The word “ethics” may not be heard all that often in everyday conversation. But ethical questions come up all the time. Is there anyone involved in planning meetings who hasn’t experienced problems with an event due to a less-than honest approach taken by someone else? Or who has not had to pause in their own work and ask, “What’s the right thing to do?”
Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to business ethics in general, or to meeting planning, specifically. In its simplest terms, taking an ethical approach might mean always treating others fairly and honestly. But several other factors should also be taken into consideration.
Kathy Reak, CFMP, who routinely works with planners as vice president of sales for Visit Colorado Springs, says basic consideration is an important factor. “I appreciate when planners are considerate of our organization and our properties,” she says. “When a site extends to four or five days and only considers a couple of hotels and/or expects us to accommodate them during a holiday, it feels more like they are vacationing rather than conducting business.” To make things worse, too often planners insist that the CVB and/or hotel pay for everything. “It’s pretty easy to spot who is serious and who is not based on their site expectations,” she says. “As a destination, we work off a smaller budget than most, and have to be very proficient with our dollars.”
Reak recalls an incident where a planner asked the CVB to pay for their airfare up front. “It was an incredible piece of business for our area, and against our better judgment, we sent a check prior to the planner’s arrival,” she says. “They canceled the site visit and now had an airline ticket to go anywhere they wanted … We never heard from this planner again despite many phone calls and emails.”
She also points out that some planners operate on the more positive end of the spectrum. Instead of expecting to have everything provided, they insist on paying for most things themselves so they don’t appear to be taking advantage of the destination or the hotels. “These are the planners for whom we try to go out of our way to make them feel welcome and special,” Reak says.
An important guideline for planners is to ensure equal and equitable access to the broadest group of people in preparing for meetings and events, says Stephanie M. H. Moore, a lecturer of business law and ethics at Indiana University. She notes that attendees have a variety of needs that must be met. “Bringing together a diverse team of planners can help make sure the team’s lens and viewpoint is as wide as possible,” she says. “Meeting attendees may have a variety of needs, and providing multiple equitable points of access will be essential.”
Moore notes that social and societal issues are also business issues, and that diverse teams are more creative and productive. But the failure to consider the different needs that these teams have will prevent them from reaching their true potential. “Ethical meeting planners consider the needs of the working parents and other caregivers,” she says. “They ensure access for their disabled employees who may or may not have apparent disabilities. Ethical meeting planners make sure they communicate with their client and industry base to ensure as much access as possible — both in person and remotely.” In addition, recorded sessions with captioning, an opportunity to give feedback and open communication are all important.
Several other traits are also desirable. “Meeting planners must be transparent, fair, honest and trustworthy in all of their business dealings with hotels, third parties, DMCs and vendors,” says Diane Lyons, CMP, DMCP, president of ACCENT New Orleans Inc., a DMC Network Company. She says it’s important for planners to be transparent with budget, demographics and vision, as well as how ROI will be measured.
Lyons points to a time when her firm and several other local DMCs were shopped for weeks and pitted against each other with requests for revision after revision of a proposal. In the interim, the meeting planner came to New Orleans and sited the venues with a DMC she had worked with in the past and whom she had already decided to work. “While they did not contract with us, they did end up using the ideas we proposed in their event,” she says. “Our intellectual property was shared without our consent, and valuable time was spent curating — and revising — a proposal that they never intended to go to contract with.”
At the same time, Lyons takes pains to note that she has worked with many meeting planners who have shown exemplary ethics. “They were up front with their process, and they clearly defined the budget as well as the deciding factors for choosing their partner at the meeting,” Lyons says.
Transparency is also a key as seen from Lyons’ perspective, a value she urges planners to keep in mind. “Define the process and be clear on timelines and how decisions will be made,” she says. “If meeting planners share as much information as possible, everyone will win in the long run.”
Kendra Summers Bauman, former director of group sales at El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, California, advises being authentic on a consistent basis. “The most important aspect of planning is authenticity and transparency,” she says. “Whether a planner is representing the client while seeking a venue, or a venue or vendor is sending a bid, we’re all professionals and should have clear communication with each other in order to best serve the client.”
Centuries-old wisdom such as doing unto others or walking in someone else’s shoes can no doubt be applied to the ethics of planning. That’s an approach for dealing with DMCs recommended by Val Delaney, executive vice president of the Association of Destination Management Executives International (ADMEI), who, like others, also focuses on transparency. “I hope that planners will approach the DMC proposal process with transparency and trust as it is the beginning of an important partnership,” she says. “Providing goals and parameters in their RFP will ensure they receive information relevant to their program needs while helping the DMC focus its time and talent on the items of importance to their planner partner.
Some routine practices that may not quite fit in a “right-or-wrong” comparison can still have ethical overtones. For example, keeping others appropriately informed makes life less complicated for all concerned. “Timely communication with vendors and clients is always very important to establish trust and confidence,” says Maureen Stella, director of sales & marketing at The Opus Westchester in White Plains, New York. “No matter how busy you might be in a given day, it is important to try to respond within a few hours’ time frame, even if it’s just letting them know you are reviewing their proposal.” Even when someone is being demanding or has unrealistic expectations, she adds, it’s important to be solutions-oriented rather than criticizing or expressing frustration.
In many cases, ethical challenges arise from problems with contracts. “Typically, these situations involve contract oversights discovered after the contract has been executed by both parties,” says Bob Harris, executive vice president of group sales, Visit Myrtle Beach/Myrtle Beach Area Chamber & CVB. “Doing the right thing, ethically, means both parties must be willing to revise the contract to correct errors.”
Marshall Schminke, professor of Business Ethics & Strategy at the University of Central Florida, emphasizes that being fully fair and transparent with clients is not only the right thing to do, it’s clearly better long-term business. “Planners should ask, is there anything involved in executing this event that I would want to know about if I were on the other side of this transaction?”
Stella advises against making promises you can’t keep. “It’s easy to want to promise everything a client is asking for and more, but,” says Stella, “it is important to keep in mind what is realistic to execute. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than the opposite.”
She, like Moore, also affirms the value of focusing on diversity. “We always put a focus on diversity and inclusion, and feel that it is important to have a diverse team with different backgrounds,” Stella says. This applies not just to staffing, but also everything from choosing speakers to making sure the selection of vendors includes minority-owned businesses.
An ability to adapt to change with a positive attitude is also desirable. “Corporate planning can become tricky,” Summers Bauman says. “You may find a client has suddenly shifted from one to over a dozen cooks in the kitchen when working on a high-profile event.”
On a fundamental basis, avoiding following the practices of partners that may be questionable is an imperative. “Don’t get sucked into the unethical acts of others, including your clients,” says J. Kevin Foster, an ethics expert at Business Ethics Advisors LLC. “It is easy to let your guard down when others around you are acting unethically.”
To place attention on ethical thinking, a practice worth considering by any planner is consulting an official code of ethics that has been adopted by a professional association.
For example, Meeting Professionals International (MPI), has developed a comprehensive code of ethics that can be accessed on its website. The first item listed, perhaps not surprisingly, is client service. That’s followed by descriptive language on conflict of interest, group autonomy, processes, methodology and tools, and safety, equity and trust. Also listed are stewardship of process, confidentiality and professional development.
In the same spirit, members of Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) are asked to meet high levels of professional and ethical behavior. This expectation is articulated in 10 specific areas, including acting with integrity, respect, honesty and credibility, respecting the policies and regulations of partner organizations, and refusing inappropriate gifts or incentives.
Members are also expected to value diversity and strive to reflect it by providing and fostering an inclusive atmosphere. A look at codes of ethics put forth by other groups reveals a similar conceptual framework. While individual components may vary, the overall thrust tends to be similar.
Whether adopted from a professional group or adapted internally, a formal code of ethics can offer value on several levels. Rather than simply posting on a wall or website, such a document is worth reviewing on a regular basis.
At a minimum, it can serve as a reminder of basic precepts. Sharing a formal code of ethics with team members can do the same for them while also providing an opportunity to emphasize your own commitment to high ethical standards. Even better, making it the topic of discussion at staff meetings can bring healthy interactions, especially if the standards are applied to real life examples of situations you or other team members have experienced.
And when aspiring to the most fundamental ethical behavior, one tried-and-true approach is always advisable: “Consider the consequences of an unethical act before committing it,” Foster says. “Reputations are lost very quickly, and bad deeds are almost always found out.”
With decisions large and small, ethical considerations should always be a priority.
“As we’ve all been taught from the earliest of ages, it is always best to do the right thing — even if it’s not the easiest or the most efficient path,” Harris says. “Prioritizing ethics creates an environment of trust that will lead to a lifetime of partnership.” C&IT