Trust Me

Antitrust laws are a complex group of laws that are intended to protect the principles of a free market, competition, and supply and demand. Many meeting planners don't have to be concerned about antitrust issues in their jobs. However, they should be aware of those meeting and trade show situations in which antitrust becomes a serious legal concern.

Especially in an association context, planners should discourage any discussion among members of fees or prices for goods or services, lest these discussions be construed as an attempt at "price fixing." Trade associations are particularly at risk for antitrust violations, because they are made up of, by definition, competitors in the same trade or field.

The Sherman Act, one of the main federal antitrust laws, is intended to prohibit every "contract, combination . . . or conspiracy in restraint of trade . . . " What this means in everyday language is that federal law prohibits a group of potential competitors from agreeing to set a minimum, maximum, or range of prices or fees for goods or services. The savvy planner will prevent members of her group from even discussing prices or fees at her events, because some court cases have found that a "discussion" may constitute a silent agreement among the parties.

Imagine that the five largest widget manufacturers in the U.S. get together at the Widget Manufacturers Association (WMA) annual convention. Over coffee in the exhibitors lounge, they discuss the current economy. One of the members remarks out loud that if he charged $50 per widget rather than $35 per widget, his company would stay in the black and he could avoid layoffs. There is no verbal agreement by the group, but the other four widget manufacturers wink and nudge one another. Someone else comments, "Hey, we should all do our best to save jobs." Under antitrust laws, this could be construed by the courts as price-fixing, which is a per se offense. "Per se" means that the offense is illegal, even if it has no actual effect on competition.

To protect the Widget Manufacturers Association, the planner for the WMA should include an antitrust statement in exhibitors' materials, prohibiting any discussion of prices or fees while at the WMA annual convention and trade show. This prohibitive statement may be used in WMA's defense if it should be included in an antitrust lawsuit. Likewise, the planner should advise the board of directors, committees, and staff that any discussion of fees and prices should be avoided at all times. Involve legal counsel in these admonitions, if necessary. By Tyra Hilliard.