A thin, transparent sheet of ice is how I would describe some of today’s annual meetings and conferences. The line between education, promotion and sales has blurred.
That ice cracks as attendees experience conference sessions that have been sold to the highest bidder. Sponsored education sessions have become blatant promotions of services and products. Attendees are promoted to potential sponsors as captive audiences that will listen to and endorse any message sent their way.
Greed, the desire for power, and ambition have blinded organizers from basic ethical standards. The conference organizers are more concerned with creating contracts between sponsors than the standard unspoken contract that they have with their attendees.
Questionable Decision Making
Here are several ways conference organizers have embraced questionable strategies in order to make money. Even when their mission and strategic plan place a high priority on Education.
1. Pay To Play
Allowing businesses to pay a fee, often called a sponsorship, to speak to an audience.
Akin to media advertising, some organizers allow sponsors a brief two- or three-minute message during sessions. This is a fairly acceptable practice and most listeners know that the sponsor’s message is a commercial.
Some organizers allow a sponsor to develop and present information as a general session, plenary, breakout or workshop. In this situation, rarely is an audience given a disclaimer that the education they are receiving is biased and that the speaker paid a fee to present.
I understand the sponsors’ advertising. I don’t understand the sponsored education speakers.
Where is the integrity in “Pay To Play” sponsored education sessions? Would we allow children to go to public schools were businesses paid fees to be the teacher? Would we pay tuition to send our kids to college where each class was taught by paying sponsor?
Of course not. So why is it acceptable for conference hosts to sell education sessions to the highest bidder?
2. Selling Attendee And Membership Lists
I am always surprised that organizations feel it is appropriate and acceptable to exploit conference attendee and association member information for commercial advertising. When did I give permission for my information to be shared and sold? Why don’t all conferences and associations have a registration section where I can decline or give permission for my information to be shared or sold?
This past Fall I was appalled to discover that my contact information was worth $0.25 to a major meetings association. I received an email from a company that was selling this association’s member list and demographics. Ironically, the associaiton claimed as part of their bylaws that they did not sell or share member contact information.
3. Sponsored Attendee And Member Services
Some organizations are pros at cutting backroom deals with companies for sponsorships. Sometimes, those companies provide attendee or member services for free or at an extreme discount.
I am ok with this when the services are of value and easy to use. When the services are poorly constructed or difficult to use, I find it disenchanting. Attendee or member needs are sacrificed to the highest bidder, smoothest talker or best person to take golfing. The organization feels it has saved expenses and does not realize that in an attempt to reduce costs they have reduced their effectiveness.
Conscience: The Voice Within
Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. ~ Wikipedia
Within the meetings and hospitality industry, who is the voice from within calling out conference organizers that cross the line? Within your own organization, who is the voice that questions whether conference hosts have crossed the ethical line?
Without a checks and balance system, a small slip can lead to a major spill. If a decision to allow a business to present an education session in exchange for a fee cannot be shared, then there is a deeper problem at hand. If a sponsorship decision only serves the bottom line and does not serve the true customer, then it should be questioned.
What are some ways conference organizers can keep their decisions in check? What are some basic questions they should ask themselves during their decision-making process that will serve as their conscience?