by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 01, 2007

Personal requests. They seem to come from everywhere and everyone -- keynote speakers, board members, panelists, attendees, facilitators and very often the boss. They run the gamut from trivial to serious, and sometimes even unethical. Every meeting planner at one time or another has fielded such an appeal -- and likely felt angry for being asked, resentful while doing the task and uncertain afterward about whether their professional integrity remained intact.

Saying, “No, that’s not my job,” is not an option for most, largely because it goes against a meeting professional’s ingrained, service-minded ethic.

“Planners are behind-the-scenes workhorses who by nature are followers and empathizers who like to please people, which means they have trouble saying no,” explains Dr. Dennis O’Grady, a Dayton, Ohio-based communications psychologist, motivational speaker and author of Talk to Me: Communication Moves to Get Along With Anyone (New Insights Communications, 2006). “Unfortunately, 60 percent of the population are natural-born leaders, and this majority group has no problem asking, even demanding, what they want.”

Do planners have no choice but to acquiesce? Not at all, say experts. There are many techniques for handling unwanted requests in a professional manner that won’t leave the requestor feeling unsatisfied with the response -- even if he or she happens to be the boss.

Before exploring coping mechanisms, however, it’s interesting to examine the sheer scope of the problem. Here’s what planners told M&C.

Tales from the front

The roles planners are called upon to play are many -- and maddening. Some examples:

Chauffeur. JoLane Hochstetler, president and founder of Denver-based The Meeting Edge, says over the past decade she has done her fair share of “mop and clean up” for a variety of clients and attendees. She recalls the time a board member asked to have someone drive her home in her (the board member’s) car, because she had been taking painkillers and didn’t think she could manage it herself. (While it certainly would be appropriate for a planner to help a client in distress hire proper transportation to get home, it clearly is not the planner’s responsibility to see to it that the client’s car is sent home as well.)

Bookseller. Then there’s the time Hochstetler was drafted as sales assistant to an understaffed author/speaker and wound up selling his books during the event, while her planning duties piled up. “It’s very difficult to say no,” says Hochstetler. “Women, in particular, are not good at it.” Adding to the dilemma, she notes, are the close personal relationships she has formed with her clients over the years, which makes turning them down “extremely hard.”

Personal travel agent. A New York City-based association planner who asked for anonymity recalls a keynote speaker who decided at the last minute to ask a few friends to join him on his trip and needed an extra room for them. “I had already gotten him a second room, and he still felt he was entitled to come back and ask for a third,” says the planner. “I was put in the uncomfortable position of explaining that our hospitality could not extend that far.”

Laundry attendant. Being asked to sort a stranger’s dirty laundry is not only demeaning, it’s plain gross. Yet, Theresa Garza, CMP, managing director of Tucson, Ariz.-based Amigo Meeting Solutions, recalls such a incident with a cringe: “He was a vice president from a huge automotive firm. I had to sort his dirty laundry before we sent it out to get cleaned,” says Garza. “I’m sure his administrative assistant wouldn’t have done it for him. But I was told by my boss that I needed to do it, and I did.”

Personal assistant. Some people just don’t know any boundaries, says one Midwest-based meeting planner who requested anonymity. One standout in this category was a high-profile motivational speaker hired for a client holding an incentive program in Hawaii. Among the speaker’s demands: Special organic fruit had to be flown in and a juicer placed in his room so he could concoct his daily potion.

“The real coup de grace was when he asked us to empty his bathwater, pack for him and meet him after his speech with a clean set of underwear so he could change before his flight,” says the still-reeling planner. The upshot? She performed all the tasks, even putting his underwear in her purse so he could fly home with clean skivvies. Years and many incentive programs later, the memory of being taken advantage of so completely still upsets her.

Accomplice to fraud. Tracy Norum, CMP, vice president and general manager for Oshkosh, Wis.-based Premier Meetings and Incentives, recounts an incentive program during which the client’s boss asked for a favor that seemed suspect. He wanted her staff to make an imprint of his credit card on several blank slips, and give them back to him, supposedly so that he could fill in his event expenses later for eventual reimbursement by his company. “That was when we had ‘slider’ credit card machines,” says Norum. “We told him the machine was broken and that we would not be able to do it until we got back to our offices.” The idea was to stall until the man had to use his card in a legitimate manner.

Another Midwest-based independent planner was faced with a similar unethical request. It involved one attendee’s missing luggage, which was “delayed just a few hours, yet she asked me to say the luggage was not found in time for the next day’s session, because she wanted to go out right away and buy new clothes for the program.” The attendee’s ploy had been to make the airline pay based on the attendee’s perceived immediate need, says the planner. She was left fumbling for excuses as to why she couldn’t facilitate the request.

Private detective. Meeting professionals who are asked to get involved in the extremely personal details of their clients’ lives find it can be akin to running two separate events. That was the case for one New York City-based independent planner. At the time, he worked in-house for an automotive corporation. For the company’s board meeting in Asia, one member brought both his wife (on a private plane) and his mistress (on a scheduled flight). He asked the meeting planner to give them rooms at opposite ends of the hotel and to report back to him on a regular basis as to their whereabouts, because he wanted to make sure they did not collide. “I ended up recruiting the hotel staff to spy on them and report to the client via headsets,” says the planner. “The two women never crossed paths or knew the other was there, but it was quite a nerve-wracking job.”

For another independent meeting planner in Texas, spying on the boss’ husband became an extension of regular meeting planning duties. “She [the boss] would make me drive my car, following him, while she slouched down in the passenger seat,” says the planner. “We did this for more than a month, and she caught him with several different people.”