'Ethical Negotiation' - An Oxymoron?

'Ethical Negotiation' - An Oxymoron?

Psst… did you hear the one about the hotel salesperson and the customer who didn’t disclose their policies and history? OK, maybe that’s not a common setup for a punchline.

But everyone says it: there must be “hidden charges” that involve a financial risk to meetings that hotels never disclose, seemingly in order to protect themselves from major catastrophe. This causes meeting organizers to believe they’ve been “caught” by someone unscrupulous because if they were really our partners, wouldn’t all the information be disclosed at the start of the relationship?

Conversely, hoteliers and other vendors, working with a wide range of customers say they are frustrated that RFPs (Requests for Proposals)—whether written, electronically completed or phoned in—don’t describe an entire meeting, its needs or its history.

Those with many years of planning, sometimes for the same organization, where year-to-year meetings are pretty much the same; those with little experience; or the well-meaning person who, based on a social media group’s interest, wants to convene face-to-face gatherings, all sometimes take short cuts.

Without all the facts, hotels and other vendors may take for granted that what they get is enough and the person from whom it is received knows enough to ask the right questions. Neither party wants to lose money. In fact, the expectation for each side is that a profit be made, or for the group, at least a break-even financial outcome. Each party wants to believe the other is not withholding information.

I’ve written and taught about contracts*, ethics, and negotiations for years, most recently in the August 2016 edition of Friday With Joan and again in the article “7 Keys to Hotel Contract Success” and spoke on a webinar about contracts for Meetings Today, and for UNCC in a class (for which you can enroll for the spring semester). I’ve spoken at chapter programs for MPI, PCMA, SGMP and others. Yet, emails and calls tell me that disclosure and transparency are still not how we operate as an industry.

I speculated that it’s perhaps because:

  • Hospitality is still a “relationship industry” and with that is implied there is a belief in the honesty and integrity of those with who we partner on meetings and events.
  • It is also implied there is sufficient experience to be able to know the lingocontract terms and when to say “I don’t know” and then find out versus bluffing one’s way through a negotiation to a contract that may not make sense to you or that you may not even be able to defend if need be.
  • We want to believe in the honesty of the party with whom we are working and we don’t want to “play our hand”—that is, show what we may not know so, we believe, we can avoid being taken advantage of.
  • We don’t know what we don’t know.
  • We’re busy and don’t want to take time to ask questions or questions are discouraged, or when asked, a standard “it’s out corporate contract” (or addendum) is the response, without digging deeper.
  • Sellers put pressure on buyers to “sign now” or lose the deal, partly because many sellers and some third-parties are incented on the number of room nights booked by quarter or year-end and have quotas they must reach.

Just as I hear from colleagues, friends and strangers about ethics issues, I receive questions about contracts, often when there is a potential crisis. A recent incident led me to write this blog and to invite comments** from others in the industry.

One request for help was from a non-industry social media group moderator who, with the encouragement of the group, agreed to organize a multi-day, face-to-face meeting. Based on the expression of interest—not a much different experience than that of a corporate planner whose CEO says “Let’s put on a show,” or an association planner whose Board says, “There’s a great need for a new program on this great new idea”—the person or “meeting convener”—found and booked a hotel.

The meeting convener (not a planner, professionally) signed a hotel contract that, if you read or listened to any of the above linked information or that of others like Tyra Hilliard, was not favorable at all to the individual or group.

The convener, even though it appears the hotel may be sold out by transient and other rooms over the dates booked, may still be on the hook for upwards of $40,000. Even for an association or corporation, $40k is a huge hit!

For an individual, it could be devastating.

Here’s what I think could have been done to prevent or mitigate the outcomes and what can be done going forward by us all. Add your suggestions in the comments section of other ideas for those whose knowledge of the industry is less than yours, or for those who may have never planned an event. (If you prefer to have a comment posted anonymously, email me and I promise to keep what you say confidential and post the comment anonymously. Just please identify yourself to me).

By the hotel

  • Ask more questions about why the convener thought the number of room nights contracted was accurate.
  • Check history … though for this group there was none but still, what happened to the practice of checking, which I’ve found has gone out the window for expediency? ... but I digress slightly…
  • Explain how hotels operate, how they make money, and what the financial risks were to the convener of the number of guest rooms and other provisions.
  • Provide a sliding scale of guest rooms, and based on reservations and registrations, increase as needed at a negotiated group rate.
  • Be transparent in all you say and do.
  • Negotiate an audit clause so that those who made reservations outside the group block, perhaps at a greater discounted rate, would be counted toward group pick up.

By the convener

  • Research to learn more about how meetings are held and how hotels operate, what contract provisions will be fair to both parties and what risks may be involved.
  • Charge a non-refundable pre-registration fee.
  • Explain to the group—once research has been conducted and the hotel had explained to the convener—the risks for the individual so that the burden would be shared.
  • Ask more questions to understand the clauses, financial obligations and the risk.
  • Be transparent in the information you provide and the negotiations you conduct.

I want to believe our industry is ethical and honorable. I’ve always said there are no hidden fees, just fees that we planners forget to ask about and cover contractually.

I also want to believe these points from the CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy—“Maintain exemplary standards of professional conduct at all times,” and “Actively model and encourage the integration of ethics into all aspects of the performance of my duties.”—guide even those who are not CMPs, and that we all want to conduct business transparently.

Although I cannot provide exact language, I recommend negotiating something like “all terms and conditions that impact the financial and operational aspects of the event have been disclosed in the Agreement or they will not be in effect” into your contracts.

But don’t take my word—talk with an industry attorney, preferably a member of AHIA – the Academy of Hospitality Industry Attorneys.

I really do believe that ethical negotiation is not an oxymoron. Tell me I’m not delusional!

*As always, my disclaimer in reference to any contract issues: Although I am an expert witness in industry disputes, these materials are provided with the understanding that the author is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or professional services through the distribution of the materials. If expert assistance is required, the services of a professional should be contracted.

Further, the views expressed may not represent those of owner and publisher of the magazine and blog, Stamats, or Meetings Today.

**I’m grateful to those who were willing to respond—although I was surprised by some of the responses—and help further the conversation. I hope you’ll join in with your comments below.

And if you haven't seen it, check out the Nov. 2016 Edition of Friday With Joan.

Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt

Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt

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