Over the past few years, the televised images of dozens of executives being led from courthouses in handcuffs have made us shake our heads in amazement. After all, we say, how could these people have thought they could get away with conducting so many shady transactions, or consistently using company and client resources for personal enrichment, or both? It just seems so egregious, so overtly wrong.
But let's turn the spotlight around: A planner sends out requests for proposal for a meeting, and gets site-inspection offers from several properties. Some are far more suited to host the event than others, but one of the "long shot" properties is easily the most exotic and beautiful, and the planner may never get another opportunity to visit there. Or, after a planner holds a large, lucrative event at a resort, the grateful property credits her with 100,000 loyalty points—enough for a four-day vacation for her family sometime in the near future.
In such situations, is it flat-out wrong if a planner partakes? Does it only skirt the edges of propriety? Or is indulging simply a justifiable perk that's unique to the meetings and hospitality business? The answer suddenly doesn't seem as clear as when we saw those executives on the television news.
The only thing that is clear is that such situations are just the tip of the ethical iceberg for planners. "This industry is seductive in so many ways," says Terri Breining, president of San Diego-based independent planning firm Concepts Worldwide. "But everyone has their own threshold for what is acceptable to them, and that complicates the situation."
For instance, when Breining first started her business, "People were telling me all sorts of 'tips' I could employ, like not disclosing vendor commissions to my event clients, or giving payback to hoteliers who might provide a lead to me," she says. "I thought, 'This doesn't sound quite right, but maybe this is the way the game is played.' But just because something isn't illegal doesn't mean it's right. And every time something like that happens, it paints our industry with a dirty brush, makes us look less like a legitimate profession, and makes it more difficult to do business in the long run."
What's more, in the short run, one indiscretion can be fatal to reputation and career. Judy Allen, a Cleveland-based consultant and author of the book Event Planning Ethics and Etiquette, offers this anecdote: One corporate planner, assigned to stay at the property after an event to reconcile the meeting's bills, invited a few friends to share her room at the resort. While that in itself is not abusive, the friends charged meals and poolside drinks back to the planner's room, and those charges found their way onto the master account. When the hotel alerted the company that hosted the event to the exorbitant charges billed to the planner's room, the planner was fired.
The good news is that the meetings industry's professional associations have stepped up their educational focus on ethical considerations and dilemmas in recent years. The bad news is that the particularly difficult business climate of the past few years, combined with the rapid advance of technology, have made for a new set of ethical challenges that aren't any more clear-cut than the longtime dilemmas present in event planning.
As much as planners and suppliers love to talk at industry conferences about the importance of building relationships that encourage fair dealings with one another, the economic troubles of the past three and a half years made much of that talk a quaint theoretical notion. In that time, "It seems that it was the planners who were more apt to breach ethical boundaries in their dealings with suppliers," says John DiFrances, a Wales, WI-based management consultant who frequently speaks on ethics. "Budgets were shrunk so badly and the demands on planners were so high that they were trying to get anything they could at the bottom dollar. Unfortunately, this led to some actions that some planners probably are not proud of, but felt would help them keep their jobs or show them to be valuable to the organization."
Here's one example: Between late 2000 and the start of 2004—and particularly after September 11, 2001—hotels had little negotiating power, and often greatly reduced their cancellation penalties to lure events. In light of this, some planners used the properties' hunger for business to try to improve rates and other terms after the contracts were signed, under threat of canceling at that property and taking the meeting elsewhere. "I would really hope that most planners do not function like that," says Breining, "because if hoteliers see enough of that they will feel free to give us the same treatment, and gouge us when they are in the stronger economic position."
Some say that is already happening. Tricia Hall, an ethics trainer and principal of Placitas, NM-based planning firm Tricia Hall & Associates, tells what she heard in an ethics seminar she conducted a few months ago: "One planner was told by a hotel she contracted with that hotel management was canceling her meeting from the property because they landed a much better piece of business over the same dates. And the sales rep literally said to the planner, 'If you don't like it, take us to court.' And it's not the first time I've heard that lately, either."
A second area of ethical concern that's only recently come to the fore stems from the rapid advancement of technology. With conferences and trade shows electronically collecting detailed data on attendees for the benefit of exhibitors who will also attend the event, there is easy money to be made by selling that information to fourth parties—firms that do not have a presence at the show, but that wish to solicit attendees via phone, snail mail, or e-mail.
"There is so much abuse of data happening right now, and not just in the meetings industry," says DiFrances. "People are gathering and selling information, and the problem is that the people whose information is being distributed cannot even track how other parties get their information, so there is no way to opt out of the process." The solution, he notes, is for "organizations that collect attendee information to clearly and publicly state their data-privacy policies, and then make good on the promise not to use it outside of the context for which the data was collected. Yes, there is short-term financial gain to be had, but you ruin the credibility of your organization in the process."
Interestingly, some people who call themselves planners are taking advantage of other planners to make a quick buck. "Because the Internet allows people to find out almost everything about a group's upcoming conferences, hotels are paying lead-generation fees to people who have no authority to proffer a particular meeting," says Hall. "Even though there is no relationship between the meeting group and the person offering the lead, I don't think the hotels care much about where they get the information anyway. All the while, the event client has no idea about where her meeting is being touted."
Finally, Breining heard about a third party's end run around a meeting organizer that devastated the group's negotiated room block. "A company with no ties to the event called all of the exhibitors and said, 'I know you have a room in the block, but I can get you a better deal.' Many of them took the offer from the third party, which turned out to be a site-selection company that straddles the line of being a planner or a supplier. When the planner found out and called the company, they said they had legitimate use of the list, which of course was not true. So they got the list in an underhanded way, but the planner doesn't know how. She paid a dear price for someone else being unethical."
Walking the Line
If it is not clear enough from the previous examples that ethics training needs to be an ongoing process for all those who plan meetings, consider this: Even veteran planners acknowledge that every one of them has a different threshold they adhere to when it comes to the various age-old perks and situations they are exposed to. In light of this, "The many people who plan just one or two meetings a year, or who are just entering the planning business, aren't going to know what is usual and customary in this industry," DiFrances says. What's more, "Sometimes people don't know that what they are asking or offering is unethical or puts you into a compromising position," adds Hall. "We have to eliminate naivete on both the planner and supplier sides."
To be sure, the subtlety involved in many situations requires seasoned guidance. Take, for example, the issue of gifts given to planners for bringing a meeting to a property. When it comes to being offered laptop PCs, Blackberry devices, airline tickets, vacation certificates, and even automobiles, the consensus is that such items should go back to the organization or raffled off to attendees. And in the case of hotel points, planners should use them to secure room upgrades, receptions, or other free items that benefit a meeting.
On the other hand, Hattie Hill, president of Dallas-based Hattie Hill Enterprises, poses this scenario: "If the hotel says to the planner, 'You were wonderful to work with, and if you want to stay two more nights after the conference and catch up on your sleep and relax before you go back,' then that's a different thing. The planner earned that."
"The notion of entitlement is a very interesting area for planners," says Tricia Hall. "There is a lot of justification going on, especially in the tough climate of the past few years, and some people are really stretching the boundaries." Terri Breining adds, "I'm not saying that I don't take advantage of the perks this business has offered me. After all, most of us planners wouldn't say that we're being overpaid. We can enjoy those perks—but we also must spend time thinking about what the right balance is, and where accepting particular things would be an abusive situation."
The one clarifying question that all planners, experienced and otherwise, can use to navigate the often-muddy ethical waters is this: If your boss learned of your actions, what would be the reaction? "If you are reluctant or would be embarrassed to tell your manager," says DiFrances, "then it seems that you know what the right answer is." In fact, "The best way to avoid any problems is to simply disclose to your bosses the circumstances you find yourself in," says Hattie Hill. "Now you've made them part of the decision-making process. You're not alone with it anymore."
"You do have to consider what would be the worst-case consequences to come from your decision," concludes Tricia Hall. "But with many situations, there's often not just one right answer. There is only, 'What can I live with?' "
Ethics training for planners takes many forms
In light of the fact that many employees work only occasionally on planning meetings, most companies don't educate their people on how to handle the various ethical gray areas they'll encounter in the task. "There is a lot of smoke and noise from executives about ethics in general, but it's amazing how few firms train employees properly before putting them in positions that offer the type of temptations we see in the meetings and hospitality business," says John DiFrances, a Wales, WI-based consultant.
At Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, IL, there is a policy across all departments regulating the acceptance of gifts from suppliers, says Evelyn Laxgang, the firm's director of marketing support operations and former chairwoman of Meeting Professionals International. Further, each employee involved in event planning must take a three-hour ethics class each year; besides a discussion of how to deal scrupulously with suppliers, "The session covers the many perks that hotels, airlines, and other suppliers offer, and how employees should disclose them and use them for the benefit of the firm," she adds. In an employee's first year, the instruction is classroom-based; in subsequent years, the employee can complete the training either in person or online.
Tricia Hall, principal of Placitas, NM-based Tricia Hall & Associates, enhances her ethics training programs with a Monopoly-like board game that keeps people's eyes from glazing over. "Ethics doesn't sound like an exciting topic to cover, but once people are given the situations they see in their work and can debate the right course of action, it gets interesting," she says. Participants advance over the game board by choosing what they think is the best answer to an ethical dilemma. "Like in the real world, there are several possible answers," Hall says. "One may send you forward two steps, another five steps, and another may set you back one step."
For those looking to enhance their ethics awareness on their own, Hattie Hill, president of Dallas-based consultancy Hattie Hill Enterprises, recommends looking not only to the various meetings industry associations, but also to universities and community colleges that offer both in-person and online instruction. "With everything that's going on in corporate America these days, these classes are not hard to find," she says.
At Motorola, the ethics training program is a central part of management's message "that there will be no tolerance for an ethical transgression," Laxgang notes. "So I think that people here will err on the side of caution. And if you really want to keep your job, that's the easiest way. After all, is there any one perk that's worth taking such a chance?"