by Loren G. Edelstein | February 23, 2018

A meeting that would have been held today between Marriott group sales executives and David Bruce, the Dallas-based independent planner and founder of Meeting Planners Unite, was canceled yesterday. After several weeks of communicating with Steve Heitzner, below, chief sales and marketing officer of the Americas for Marriott International, Bruce received an email Thursday morning to "clarify" that Marriott would discuss Bruce's own planning business, but would not meet with him as a representative of Meeting Planners Unite.

"They said I was welcome to come and talk to them about CMP Meeting Services," Bruce told M&C, "but they were not going to entertain any questions at all, or have any discussions at all, about Meeting Planners Unite." The fledgling group, which began on LinkedIn in response to the chain's decision to cut third-party commissions from 7 to 10 percent, is 900 members strong and in the process of forming a nonprofit association.

The letter specified, "If you cannot meet with us solely representing you and your own personal business, then we should cancel this meeting." Yet, said Bruce, "My whole purpose of meeting with him was not to talk about my half-a-million dollars of Marriott business. It was much more important to meet and discuss the millions of dollars of Marriott business that is on the table here."  
A spokesperson for Marriott International quickly provided the following response to M&C's request for comment: "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."

Bruce had more to say about this unexpected change of plans in a phone call with M&C this morning.

Was it your understanding that you would be meeting with Marriott on behalf of Meeting Planners Unite?
Yes, absolutely. 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.

As I said in my response to yesterday's letter, "I have made it clear from the beginning as to my intentions to discuss MPU." From the first moment I spoke to them, the request for a meeting was based on Meeting Planners Unite. I only asked for a phone conversation; it was Marriott that invited me to come and meet with them in person.

To what do you attribute this change of heart?
My speculation is that, on the second of February, when we were first planning to meet, we weren't very strong. But by the 22nd, we had 900 members, representing more than 300 independent planning companies. I think their chess move was to try to make the point that we're not as legitimate as we think we should be, and now it would be harder for them to do that.

Sixty percent of our members provided detailed information to us about their businesses, and just those companies are doing $175 million in Marriott business now. So, those are real numbers that they can't discredit.

Where Steve Heitzner's letter says he never agreed to have a meeting with Meeting Planners Unite, that is not correct. 

Why do you think Marriott is unwilling to have this discussion?
The biggest mistake we made in the U.S. is allowing a very, very large company to acquire another very, very large company. Whenever that happens, too much power comes under one roof, and now that power is being displayed to the littlest of little guys.

Here's another detail to note: Of our 300 member businesses, 79 percent are female-owned. But, of the "big four" third-party companies who have been granted an extension of the commission reduction, none have any real presence of females in management.

Was Marriott hosting you for this meeting? Had they provided your airline ticket from Dallas?
Ha! No, I paid for the flight. They didn't pay for anything. But it doesn't make sense for me to go. What are they going to tell me? 'Gee, Dave, we love you and we're going to give you 10 percent'?

This trip was about me going as representative of 300 companies to listen to what they had to say. It was going to be a dialog -- with the intent of listening to their point, and finding out we could honestly work together as customer and supplier for the betterment of both sides. That was stated in many letters and emails to Steve Heitzner continuously over the past three weeks.

I had hoped that at the end of our meeting we could look to the future with a clear understanding, and work toward solutions that would benefit independent hotel owners, franchise owners, Marriott corporation, meeting planners and, most of all, clients. Ultimately, the clients are the ones who are going to end up being damaged by this.

What do you think this will mean for Marriott going forward?
They will lose business; there is no doubt about that. But beyond that fact, it is a sad day when customers are reaching out to talk in an open dialog, an honest dialog, and the supplier is acting as if is a privilege to do business with their company.

Right now, we should be in a meeting together, where we would be able to look eye-to-eye and try to understand each other's points. We might have walked out with nothing more than we have right now, but we would have walked away having had a dialog where each side was able to voice their opinion. And that's all I've asked for.

Marriott didn't win by canceling this meeting. We didn't win by canceling this meeting. Everyone lost.

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