Meetings & Conventions - Coping in a Seller’s Market - January 2001

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January 2001
Image Pictured, from left to right: Kathleen Kilmer, Sara Torrence, Patrice Boulanger, Kimberly Snouffer and Teresa Vicente"


Meeting planning is an industry rife with temptations& How can department managers set and enforce guidelines to be sure professionalism is not compromised?

By Sarah J.F. Braley

  A lovely silver clock worth about $45 arrives on a planner’s desk, sent by a sup-plier eager to win her business. If that desk sits in the offices of the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., or at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., the clock is repackaged and sent back. No gifts, no matter how small, are accepted at ANLA; and planners at NIST, a government agency, cannot accept gifts worth more than $20. But if the clock lands on the desk of a meeting planner at Schaumberg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. or Sprint Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., it can be accepted. The limit at Motorola is $50; at Sprint, it is $100.

Gift limits are just one element of an organization’s ethics policy, whether it’s a formal document or a verbal guideline passed down by managers through the years. Is it OK to take that fam trip? Or those box seats to the game? Or the hotel bonus points?

There is no absolute right or wrong way to conduct business in the meetings industry, insiders agree. But planners are in a position to make ethical decisions all the time. Some organizations prefer to leave it up to the individual to make responsible choices; others feel it’s top management’s duty to tell employees what the appropriate action should be.

In the McLean, Va.-based meetings department of the professional services firm Ernst & Young, nothing is written down, but all six people on staff know the rules: No gifts, fam trips or hotel bonus points are accepted. Similarly, the ethical guidelines for employees of Fisher Scientific, a manufacturer and distributor of scientific products based in Pittsburgh, do not specify how planners should go about their business. “I just know what is right and what is wrong inside my head,” says Amy Armstrong, meeting and event manager.

At NIST, as at all government agencies, policy is set by the Office of Government Ethics. “We really do have very detailed guidelines,” says Sara Torrence, CMP, chief of special activities.

Meeting managers who would like to review current ethics policies or create guidelines for the first time should consider the following steps.

List the temptations
Word of mouth isn’t as effective as a written document, experts agree. An ethics policy should be distributed to everyone in the office, posted in a central location and discussed whenever a question arises. Below are primary areas the policy should address with regard to meetings.

  • Gifts. Note if planners can accept gifts up to a certain dollar amount, and provide instructions for the return of more lavish gifts.
  • Familiarization trips. Describe the circumstances under which free trips can be accepted. Is it OK to take a trip just to scout for possibilities, or must the department seriously be considering the destination for a future meeting? Does the organization insist on paying all expenses for site-selection travel? Some meetings divisions don’t take free trips for any reason. “I haven’t been on a fam trip in 20 years,” says Lannie Wendorf, associate director for Ernst & Young.
  • Hotel points. Many chains offer planners frequent-booking programs to encourage repeat business. For instance, Starwood’s Preferred Planner program, which has 14,000 members, awards one point for every three dollars spent, up to 20,000 points per event. The points can be cashed in for such perks as airline miles, room upgrades, charitable contributions and $100 gift certificates to Meeting Professionals International for registration fees, dues and other payments.

    In devising department policy, be specific about whether it is OK to accumulate these points. “I think companies are split on this issue,” says Ellen Wright, vice president of brand strategy at Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott Hotels, Resorts and Suites. The hotel chain offers three points per dollar for catering events and meeting room rental at all full-service properties for groups of 10 or more rooms, plus points for the guest rooms; planners can earn a maximum of 50,000 points per meeting.

    “Professional planners sometimes take their jobs very seriously and don’t want to look like they are swayed by the personal benefits they would gain,” Wright says. “Part-time planners feel meetings are an extra job that gets put on their plates, and they feel they deserve the incentive.”

  • Social invitations. Having dinner with a vendor or attending a supplier-sponsored event might seem innocuous, but many managers feel that accepting such invitations from suppliers they will never use takes unfair advantage and wastes the supplier’s money. Specify the circumstances under which planners can accept such invitations.
  • Comp rooms. Can meeting planners use free rooms and suites earned in negotiations, or must they be reserved for speakers and other VIPs?
  • Expense accounts. State your organization’s rules for reimbursement. Include such details as per diems, mileage and personal phone calls while on the road.
  • Special requests. Many planners field requests for special treatment during meetings or for extra travel perks. “Executives have asked for limousine service and suites,” says Pamela Bondy, ethics manager at Sprint. All new hires at the communications company have to read its “policy of conduct” and must certify that they have read it and will abide by it. “We expect executives to follow the same procedures as everyone else,” Bondy adds. Department guidelines should instruct meeting planners in handling these requests. Does one particular level of employee routinely receive special treatment, or is everyone from the CEO on down expected to travel coach and stay in a standard room?
  • Personal travel. Quite often, properties invite planners to visit on their own. The department’s policy manual should indicate the circumstances under which, if at all, employees can take such trips. Can they go for vacation? Can they only accept the offer if the property is being considered for a future meeting? Is this practice prohibited altogether?
  • The hiring process
    Once a policy has been established, education and enforcement come into play. The process of teaching new hires what will be expected of them starts, in a sense, before they have even been hired. Finding a staff member whose values match those of the organization can begin with the ad you place.

    “We use the word ‘ethical’ in job postings, says Kellee Magee, director of meetings and business programming for ANLA. “Putting it in the job description helps unethical people self-select out.”

    The self-selection process also can take place during the interview. A study by Randi L. Sims, Ph.D., found that people with low ethical standards don’t like to work for firms with high standards. “If you express exactly what you are looking for during the interview process, people will choose to work for you or not to,” says the associate professor of business at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And people whose standards match the company’s are less likely to leave the job.”

    Some managers pose ethical scenarios during interviews. Magee asks job candidates, “Tell me about a time when you came up against an ethical challenge and how you handled it.” Then she presents a meetings-related scenario and asks the candidate to respond. One example she uses: “You get a call from a supplier whom you know well, and he says, ‘I’d love for you to come on this fam trip.’ When you respond, ‘I don’t have business in that city,’ he counters with, ‘That’s OK.’ Now what do you do?”

    Says Magee, “It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but we haven’t had to let anybody go because of an ethical problem.”

    Wilton, Conn.-based Deloitte and Touche also includes ethical role-play in the interview process. “You can get a feel for the type of people you are interviewing based on their beliefs in right and wrong,” says Margaret Moynihan, director of conference and travel for the accounting, tax and consulting firm.

    Another tactic: Ask candidates what ethics practices were in place at their last job, suggests Joan Eisenstodt, president of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a meetings management and consulting firm. If they belong to an industry association, ask what they know about its code of ethics. “How they react will tell you a lot,” she says.

    Once on board
    After a planner is hired, the department manager should be sure the organization’s ethics policies are fully explained. Most companies cover ethical standards to some extent during orientation, but meeting planners encounter a number of situations that do not arise for people in accounting and payroll scenarios that might not be in the company manual.

    “I like to see department heads talk about their expectations with the new employee,” says Randy Pennington, an Addison, Texas-based business consultant who speaks on leadership issues, including performance and ethics. “Don’t leave something to chance when a decision needs to be made.”

    At Motorola, a manager recently realized the company’s strict policy against accepting planner points from hotels might not be trickling down to the administrative assistants who plan a handful of meetings a year. “If they don’t know about the rules, they’re the ones who get caught, and that’s not fair,” says Evelyn Laxgang, CMP, director of strategic projects and events. “We are now making sure the message is communicated.” A case study using this situation is being created for the ethics class offered throughout the company.

    Guidelines are particularly strict at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Every person who has signature authority over payments of $2,500 or more must go through ethics training yearly. “We cannot accept anything over $20, and if we go to a site inspection, we have to pay our own way,” adds Sara Torrence. “All new employees go through a two-day orientation that includes a great deal on government ethics.” She also keeps Dallas-based MPI’s “principles of professionalism” on her wall to share with the five people who report to her.

    Ongoing teaching is essential, says ANLA’s Magee, who doesn’t accept any gifts. “We can’t hammer it home when we give them the keys to the bathroom. It’s a much larger deal. With new hires, we take the first opportunity with a trip or trade show to say, ‘Let’s go through some issues here.’ We try to discuss it anecdotally, so people aren’t afraid to talk about it on a daily basis.”

    Do as I do
    Whatever the official policy is in the organization, employees will follow the example of their bosses and peers.

    Backing this up is another study conducted by Sims, published by the Journal of Business Ethics in 1999. She presented a series of dilemmas to 245 students who also were employed full time. Among her findings: “People pay attention to what their supervisor is doing and why other employees are rewarded. Or they follow what their colleagues get away with.”

    Teaching by example is very subtle, says Pennington. “Young planners might not see department heads dealing with the tough issues of internal politics, but they do see them dealing with everyday issues,” he says. “For instance, we say that work begins at 9 a.m., yet the manager typically doesn’t show up until 9:30. [If managers break the basic rules], on some level, employees ask what other corners the manager will cut.”

    “I feel this is crucial,” says Magee. “When I take new staffers to trade shows, I don’t pick up any tchotchkes, any property information or drop my card in bowls.” Her small staff of four knows Magee declines planner points, only goes on site visits when she is seriously considering using the property and never takes a suite at the hotel when evaluating it for her attendees. “How am I going to see the experience my members are going to have,” she says, “if I’m not staying in the common sleeping room?”

    Big brother is watching
    If there is a breach in policy, the initial corrective action should be aimed at helping the staff member understand management’s expectations. “We have an open discussion,” says Magee. “I’ll ask the person to explain how they got to this course of action and then talk about other options.”

    Moynihan at Deloitte and Touche takes the same approach. “We have not had anyone breach a policy twice,” she says. “If that did happen, all privileges would be taken away.”

    The punishment is harsher at government agencies. “You can lose your job,” says Torrence of NIST. “Because we have ethics lectures every year and we have to sign off that we attended them, it’s pretty important that you follow the rules.”

    Posted on the wall in the meetings office at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., is a six-point ethics test taken from The Right Thing: Ethics Inaction/Ethics in Action, by William D. Brown, Ph.D (Wayne Smith Co., Washington, D.C.). “I walk through some of these examples with new planners,” says Kellee Magee, director of meetings and business programming. She adds, “There are no right or wrong answers.”

    Does your chosen course of action seem logical and reasonable? Forget what others might say. If it makes sense to you, it is probably right.

    Does it pass the test of sportsmanship? If everyone followed the same course of action, would the results be beneficial for all?

    Think about where your plan of action will lead. What effect will it have on others? What effect will it have on you?

    Will you think well of yourself when you look back on what you have done?

    Imagine this is not your problem, but an issue faced by the person you most admire. How would he respond?

    Would it bother you if everyone knew about your decision, especially family members and friends? Chances are, decisions made in hopes no one will find out are not ethical.


    Every new member who joins the Professional Convention Management Association receives a card delineating the organization’s credo on ethical conduct. On the back is an area where planners and suppliers can sign the following pledge, which department heads might want to share with their charges.

    • I will use my position to the benefit of my organization, avoiding the reality or appearance of personal gain that may conflict with my employer, client or supplier.

    • I will deal in an honorable and straightforward way with suppliers, clients and my employer.

    • I will fully disclose to my employer individual inducements, incentives or gifts of any kind.

    • I recognize that only ethical professionals will excel in their careers.


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