by Loren G. Edelstein | February 12, 2018
Just two and half weeks after forming the LinkedIn group Meeting Planners Unite, David Bruce, managing partner of CMP Meeting Services LP, has made strides toward fulfilling the nascent group's objectives. Created days after Marriott's Jan. 24 announcement that commissions for group business in the U.S. and Canada will drop from 10 to 7 percent, the new entity's stated mission was to demonstrate to the hospitality industry -- Marriott in particular -- that the combined spending power of independent meeting professionals is equal to or greater than that of the largest third-party players.
With Bruce and other Meeting Planners Unite members loudly expressing their collective dismay, Marriott's group sales executives have agreed to meet with Bruce at Marriott's Maryland headquarters on Feb. 23. Also, along with some 875 members of Meeting Planners Unite via its LinkedIn and Facebook pages, Bruce and fellow independent Jeff Berger, president and CEO of Conference Planning Resources in the Chicago area, are working to form a nonprofit association also called Meeting Planners Unite, not only to make the case for commissions, but to offer much-needed services to help independent planners with the challenges of running a small business. This morning, Bruce shared his plans exclusively with M&C.
 
What do you expect to come of the Feb. 23 meeting with Marriott?
Hopefully, we will have a constructive conversation about the situation. First and foremost, the goal is to show to them the value of this group and how much money we're talking about. I'm hoping we can find common ground between what their needs are and what our group's needs are. Instead of it being an us vs. them situation, I would like it to be a real dialogue.
 
Have you had any preliminary conversations with Marriott? Do you have reason to believe they might consider changing their decision to reduce commissions?
I don't think I'd be going to D.C. if we weren't in that position. They see the importance of it, too. They first asked for a phone appointment and then turned it into a face-to-face meeting. If we can show that our group has the buying power that some of the big four do, maybe we can walk out of there with an agreement -- or the start of an agreement -- that will extend out our 10 percent for some time. That's our goal. I do think they have the same goals. If you make it our emotional thing, that's not going to help anyone. We're past the emotional reaction; it's time to have a constructive conversation.
 
Tell me about your plans to form an association.
It will be a 501(c)(6) nonprofit called Meeting Planners Unite. The association will deal with issues that are specific to independent planners: group health insurance, prepaid legal services and prepaid accounting services -- things many third parties don't really have a good grasp on. Health insurance alone is a major problem: Most of these small businesses can't get a group policy, so they either go without or pay an exorbitant amount of money for it.
 
The fact is, independent planners are more occupied with selling and serving their clients than running their business. We will offer services to help them develop their businesses a little better. If we have 500 to 900 people who operate small businesses with three to five members in each one of them, we will have the buying power to make it reasonable to offer those services. I'm very excited about that.
 
There also will be a trade-show component and a fund for third-party planners who run into emergencies or health issues in their families. We will have a foundation so that we can address those issues for the third-party planner, so they're not hung out to dry if they come upon hard times.
 
Do you or Jeff Berger have experience with association management? 
I ran a Parkinson's foundation at one time, so I've got some experience in it.
 
Will you both have leadership roles in the association?
I assume that will be the way it rolls. We haven't defined those parameters at this point. But I certainly expect we will be taking very heavy roles. Once we develop and get it going, we will probably reach out to an association management company to do the day-to-day, because we have our own businesses to run.
 
Beyond the commissions issue, what is the purpose of the association?
It's something that has been needed for quite some time. The purpose is to really work with this group of people who are not affiliated with any of the Big Four and allow them the opportunity to have a united voice, whether it be on this issue or any of the other issues that can possibly come up. There are so many issues that arise in our industry; this just happens to be the one we're facing today. This Marriott issue is a terrible thing in many different ways, but in another way it has given us the opportunity to speak as one, which is so rare in our industry.
 
What are your goals for a conference or trade show?
Mainly getting the planners together, and having not only a trade-show aspect but a good dialogue about the things that are important for us and the things that are important to hotels, CVBs, A/V companies, etc. We are really trying to develop relationships, to go back to the days of people working with those that they trust. Our goal is to show that you can build those relationships again like they once were.
 
What's the timeline for officially establishing Meeting Planners Unite?
We're working daily on it now. We hope to start to form numbers in the next few weeks and apply for our 501(c)(6). We already have the website, meetingplannersunite.org, up and running -- at least in draft form for now.
 
How can interested planners join?
They can go to the website and send me a message there, or join through the LinkedIn group or Facebook page. We're trying to work out the numbers as far as the membership fee; we want it to be as reasonable as possible.
 
Do you have a target date for the first meeting? 
I would think it would be later in the year. I assume we're going to come out very strongly, with so many members on Facebook and LinkedIn. We are up to 850 or 875 at this point. It's important to get everything laid out correctly for the association, and present this at the first show, making it clear that this is an organization that is for us and by us. It's imperative that we give these people something that they can use on a daily basis, whether it be the law service or the CPA or the health insurance. If we can get discounted group plans written up, we have the option of doing something very good for our industry. And I'm excited about that.
 
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