by Jonathan Vatner | July 01, 2005

IllustrationTheir presence on fam trips is unmistakable. Instead of attending site inspections, they camp out all day by the pool with a “colleague.” They only show their faces for meal functions, where they huddle by the buffet or chase down hors d’oeuvres like hyenas out for fresh blood. During conversation, one wonders if they even plan meetings.
    Conventional wisdom would suggest that fam scammers undesirables who finagle their way into free trips with no intention of producing business for their hosts have all but disappeared. Hotels and convention bureaus have improved at qualifying applicants, and they say fam trips themselves have become far less frequent (see “A Dying Breed?” page 52).
    But these tales tell otherwise. Somewhere, freeloaders still lurk. Whether they’re professional scammers or meeting planners with a rusty set of ethics, they sneak onto trips and secure top suites at hotels, abusing their hosts’ trust and giving the meetings industry a bad name.
    Case in point: Meredith Plansky, sales manager for the Grand Hyatt New York, was thrilled to get a phone call in mid-March from an independent meeting planner who wanted to bring 1,000 retail employees to the Hyatt for a 10-day convention over the Fourth of July, typically one of the hotel’s slowest weekends. Bringing more than $3 million in room revenue alone, it would have been the biggest meeting the hotel had ever held, an F&B-loaded extravaganza that promised a life-changing bonus for Plansky.
    The planner was coming into town over Easter weekend, just a few days away, and wanted to arrange a site inspection and a brief stay. “It was hard to believe, but what do you do? You run with it,” says Plansky. She comped him two nights in the Presidential Suite typically priced at $5,000 per night and called the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, director of catering and Hyatt’s vice president for the northeast region to be on hand for what became an eight-hour site inspection that Saturday. She also involved Cipriani 42nd Street, the banquet hall across the street, and a sales manager from the Roosevelt Hotel, where overflow attendees would stay.
    “Everybody over here was so excited about it,” she recalls. But they also feared the story was too perfect. “David [Adelson, then the director of sales and marketing] said, ‘On a scale from one to 10, is this guy for real?’ I said five.”
    After the site inspections, the planner told his hosts he wanted to hold all his banquets at the Hyatt, which would require management to relocate multiple tentative pieces of business. To do so, David Adelson, who wanted some assurance that the business was legitimate, asked the planner to hand over a deposit for half a million dollars.
    “He didn’t even flinch,” says Adelson. “He was nutty all the way around.”
    The planner said he had arranged a meeting for 5 p.m. Monday with the retail company’s CEO. The money would be wired over at that time.
    Things were seeming awfully fishy, though. For example, when Plansky asked the planner for a business card, he took an entire day to get one, and “it looked like he just made it at Kinko’s,”  says Plansky. The website listed on the card had just the single home page. Also, most planners performing a similar site visit would attend the inspection, discuss the contract and then enjoy the city. This planner dragged out the inspection, then bugged Plansky at home all weekend, asking her how to order car service, buy tickets to The Lion King on Broadway or have chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to the room.
    Then the director of housekeeping approached Plansky. While cleaning the Presidential Suite, the staff noticed something odd. “They had enough suitcases there to move into a house with,” Plansky says. “He had four women in there.” The planner had said he was coming with his wife and 13-year-old niece.
    Housekeeping also came across a contract with the Sheraton New York over the same dates. Plansky called the Sheraton, and indeed, the mysterious planner had been there Friday.
    At the Sheraton, he had performed a similar scam but wasn’t given an elaborate suite, since none was available. The sales staff there was suspicious, too, because the phone numbers and company names he gave didn’t seem valid. “It’s hard to say to somebody, ‘By the way, your information seems wrong,’” says a spokesperson for the Sheraton New York. “It’s the hospitality industry. We try to take people at face value.”
Before he left the Sheraton, the planner behaved rudely to the staff and demanded a refund of whatever money he had spent.