort wants their business. In the end, someone has to pay for it. Maybe the cost of that trip will eventually be passed on to an innocent planner who does decide to book the resort in question. As for policing the CIC policy, that might be left up to the CIC board. They know what’s going on, and they are the leaders in the industry. I’m sure they’ll do the right thing and set the standard.

IFMM: Do you see this code as perhaps the final phase of all the revamping of the industry that has gone on in the past five years?

DAWSON: If this is carried out all the way through with enforcement, yes. Look at what’s happened with the AIG mess, and also with banks incenting mortgage brokers to go out and get business from people who shouldn’t even be applying for mortgage loans. The brokers did it without asking questions to get the business. Their excuse was that’s what they were told to do. But, as a professional, you’re expected to ask questions when things don’t appear to be right. — SJ

“The new ethics statement and disciplinary policy are an extension of policies that were already in place within the program,” said Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP and CEO of the Convention Industry Council in a statement. “Having both…are a best practice and a necessity for all credible certification programs that set professional standards. The ethics statement outlines norms of professional conduct that should guide and act as a compass in day-to-day business dealings. The disciplinary policy establishes procedures and avenues of recourse in the very rare event when they are needed.”

Martie Sparks, CMP, the 2011 chair of the CMP board of directors and vice president of catering and convention services at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, noted that an ethics statement without enforcement is an empty one: “Having an ethics statement is not new for the CMP. The CMP board felt it was important to make it more visible. It needed to be available as a resource for CMPs, outside of the application and recertification processes. And, of course, it also needed to be a public document. As for the disciplinary procedures, from an administrative perspective the board also felt it important to have written procedures in place to handle any ethics complaints, should they arise.”

Positive Response

The response from planners of the insurance community has been favorable. As Florine Edwards, CMP, CMM, vice president of corporate programs and exhibit management for FM Global, a provider of commercial and industrial property insurance located in Johnston, RI, states, “I’m pleased to see the CIC refresh its code of ethics. It helps to reinforce the competence and effectiveness of the meeting planning profession and puts our line of work on a par with other organizations.

“For example, in the insurance world, if you have the letters CPCU after your name, that designation indicates that the recipient has achieved a level of competence in the field and has completed a course on Ethics and the CPCU Code of Professional Conduct,” she says. “The letters CMP and CMM should send a similar message regarding our own profession. A code of ethics that is consistently applied can build confidence with clients and business partners who can expect a level of professionalism and expertise in their strategic as well as day-to-day dealings with the meeting planning team. It’s a win/win situation for both,” adds Edwards.

Wayne M. Robinson, CMP is equally enthused. As director of agency meetings for Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, WI, he says it’s great that the CIC is sharing ethics information across the industry.

“I think it’s needed because our profession is very unique,” notes Robinson. “The standard code of conduct at most companies looks at travel, entertainment and related products and services such as gifts and amenities as definite no-nos. But in our business, they are a part of how a meeting planner experiences and plans for what the attendee experience will be.”

Robinson points out a typical dilemma most planners face: “We need to experience everything to evaluate the meeting from their perspective in order to achieve a full understanding of all of the elements of the hospitality experience. Having a standard framework that addresses the meeting profession would be beneficial to the industry in order to avoid going down the wrong path.

Robinson adds, “I’ve been around the block a few times to know there are instances where some people take advantage of opportunities that may be seen as crossing the line. But, one also has to keep in mind that sometimes what can be perceived as unethical behavior is not always so.”

As for the matter of coordinating incentive sales programs in ways that are ethical at all times, Robinson believes it’s a matter of common sense. “Use your better judgment at all times,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves if our CEO was standing there, would we conduct business in the same manner? We are all very fortunate to be able to represent our companies and our industry, so there is way too much at risk to be losing it all because of unethical behavior.”

Independent planners such as Dianne Davis, president of TulNet, a full-service meeting and marketing group based in Tulsa, OK, applaud efforts to shore-up ethics in the meetings industry. “The very nature of our industry opens meeting professionals up to the possibility of many ethical issues. Between FAM trip abuses and gifts given to sway business, the possibilities for ethical violations are everywhere,” Davis cautions. “I say, let’s keep everything aboveboard. I don’t want to be offered anything that could possibly give me a sense of indebtedness to use a particular destination or property.”

Transparency Is Key

Judy Johnson, CMP, president and CEO of Rx Worldwide Meetings in Plano, TX, gave her second presentation on the subject of business ethics at MPI’s World Education Congress in St. Louis, MO. Even though Johnson’s company is a pharmaceutical event and meeting planning company, she tailored her talk for a broader corporate audience. Johnson is on the advisory boards of the Richland College Travel and Meeting Management program, the San Diego CVB, Associated Luxury Hotels International and the Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum

“Everyone can develop bad habits after a time including meeting planners and people from hotels,” Johnson claims. “For instance, abuses occur when planners go on FAM trips that they have no intention of ever booking; or, when planners don’t disclose the fact that they might have received a commission, gift or reward for booking one hotel or destination over another. Sure, sometimes it’s a lapse in judgment, but sometimes not. Planners must be transparent at all times.”

Johnson also advises that if companies are to have their own internal Ethics Risk Management policy (ERM) in place, it is important that they implement it across the board, meaning all departments, and have specific guidelines in place for people to follow.

“As in the old days, whenever an employee breached corporate policy, they were written up, maybe warned a couple of times and, if behavior didn’t change, they were terminated,” she says. “If you have a clear vision and corporate leadership that buys into it, then the only challenge is to enforce it.”

Johnson admits that terminating someone in the corporate office who is in non-compliance with corporate policy is a lot easier than having the CIC blackball a CMP for non-compliance issues. “I’m not even sure who is going to take the high road on this,” she says, “but at least we’re opening the dialogue and raising awareness, and we do so every time we have these sessions.”

The Supplier Side

When asked how she thinks the supplier side of the industry might respond, Johnson says that she expects hotels won’t want to alienate meeting planners altogether but, in time, will get the message that they are not conducting business as usual.

“What they are starting to do is to change the way they do things, and that’s okay. For example, FAM trips are now becoming educational trips,” Johnson observes. “Whereas once these trips could become somewhat excessive in terms of wining and dining, now that is no longer the case. Instead, suppliers and vendors want to use meeting planners’ time more wisely, gather us together, show us what we might be interested in, what we need to see, pick our brains a little and, maybe, treat us to dinner in the process. And that’s okay but only if there is genuine interest on the part of the participating planners to book a particular hotel or destination.”

Abuses or Perks?

Like Johnson, Tul­Net’s Davis has worked on both sides of the fence, having formerly held management positions for various hotel groups and a CVB. Her war stories involve clients seeking freebies for their own personal vacations — even to the point where one meeting planner asked her for a free hotel room for his wife’s shopping trip. “This kind of thing was not an unusual request,” Davis adds. “But, when he called asking if I would also send her a fruit basket with a bottle of wine at the hotel’s expense, I was ruffled. And then when he asked if I would also include a card with his name on it so his wife would think it was from him, I had to draw a line.”

Now, as an independent meeting planner, Davis says she is constantly being offered FAM trips, gifts and favors. “I know many planners accept these offers thinking it’s a perk of the job, but I do not agree with that line of reasoning. I would only accept a trip if I am strongly considering a particular destination or hotel. Planners need to police themselves, and our destinations and hotel partners need to moderate these offerings by giving them only to qualified candidates.”

Johnson tops that anecdote with a story about an event in South Korea. She was busy attending an offsite event when two of her staff members from the headquarters hotel called her and said she’d better hurry back as they were about to be charged for their own audio-visual equipment. “The salesperson explained that it was clearly stated in the addendum attached to this 30-page contract that any audio-visual equipment that was brought in from the outside would still be charged accordingly — even though we owned it,” she says. “I took it further with corporate and got the whole matter resolved but it was a battle. This type of thing needs to be more clearly defined and spelled out from the start.”

Johnson also cautions planners to think first before mixing business with friendship. She proposed an incentive program for a corporate planner who was a friend. “We customized the program for her group, we introduced her to all the vendors and suppliers involved including a disc jockey for an offsite event and so on. In the end, after outlining every aspect of the program and everyone that would be involved in producing the event, she turned us down and said she could do it herself,” Johnson admits, “I still can’t get over it.”

Intellectual Property Theft

Indeed, intellectual property theft is a significant problem in the industry. As TulNet’s Davis says, “I recently heard a presentation from a speaker who clearly used someone else’s content without a single citation. I ask you, when did this type of behavior become okay?”

To reduce this type of thievery, Robinson recommends that all meeting materials such as handouts and presentations be kept secure onsite, that all rooms are inspected following the session and materials should be destroyed or shipped back.

“It’s important to always assume that all company materials are proprietary and never discard them in a public receptacle,” Robinson advises. He prefers electronic materials over paper as they can be emailed or downloaded.

Robinson says he has been generous about sharing his ROI methods and is disappointed when it is used by others without permission or attribution. “I often see, even today, despite copyrights on all of the material, my words being inserted into presentations, on websites and in webinars without any reference to my copyright,” he says.

So the question remains: Will questionable behavior be accepted as “business as usual” or will the CIC and other industry associations rein in abuses via their revised codes of conduct and enforcement? Only professional planners can provide the answer. I&FMM

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