by Loren G. Edelstein | February 26, 2018
A planned discussion between Marriott executives and independent planner David Bruce, founder of Meeting Planners Unite, would not have constituted an antitrust violation, according to legal experts. However, that was the hotel company's reasoning for backing out of such a talk that had been scheduled for last Friday, Feb. 23.
Created just 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, Meeting Planners Unite aims to demonstrate the spending power and influence of independent meeting professionals.
After several weeks of communicating with Steve Heitzner, chief sales and marketing officer of the Americas for Marriott International, Bruce received an email Thursday morning to "clarify" that Marriott was willing to discuss Bruce's own planning business, CMP Meeting Services, but would not meet with him as a representative of Meeting Planners Unite.
Bruce told M&C in an interview on Friday, "It was always my intention -- and always our goal -- to listen to what Marriott had to say, and to let Marriott listen to what we had to say, and try to come to some understanding between the two organizations. That was our goal on Feb. 2 when we set the meeting, and it continued to be our goal as of yesterday."
A spokesperson for Marriott International told M&C: "Marriott International places a priority on maintaining and strengthening its relationships with stakeholders. However, antitrust laws restrict the types of information that can be freely shared among competitors including through validly formed associations. Marriott will not discuss with anyone the financial terms on which it does or will do business with that person's competitors."
When provided with that explanation, a legal representative for Meeting Planners Unite, which now is 900-members strong and in the process of forming a nonprofit association, advised Bruce on Friday, "There are several issues here, and Marriott is correct that you have to be aware of antitrust laws when dealing with competitors within an industry." However, the representative noted that MPU was formed as a corporation and could have members pay a fee or dues, and "You can also ask Marriott to provide discounts to your members," which in this case would be a higher percentage commission.
M&C legal expert Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., who began his career as an antitrust lawyer, agreed that the meeting would not have violated antitrust laws. The Federal Trade Commission's Sherman Act, which dates from 1890, prohibits "unreasonable restraint of trade," or any agreement or conspiracy that unfairly and unreasonably has an impact on commerce, explained Howe. But in this case, he said, "The conversation was going to be, 'What's Marriott's plan?'" and that discussion would not have violated antitrust laws.  
"I think that David Bruce has got a tiger by the tail," Howe said. "You can hide behind a lot of things, but this excuse -- which is based upon the antitrust laws and what they limit and what they don't limit -- does not hold up."
Howe, whose legal career as an antitrust attorney led him to represent associations and the broader meetings and travel industry, noted, "With any trade association, any professional organization, what do you have? You have a bunch of competitors in the room, and they have the opportunity to exchange information."
Marriott could have gone ahead with the meeting, Howe said, and "put a lawyer in the room who plays traffic cop" to redirect any part of the discussion that might pose antitrust concerns. "There are so many dynamics involved in this right now," Howe added. "But to basically cut off the conversation for fear of antitrust -- I think that's essentially saying, 'We're unprepared to have the dialog at this point.'"
At some point soon, Howe said, "The conversation has got to start. You don't limit the opportunity to get some dialog going. We've got to remember we're in the hospitality industry, not the hostility industry. This is a relationship business, and avoiding the conversation does not help the relationship."
As of press time, Marriott had not responded to a request for comment regarding its antitrust concerns.
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