Tag Archives: Marriott

Epic Challenges Ahead: Expert Opinion on the Post-COVID-19 Meetings World

Originally published Meetings Today

Epic Challenges Ahead: Expert Opinion on the Post-COVID-19 Meetings World

On the April 27 WHO press briefing, it was stressed that it is not time for “mass gatherings.”

If you follow the link in the sentence above that provides WHO’s definition of “mass gatherings,” you may think that a meeting for 100 or 500 or 1,000, even a city-wide, might not be “mass” and perhaps it’s safe to go ahead with your meetings, conventions and events.

Most U.S. states and many countries still have guidelines that restrict how many people can gather. Even if it is permitted, physical distancing is strongly recommended by most if not by some leaders. What WHO recommends for gatherings is available to download. It’s worth your time to consider the recommendations.

I reached out to the Events Industry Council (EIC)—as recently as earlier in the week of the publication of this newsletter—in hopes it had developed guidelines for seating, changing capacities for spaces, and for issues, from the formerly convened APEX Contracts Panel, on what this means for contracts in place and those being negotiated, especially for room blocks, attrition, impossibility and cancellation. This is what I received just before we made this live. As an industry, we’re not ‘there’ yet.

The issues about which I wrote in April remain. On April 14 during Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID), virtual events and virtual components of EIC-member organizations, I wanted to hear thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on when we can gather again and how.

I heard little except the usual encouragement to meet. That’s all well and good if we have guidelines to keep people safe. We do not have more than what WHO published.

In discussions among colleagues in social media, including on ASAEs Collaborate and in the “Events Industry Friends” group on Facebook [to join, answer the three questions], there is frequent conversation about the how/why/when we can move forward. There is no consensus though all want the industry to recover.

None of this would be so critical if so many of us weren’t dealing with postponing meetings and determining the configuration for those to be held in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021.

While many groups are pivoting to entirely virtual meetings, others are moving forward planning their events to perhaps meet as contracted or to attempt to revise the content and delivery to accommodate physical distancing.

I am grateful to Paul Bergeron, IOM, a freelance reporter covering association management, for his contribution to this newsletter on thinking about pivoting to virtual meetings. Pivoting has been swift and I, like Paul, fear that too little consideration is going into the long-term implications.

The impact of COVID-19 on how we hold meetings and events impacts nearly every element of a meeting. Considerations include the following, and this list is just a start:

  • Physical distancing: a colleague with an upcoming meeting determined that a room that normally could hold 250 could hold at most 36 people with six-foot distancing; rounds would be impossible; and issues for people who need sign language interpreters more complex.
  • Exhibit load-in/load-out times and conditions
  • Rehearsals
  • Room blocks
  • Attrition
  • F&B minimums
  • Service
  • Cleanliness
  • Guest room availability between one guest’s departure and another occupying a room
  • Elevator use

Lots of Questions and Thoughts; Few Answers

Some of the following thoughts were posted on various platforms, others were solicited. Only one is attributed because the issues are all sensitive regarding whether or not groups can or will meet.

I am grateful to The Wynn and to Marriott Hotels for their input on some of what we are considering around cleanliness. I hope they expand their thinking, quickly, to meetings and that the entire industry does far more, quickly.

I wanted for myself, clients and for readers, other voices to be considered as we all determine what to do. Voices of vast experience help me; I hope they will help you as you consider where our industry goes and how.

If in editing the comments from colleagues, I’ve erred in expressing their views, my apologies. I am grateful beyond words for their time in discussing complex issues because, I, a “P” on MBTI, needs lots of input to get to “J!”

Why Meet?

One exchange in ASAE’s Collaborate with Michael LoBue, MS, CAE, president of San Francisco’s LoBue & Majdalany Management Group was one of the better ones. (A lengthy and rich discussion on Facebook in the above noted group was too much to post.) My edited response to Michael follows his questions and comments.

Michael LoBue: ”I haven’t read this anywhere, which surprises me, but doesn’t hurricane season officially start off the Atlantic Coast on June 1st and runs through the end of November? [Had he only been reading my mind, he would have discovered many internal conversations.]

“Given states like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are re-opening their local economies by relaxing physical distancing, and the incredibly infectious nature of the coronavirus, why wouldn’t we expect the next U.S. hot spot to shift to the South… and then if a hurricane hits … the entire East Coast will shut down again.

“Even if things open up in other parts of the country at that time, everyone will correctly want to go into physically distancing again—plus no one from the infected areas will be traveling anywhere to attend meetings.

“I’ve never been in an evacuation, for a hurricane or anything else. I’ve talked to people who have. It doesn’t seem like a desirable experience—to have it happen during a pandemic doesn’t seem to improve those prospects (he writes sarcastically).

“BTW, I heard that Germany cancelled Octoberfest this year [Correct: We tweeted it for Meetings Today.]… Why any face-to-face meetings between now and the end of the year are on anyone’s calendar is a mystery to me.

“Am I alone in this view?”

My edited response to Michael’s post:

Michael, thank you for raising these issues. They are very much on my mind and in my planning for clients and in my writing for the meetings industry.

In the off-the-record conversations with hoteliers and DMO CEOs, and with colleagues who plan meetings and travel, there is a belief that many hotels may never open again. In addition, COVID-19 (now thought to exist in a greater percentage of the world’s population than originally projected) could stick around and join whatever flu strain or mutation of COVID-19 appears later this year, so add that to the existing critical issues for which to plan for if meetings/events—or any gathering of more than a few people—are to occur.

Yes, correct on hurricane “season.” We’ve already seen that in states where tornadoes have occurred, physical distancing had to be put aside in order to provide shelter for many impacted. Convention centers and like facilities, that house meetings and events, are being used for what is called temporary shelter for either COVID-19 patients and/or those who were formerly homeless.

These same spaces are needed for those impacted by tornadoes. During hurricanes or other disasters (like wildfires), these facilities are used.

Add these issues in considering whether to meet:

  • Workers who will not want to work again in hospitality (including those who work/ed in transportation) for fear of illness and/or another round of layoffs.
  • Transportation itself (air, ground) and no idea when schedules as we knew them may resume.
  • Lack of hotels’ and cities’ policies and plans for implementation for cleaning, seating or other issues (attrition is one) impacted by distancing.

The list goes on for those of us planning for contingencies.

There are many who believe that talking about these issues is “fear-mongering” designed to scare people from planning or attending meetings and doesn’t show faith in what the hospitality industry can do. (Yes, #HospitalityStrong is trending among some.) I want to believe that we can meet again as long as we are prepared to keep people safe.

Groups, forced to make decisions now based on hotel or convention center cancellation charges, are being put in very difficult positions: choosing to stay afloat by having a meeting if states and cities say the guidelines for safely gathering have been met and the go-ahead given, or paying cancellation fees, with no registration income or less income for virtual events.

I’ve not mentioned the issue of city and state infrastructures and services that will be decimated because of lack of tax income, or the ability to obtain food with so many processing plants closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, or the farmers plowing under crops and dairy farmers dumping milk.

I say, yes, Michael, I do not think there is much hope for 2020, but there needs to be lots of energy to plan to hold meetings and for contingencies.

What About Travel?

It’s not simple to figure out the pieces that go into planning a meeting under what were normal circumstances. In an email conversation with a colleague who was in hotel catering for years and now plans events, issues were raised about what is and isn’t open and about travel. To protect this person’s identity, I have edited some of the comments.

The hotels [in the city in which they live] are all closed. There are a few I’m sure that have a skeleton crew and some smaller ones that have restaurants trying to still do deliveries.

“It’s so hard to know what the “new normal” will be: Which restaurants will make it? Which stores? Will people want to travel? HOW will they travel? The days of non-sanitized planes and crowded flights, at least till there’s a vaccine that works, are over.

“I think flights will have to have fewer people on each plane and will need more than 30 minutes to an hour for people to disembark and then new passengers to board and take off. 

“I think airlines are going to have to do much more cleaning of the planes between flights, which will increase “gate time” and change schedules, which means that it will be way more expensive to fly.

“Likewise, hotels are going to have to figure out that housekeepers will need more time to clean each room. Hotels may consider switching from carpeting to hardwood/laminate or tile floors. Hotels on beaches or with pools will have to disinfect to the hilt. We’ve all been amused and grossed out by those “black light” reports, but now that a hotel could be culpable of murder—this ain’t so funny! It’s not bedbugs which are gross and a “problem”— people can die from this virus. So, that’s going to have people more “heebie jeebying” than before and more inclined to “tele-meet” than ever before.

“I do hope it’s sooner rather than later, and indeed that by October it will be “normal.”  

Taking this and my own conversations with airline personnel into consideration, I asked a colleague directly in the travel segment of the industry the following questions; their answers follow.

QWhen and how do you think airlines will begin to fly even half their domestic schedules?  

AMy guess is spring of 2021, at the earliest. There is too much uncertainty for the rest of 2020. The benchmark will be how well do the winter flights sell, if there is no second wave, or fear of a second wave.

Q. What do you think will make travelers feel safe in airports? On planes?

AOffer free protective face masks on request; have line space markers; announce reminders to be respectful to your fellow passengers and crew; allow passengers to change seats if they are concerned; and continue to offer flexible flight change options

Q. What do you expect the biggest changes to be in how we travel for leisure, business and to conferences?

A. For a while, we will travel to familiar places, less crowded destinations, and on shorter trips, for leisure.

For business, we’ll meet in smaller groups, for less time. We’re less likely to extend city visits, see a show, go to a group dinner, want to meet everyone in the office, for “face time.”

For conferences, we’ll radiate to smaller meetings, with more spacing between seats, fewer breakout rooms, temperature checks, and masks. It will be awkward, and there will be smaller audiences reflecting the reluctance to participate in large group gatherings.

Pre-arranged small get-togethers will be organized online before a conference, so there can be a brief meet-and-greet on-site, and no need to attend mass networking events, or spend lots of time at big receptions or crowded evening events. [I wonder what will happen to “hosted buyer events,” where the intimacy of face-to-face cannot happen for some time.]

Small and roomy will beat large and packed-in. We will see wide-scale behavior change in venue site selection. No more small nightclubs or narrow hallway receptions. Opening events will be held at outdoor sites or large museums, with plenty of room for peace of mind. Large gardens or private parks will offer more comfort. 

The crowded tradeshow floor is also endangered and may be replaced by smaller supplier group-specific exhibitor opportunities. For example, there might be a “Middle America Small Market” room and a “West Coast Top Tier” room, with room capacity controls, and delegates will stroll between them.

Q. What else do you want to tell people about the impact of COVID-19 on the meetings industry?

AOrganizers will need to relax change and cancellation policies. There will be lots of fear and uncertainty for a while. Delegates, exhibitors and (association) members will come from different geographic locations and different personal comfort levels. Some will adjust better than others to all the changes.

Planners will need to be sensitive to these changes, some of which will be expensive. CEOs and CFOs will need to accept it will cost more to draw fewer people to meetings and events. There will be less interest in promoting meetings by the numbers they draw, but instead, by the niche they serve. Some companies will get nervous and will cancel 2020/2021 staff travel out of fear, or for budget reasons, and this should not be inferred as not being a supportive or loyal member.

What About Hotels?

As noted above, The Wynn Las Vegas and Marriott hotels have put forth guidelines about cleaning. Prior to these plans being released, I asked three respected colleagues, two of whom recently retired, one of whom is soon to do so, and all of whom were with hotels in “lofty” positions, with a combined total of nearly 100 years in the industry (though they are all still younger than I am!) for their thoughts on the current state of the meetings industry.

I am grateful to them all for years of doing business together and, with our “business hats off,” friendship, and never more than now when ideas need to be explored in uncharted territory.

I am also grateful to another colleague still working with an open hotel for their input.

Colleague 1:

“Testing is the key. Hotels will have to confirm that all of their employees have been tested (multiple times) and are negative (for COVID-19.) Hotels will also have to take extra steps to show the facility is a safe place.
“Contracts are going to have to change to give planners more leeway on attrition and cancellations since no one will know for sure who will attend even when they try to hold a meeting.

“I see a reversal of the trend of leaving the hotel for F&B functions to wanting to stay in the hotel since it’s a more controlled environment.

“Since flying is a big concern, there might be an increase in regional drive-in meetings.

“Planners may need to let attendees participate both in-person and fully online to get people more comfortable (with gathering again).

“Social distancing rules will need to be established in all meeting rooms and outlets.

“Tradeshows are big problem. I see one-way aisles, limits on the number of people in a booth, more online demonstrations. (A model groceries are using now in many cities.)

“I see smaller sessions happening in meeting rooms but spaced out for social distancing and large sessions online so could you watch from your room or at a distance.”

Colleagues 2 and 3:

These two had an email exchange prior to my contacting one and then the other. I have permission to share their edited thoughts, exchanged before the three of us spoke.

Colleague 2: “Times are crazy, but my family is all good and I hope the same with you. What are you hearing in the industry for groups having to change programs/set-ups to maintain six feet of social distancing? Seems this would turn the meetings and convention industry on its head.”

Colleague 3: “What I think is that bad times are ahead for meetings. If we think that groups are just going to reschedule and put thousands of attendees at risk…the liability is huge, and associations and companies aren’t going to do that easily.

“The only thing that will save us [and the industry and meetings] is a vaccine. Short of that, it will be a long road back. Really worried for the kids. [These colleagues have children who work in the industry.] This is not the legacy I had hoped for.”

Colleague 2: “I so agree with youThe meetings and conventions segment is so critical to the hotels. Big hotels are not going to make it, especially the ones that recently opened.

“It took three years to go from peak to trough after 9/11 and 4 1/2 years after the 2008 financial crisis. I say this is going to be worse. A vaccine is key, but I think events will change for many years.

“Programs are going to have to be adjusted; the virus impact on what we know and loved is monstrous. I love the world we lived in. As I write this I think about … being at events with friends celebrating our industry and now I think it will be years before that comes back. I hope the young people at some point will be fortunate to have the same experiences.”

Colleague 3: “It seems that our path and successes may not be the same for our children. There are so darn many hotels popping up….. Big shakeout for sure.
[About going to industry events.] We sure had a great run and I hope our kids get a shot at what we enjoyed, but I worry the entire industry is going to change and not for the better…just look at how easy virtual meetings now are. Face-to-face isn’t going to be back as fast, if at all.”

Following up this exchange, one of the two above wrote to me when I asked if we were going too fast in re-opening the industry. It is edited for space and anonymity:

You are right, Joan, that hotels and airlines are hatching plans and probably too quickly. Saw the other day the ‘new’ seating arrangement for planes. Great, except that the one MOST important thing that will keep people from flying is the issue of filtered air on planes…it’s less about the seats, much more about how to keep the air that everyone breathes virus-free.

“Hotels are right in looking at the markets which can move quickly: business travel, leisure and sadly, not large group…. I’m betting 2021 or later realistically. All the [industry] talking heads will tow a [party] line but the real direction is going to come from the travelers themselves.

“Would you fly or stay in a hotel anytime soon? Every group needs to poll their members to determine direction.”

“Personally, I think we are moving too fast in reopening. A reinfection flare-up will really push us back. Just read earlier in [paper named] a column written by three lawyers who said that the liability in opening up stores, restaurants, etc., will be staggering if people get sick again.

“Our own industry doesn’t seem to be thinking this way.”

Last, from a colleague still working in an open hotel in a major market. Again, edited for anonymity, clarity and length.

Q. What will it take for the meetings industry to reopen to anything close to what it was before COVID-19?  

ATo reopen to anything close to what we were accustomed to pre-COVID-19, three primary elements will be needed: cleaning, infrastructure and flexibility.

All suppliers will need to conform to and execute CDC-endorsed cleaning standards; suppliers and planners will need to work to execute changes in physical and customary “infrastructure.” All parties—all suppliers (even if not contracted by a planner, such as airlines), planners and attendees involved will need to be flexible and adjust policies based on what medical progress has been made,

Ultimately, all parties need to ensure that guests/meeting attendees feel that steps have been taken to ensure everyone’s health, safety and security.

Hospitality chemical suppliers, such as Ecolab, were immediately proactive in reaching out to their customers regarding chemicals and CDC guidance the first two weeks of March, as were AHLA, and in our case, our state hotel and lodging association.

Infrastructure changes are going to be a big part of our ability to operate within the next year. Hotels may need to reconfigure front desks to accommodate a plexiglass shield as grocery stores have. The formerly popular open-pod front desk design will go away. There will be installation of more self-serve check-in kiosks that also issue key cards.

In addition to physical distancing reminder signage, we may need floor markers like stores are using. We’ll add hand sanitizer stations everywhere. Physical distancing protocol may require furniture removal to allow more space in lobbies and public areas.  

For meetings, physical set-up standards will have to change to 1 per 6-foot classroom at least short-term. Depending on the rooms and audience size, theater style may have to set for space for three or four times the seating as the expected numbers.

Receptions have to be re-imagined: Buffets and action stations will disappear, and bar set-ups will need to factor physical distancing.  

Meetings will need to include a virtual component for those not able or willing to travel. Programs will need to rethink networking and other social components for the next 12 to 18 months. 

Individual and group hotel reservation cancellation and meeting registration policies will need to be as flexible as possible. As flights (“lift”) have been drastically cut and are likely to remain that way for some time, planners must plan for their potential destination before finalizing plans vs. taking for granted that one can easily get to D.C. or Chicago as they used to. National meetings may go away for a few years and become smaller regional meetings due to change in air and change in our dynamics.

Q. What are the potential hazards for hotel workers and guests in returning to hotels?

AI believe it was Dr. Fauci who said, “We don’t make the timetablethe virus does.” That means we have to address a workplace/facility hazard that cannot be seen and one scientists/medical community is still learning about. [We are only four months into research.]

Until there is a vaccine, assume everyone could be asymptomatic and/or a carrier, and execute cleaning and infrastructure changes accordingly to create optimal conditions for both guests and employees.

To face the potential hazards, provide the recommended protective equipment to employees and the optimal safe layout to provide physical distancing, and supplies and services to support guests. If we put many safeguards in place and go beyond required cleaning protocols, our guests—and employees—will be shielded from hazards to the best of our ability.

Q. What has been your experience during COVID-19 with an open hotel and what guests want to know?

AHotels in our state are considered an “essential business,” but under the state of emergency/shelter at home order, we are authorized to turn away guests whose stay is not due to essential work. We have turned away guests who say they are there to simply “get away” from their house.

Most of our guests the last few weeks have been police and fire personnel working extra shifts and want to be close to their stations. We have been hosting nurses on temporary assignment at one of the three nearby “specialty” hospitals that do not have COVID-19 units.

I have been working with a domestic violence organization needing additional temporary shelter for their clients and also the American Red Cross seeking to secure a designated hotel for their normal course of business of providing families shelter in case of fires.

Business travelers right now are traveling medical professionals and other first responders. We are participating in a “day rate” promotion for locals to use rooms for a workspace during the workday—we have seen day guests for this. [On behalf of all of us, THANK YOU!]

We are running between 8% and 15% occupancy. We’ve kept guests informed by posting information regarding the shelter in-place order, changes in service and our current housekeeping protocols. We are primarily in a residential area that borders a medical campus, so we do have a great deal of options for food service—either carry out or delivery. We keep as updated as possible list regarding options.

On May 1, so far, we’ve been told hospitals are able to start non-emergency procedures (joint replacement, colonoscopies, etc), so we may see guests who want to be close to family members. Clearly this, too, may change.

I’m still wrapping my head around everything. I do not think we will return to business levels we saw in 2019 for many, many years.  

There you have it: different voices of experience. If my crystal ball, still not working the way it used to, were better, I’d have easy answers.

What we need is great collective discussions among many, including medical and scientific, emergency and other personnel, to help us figure out what to do. And we need patience as the world contends with this horrific illness.

We need to look at the inequities made more visible by this. We need to give what we can to help those who are in great need. I recommend your local food bank, World Central Kitchen, founded by the amazing chef Jose Andres, that now in addition to feeding people in disaster areas around the U.S. and world is feeding first responders and those in need in many cities, including mine (Washington, D.C.), and to Unite Here to help the many hospitality workers who are out of work and who we need to be healthy and safe so they can return to support us and our meetings.

Postscript

If you are a U.S.-eligible voterregister or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.

Vote in upcoming primaries and national electionsThere are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all.

Because of COVID-19, many US states and territories have changed their primary dates and/or have added special elections. Please check your state’s or territory’s dates at their board of elections.

Marriott Planner Clash: What’s Commission Got to Do With It?

Originally posted Meetings Today Blog

Marriott Planner Clash: What's Commission Got to Do With It?

In Houston and Puerto Rico people are still homeless and without power. Though I have no statistics, I imagine some of those people are in the hospitality industry.

Flu is spreading around the United States and killing people; many cities are without shots or medicine or IV bags, the latter made in Puerto Rico.

Among those getting the flu are workers who don’t get paid sick leave and some, no doubt, work in our industry or the wider hospitality industry.

There is talk of war with North Korea that few take seriously.

Housekeepers and others in hotels are demanding “panic buttons” in cities where they are not currently mandated because of the attacks that are real and were documented in Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers” issue and also noted in the January 2018 edition of Friday With Joan.

Wildfires, drought, floods and other natural disasters; refugees crowded into camps; the United States proposing to deport hundreds of thousands of people among whom we are certain are people who work in hospitality jobs.

All of these people and issues occupy my thinking.

With all that as a backdrop, let’s examine the extensive industry energy and conversations that are focused on Marriott’s reduction of commission from 10 to 7 percent for those who work solely or partially for commission from hotels.

It’s a greater amount of energy than I’ve seen directed toward the other issues.

First, some background and a disclaimer: I founded my meeting planning/consulting business, Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, in 1981 after working for an art museum, then full-time part of the year for a not-for-profit in D.C.

During off-time from the not-for-profit employment, I did contract meeting planning work for organizations in and outside D.C., my home base.

In all but one instance since then (when a client had already negotiated a rate with a rebate that would off-set fees from a third party and then hired my company), I have been paid hourly or daily or project fees from clients.

How did I determine what the source of payment would be?

When I started Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, I talked with others—there weren’t many “third parties” or “independent planners” in 1981—and all, except one, with whom I spoke said they worked on a fee-for-service payment system.

It was a model that made sense to me and didn’t present a conflict of interest, which proved to be a smart move in light of recent (and previous) events.

This blog post is not intended as legal or business advice.

It is opinion based on 40+ years in our industry and additional research. It is also based on my experience testifying as an expert witness in industry disputes and in a dispute in which I was directly involved, a situation where, had I not been paid fees versus commissions, there might have been a very different outcome.

Here’s that story, illustrative of the commission versus fee dilemma:

In 1984 I was a defendant in a case that involved a canceled and relocated meeting, the site selection and contract negotiation for which were done by an in-house planner at the time the site was selected. The judge found that, though the suit was against the group, me individually and my company, I had nothing to gain because I was not receiving commission or higher commission as a result of the move of the meeting.

Thus the cases against me and against my company were thrown out.

Because of that and other experiences, I have, for years, on the issue of commission paid to third-party/independent planners or companies from hotels and other industry suppliers, which is certainly not a new concern for our industry, engaged in discussions.

Most recently, on the issue of the Marriott commission structure change, the discussions have been across social media, in interviews by numerous industry publications—including Meetings Today for which I write regular blog posts that are featured in a newsletter—and in conversations with people on different sides of this issue including various third-party models, attorneys, hoteliers and DMOs.

In fact, the discussion around the “agency” model of commission pay versus fees has been one on the list of futurists and others as a model that is not sustainable.

It even contributed to the demise of many travel companies.

AND I get it—the anger and frustration … why a cut in one’s projected income is a blow, in any situation. And while I understand the anger, I think that we are long overdue in discussing the model and even more overdue in showing how our segment of the hospitality industry has changed and why the commission model as we’ve known it may be outdated.

Our industry has no standards of how one is to be paid; it has been left to individuals and their clients to figure out. Right, we cannot discuss specific fee-setting amounts. But the equity or appropriateness of commissions for varied levels of services is verboten except in private conversations … in hushed tones especially when it is verified that someone will pay higher guest room rates or other costs because others received commission. Thus we each negotiate the scope of work, time and fees with clients directly.

While the voices are loud over a change in commission for some, I also know that no one has fought for those of us who work for fees—who conduct training (being told that instead of an appropriate honorarium we should “do it for the exposure”), select sites, design meetings, negotiate contracts and provide site management—to be paid what we’re worth by clients versus depending on room pickup to determine what we earn.

Though I know I’m not alone, it appears others that share my experiences and views on the problematic commission payment model for third-party planners are a minority.

Or at least, other than in a few examples I’ve seen, many are not speaking up.

My objections to the Marriott commission brouhaha and boycott center on these key points:

1. Not all third parties are equal: I’ve seen the work of many who do site selection only and in fact, do only “lead generation,” and who are not providing other services such as contract negotiation, meeting management, on-site management, etc.

I know that not all third parties have contracts with their clients and thus are not protected or even smart in how they work. I know because I’ve seen it—and been told by many—that people are in for a quick buck for even just recommending a property and expect to be paid and have found that being paid by hotels is a far easier way than doing more, such as contract negotiation.

(An incomparable example from years ago on an industry listserv: planners would post asking for recommendations of properties and third parties would copy the request, put it on letterhead and send to hotels as if it were their client and expect and receive commission for the lead generation).

Of course, it’s not all and yet, it seems to be a growing number. Without standards of operation or adherence to industry ethics policies (see point 5), there is no regulation on how people operate.

2. Legal and tax implications: As noted above, in the lawsuit in which I was involved as a defendant and in ones in which I’ve testified, commission can clarify or cloud the outcome. If it appears that one is making more as a result of a commission because a meeting cancels and moves or one hotel is selected over another because the commission is greater, it can if not in fact, in appearance, be a conflict of interest.

In talking with a third party that accepts commission and then rebates some or all to the client, I was curious about the tax (and ethical and legal) implications for both parties. The initial recipient of the (usually) larger amount is taxed on that amount. Those to whom a portion of that amount is rebated, are taxed on the lesser amount.

It’s not “free money” in any case.

In talking with Josh Grimes, Esq., an attorney on the group side for our industry, he said: “In terms of the boycott, I suppose that planners can do what they want.

“But if they are going to ignore Marriott [properties] in favor of other properties that pay higher commission, then planners may have an ethical and legal (i.e., remember Sarbanes-Oxley – SOX – accountability rules?) obligation to let their clients know that they aren’t going to evaluate properties solely on the basis of what’s best for the client, but that planner compensation will also be a factor.

“The client ought to consent to this different way of sourcing properties.

“I remember the days when I did SOX presentations, when planners rejected any notion that some might choose one property over another based upon the amount of commission paid. I was told repeatedly that professional meeting planners would never let commissions be a factor,” he added. “It appears that something has changed.

Lastly, I fear that with the deadline of March 31, 2018, for contract signing (when Marriott will pay less commission to some third parties than they had been), there will be rushed, bad contracts. Is there anyone still in the industry who doesn’t know what happens when contracts are rushed?

“Do-overs” are not easy when the terms are not well vetted.

3. Professionalism: Some have said that by paying some third parties less it means we are not well-regarded as professionals. C’mon! We have, sadly, never been.

And though platforms of various organizations have demanded we work harder at getting a “seat at the table”, by demanding commissions versus the seat, we are demeaning ourselves into commodities not professionals.

4. Boycotts: When a number of groups, including some of the clients with whom I work (and PCMA pre-emptively for Texas), said they would boycott cities or hotel companies or cancel meetings over the anti-transgender aka “bathroom bill” or other like civil and human rights policies and laws, there was much pooh-poohing that we were hurting cities, hotels and workers who were most impacted.

Somehow the “Say No to Marriott”—or #SayNotoMarriott if you’re on social media—boycott movement that is entirely about finances is acceptable.

In the case of the principle of cutting commissions to all but a few companies, it may in fact be principle. It is not being positioned as such.

5. Ethical implications: One of the organizations at the forefront of the protest about this change in commission amount does not have an ethics policy for its members though I, a past Chair of ASAE’s Ethics Committee, offered to help write one and the offer was refused (If I’m incorrect and one was created, my apologies. I couldn’t find it. Please provide the link in the comments).

Excerpts from major meeting and event industry organizations’ ethics policies could impact how the boycott of one brand is perceived:

The CMP Code of Conduct/Ethics is similar to others. In the CMP Code it says:

“As a recipient of the CMP designation by the Events Industry Council (‘Certificant’), a CMP must pledge to…

“Never use my position for undue personal gain* and promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest.”

MPI’s Principles of Professionalism says this in the first section:

Avoid actions which are or could be perceived as a conflict of interest or for individual gain*

PCMA’s Principles of Professional and Ethical Conduct has among its principles:

  • Respect the policies and regulations* of those organizations with whom I deal.
  • Refuse inappropriate gifts, incentives and/or services in any business dealings that may be offered as a result of my position and could be perceived as personal gain.*
  • Avoid any and all conflicts of interest* and advise all parties, including my organization, of any situations where a conflict of interest exists.

Emphasis is the blog author’s.

There are also ethical and business implications for those cities and properties marketing higher-than-Marriott’s new commission and the “woo-hooing” of such offers on social media. How sustainable will this be?

Will these offers be applied across the board to all third parties? What about groups that have internal planners and want a discount that would reflect what a commissionable agent would receive? Or want a rebate to equal what others might receive?

Or an internal planner who doing the same work a third-party might do believing they are due perks for the work?

I think the waters are being muddied even more with these offers.

6. Do what you say: I’m mainly looking at the third parties who have always maintained that they do not book based on what they make in commission and instead book based on what is best for the client. If one rules out an entire company—or is it the ownership of hotels or the management companies as well as the brand?—because the person or company booking isn’t making enough, then can this be true?

7. When other hotel brands or owners follow suit: What then? Will there be a boycott of all brands? Will only brands—or owners of particular hotels who agree to pay the highest commission be considered?

Can a sustainable business model for brands and owners be groups who use a commissionable agent plus a housing company that receives a share of the room rate plus groups who want rebates to off-set their costs plus concessions that, in fact are not “free” but have a dollar value? When and where will it stop?

I understand economics and earning a living and the arguments in favor of the “trickle-down” effect as it relates here—those who don’t earn more can’t employ others or spend more to grow the economy. But where then, is the outcry for a higher minimum wage for those in our industry, especially for back-of-the-house workers and servers?

Some have cited the new U.S. tax laws and Marriott’s profitability as a reason they should pay third parties more or at least what they were paying. Why should commissionable agents receive more than those doing the, literal, heavy lifting in hotels? Or is it that some want everyone paid and the owners and brands to take the hit?

Could Marriott have handled this differently?

You betcha! IF instead of a letter sent without, it seems, warning, there had been conversations (which it appears there were not or at least not that anyone is disclosing) with large and small third parties to discuss this.

IF owners (where is AHLA’s voice?) were saying what we think they must be—that they are demanding greater ROI, would that matter to the protesting voices?

Or is this back to let them take the hit—they are getting tax breaks?

IF this had been applied across the board and not exempting four companies, who have allegedly been granted an exclusion from the commission cut until 2020, would it have been more palatable?

IF those 4 companies said “whoa—let’s do this across the board versus just for some” because “what’s good for all is best for the industry” would this have been more acceptable?

Is it that those who are contractors for some of these companies, especially among those exempted, and groused before about their smaller share of total commission and now will get even less, adding fuel to this fire?

Is a boycott for financial reasons for oneself now Kosher?

Really. I am trying to understand all the different viewpoints … and how the focus is so much on this issue and not on, say, Puerto Rico and the suffering of so many including many in our industry. I’m seeking answers and ethics versus rancor.

I know this is a tough topic and that you may want to contribute comments and prefer to do so anonymously. Comment below and if you prefer to comment anonymously, please send your comments to me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com and I promise to add to the discussion here and to ensure your privacy by, as always, not disclosing your identify to anyone.

Finally, here are some additional resources for planners to consider when confronting issues of ethics, payment and more:

How to Network and Ethically Do Business in a Relationship Industry
https://www.meetingstoday.com/Blog/PostId/306/how-to-network-and-ethically-do-business-in-a-relationship-industry

‘Ethical Negotiation’ – An Oxymoron?
https://www.meetingstoday.com/Blog/PostId/288/ethical-negotiations-an-oxymoron

What’s Wrong With Hotel Contracts?
http://www.meetingstoday.com/newsletters/friday_with_joan/2016_08_05.html

Seven Keys to Hotel Contract Success
https://www.meetingstoday.com/Magazines/ArticleDetails/RegionID/0/ArticleID/28848

Is the Meetings Industry Corrupt?
https://www.meetingstoday.com/Blog/PostId/191/is-our-industry-corrupt

When Laws and Meetings Collide: Go, Stay or Boycott?
https://www.meetingstoday.com/Blog/PostId/280/when-laws-and-meetings-intersect-go-stay-or-boycott

Contracts: Accommodations (Meetings Today Webinar)
https://www.meetingstoday.com/News-Events/Event-Details/ItemID/4093

Contracts: Critical Clauses (Meetings Today Webinar)
https://www.meetingstoday.com/News-Events/Event-Details/ItemID/4091