Their 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
“He didn’t even flinch,” says Adelson. “He was nutty all the
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
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.