The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

Let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Our industry is abuzz about the news of Marriott’s decision to cut third-party commissions for group bookings by thirty percent. And the response has been “harsh“, especially because of the extremely short notice (it will be going into effect on March 31, 2018) and once it became known that four large site selection firms would be “granted a temporary exception“.

Marriott’s announcement sparked the potential of a commission war (some independent properties are raising group booking commissions). It led to fear of further reductions or elimination of commissions by other suppliers in the future. Taking a wider view, let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meeting industry.

(I think the following points are pertinent to any industry that pays commissions, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Why are group booking commissions “corrosive”?

Let’s go back to basics. When a supplier pays an independent agent commission on a group booking, the agent benefits financially. This financial transaction does not directly involve the agent’s client (who may not even be aware of it). The agent, then, is not depending solely on client fees for income.

Who is the agent’s customer? Ideally it would be 100% the client. From the client’s point of view, the agent’s job is to find the venue that best meets the client’s needs. But when commissions enter the picture, the question arises as to whether the commission-paying supplier is now the customer too. After all, the agent provides a service (a sale!) for the venue — and receives payment for it. And that leads to concerns that should be on the mind of any client who is aware of that commissions will be paid. Did my agent steer me to this property because they stand to make money from recommending it, rather than because it’s the best choice for me? Can I continue to trust this agent to act in my best interests?

Remember one of Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust: “Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.

The real-estate industry, which works solely on commission, is upfront about brokerage commission fees, which, though sometimes negotiable, are typically uniform and clearly included in client-broker contracts. The meeting industry does not generally match such levels of uniformity or transparency. For example, I often negotiate with non-traditional meeting venues. None of them have ever offered me a commission (and I would have been surprised and declined if they had). In my experience, commissions can range between 0 – 15%.

Of course, experienced clients are aware of the existence of commissions, and ethical agents disclose them. Nevertheless, commissions tie intermediaries to vendors who pay them, obscure financial transparency. Commissions muddy the waters as to whether the agent is solely acting in the client’s best interest. A naive client may see an agent receiving commissions as less expensive than one who is totally fee-based.

To summarize, group booking commissions are corrosive because they reduce clients’ trust in the impartiality of meeting planners, and they hide and/or distort the financial considerations underlying a booking.

Why trade associations are silent

Compared to the strong response from independent planners, trade associations have been “largely silent” to the Marriott announcement. The few official responses provide excellent examples of how to issue a statement that says nothing substantial.

This is not surprising, due to the financial model adopted by these associations. Kyle Hillman points out that it relies on supplier financial support to an extent that they will not say anything that might offend suppliers.

“…stop looking to the trade associations for help. It isn’t that they are bad, they are just not setup to be independent voices here. Their entire financial structure is based on supplier funding. No matter how egregious a situation is for planners or industry professionals, they can’t get involved without risking their primary revenue source. On internal issues within the industry – trade associations are not our advocates…”

“…I think we romanticize MPI, PCMA, ASAE as our champions when that isn’t their role. Their role is to provide enough value to members so that they can facilitate sellers soliciting their goods. They were never designed to be advocates for buyers.”
Kyle Hillman, Facebook Industry Friends Group

As a side observation, at least MPI and PCMA do not claim that they only represent meeting planners, but ASAE — the American Society of Association Executives — does not have that excuse if its name correctly portrays the people they claim to represent!

For this article I researched the relative numbers of buyer versus supplier memberships at MPI, PCMA, and ASAE but found nothing on their websites (feel free to share in the comments if you know). And unfortunately, these organizations’ annual 990’s do not break out buyer versus supplier support, though the program income figures are interesting and shown below {the 2015 returns are the most recent I could access}.

corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
ASAE 2015 program income
corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
MPI 2015 program income
PCMA 2015 program income

Regardless, intermediaries have no major association to represent their collective concerns. (Senior Planners Industry Network {SPIN} has published a petition demanding equal commissions from Marriott for all intermediaries.)

Corrosive conclusion

The upheaval caused by Marriott’s abrupt unilateral decision to slash intermediary commissions has created consternation for third-parties who have relied on these commissions for a portion of their income. Is this is the beginning of a trend like the one begun in 1995 when airlines capped and eventually cut commissions to travel agents? We can, however, take some encouraging lessons from the travel agent industry which, in response, reinvented its business models and, though the number of agencies has shrunk by two-thirds, is perhaps the healthiest it has been in years.

Paradoxically, those intermediaries who work solely on a fee-basis and do not rely on venue commissions are in a good position to increase their business as a result of Marriott’s decision, compared to other agents who may now need to find additional revenue sources, or perhaps even leave what is a demanding and difficult business. Ultimately, intermediaries relying less on commissions’ contribution to the bottom line will reduce the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Two ways to make conferences better

Attendees talking 7088326883_a77ef0d148_o

Samantha Whitehorn of ASAE’s Associations Now recently wrote an interesting article on new staff roles for meetings and events and I’ve picked out two of her suggestions to comment on:

Attendee Concierge. Full disclosure: I pretty much stole this one from our June Associations Now cover story about Terry Fong, member concierge for the California Dental Association, who calls 1,000 new members each year to welcome them and ask, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

What if you had a staffer call all new attendees after your meetings and ask them what they liked most and least about the meeting and what else you could be doing to get them to register for the meeting again?

You could also use a similar role onsite and assign new attendees to attendee concierges—in this case, maybe extra staff or member volunteers—and have them check-in with attendees throughout the meeting and then follow-up after.
—Samantha

I think it’s crucial to check in with attendees during an event—something that I’ve done for years—and it’s easy to do. I like to concentrate on attendees I don’t know (the one’s I do are probably going to bend my ear anyway) and ask how the event is going for them. And listen. Do this and you’ll get tons of good in-the-moment feedback, build goodwill and relationships with the people you talk to, and get occasional opportunities to answer questions and solve problems they mention while the event’s still going on, rather than having to wait until next year. Don’t just ask new attendees, by the way; returning attendees can have equally valuable feedback for you. And make notes promptly about what you’ve heard so it doesn’t evaporate from your brain from the heat of the conference.

Conference Connector. I’ve blogged before about how the association education model needs an overhaul where the focus is put more on attendees learning and connecting with one another rather than just speakers on a stage or in front of a room.

At ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, Thom Singer, served as “Conference Catalyst.” Over the course of the meeting, he gave attendees networking tips and helped them to engage and connect with one another. And at the California Society of Association Executives’ Annual Conference in April, Jeff Hurt served in a similar role, helping attendees keep the conversation and learning going between sessions and during lunch by having organized chats about what they recently learned.

What if you had a full-time staff person who helped form these small-group discussions to not only help members engage but also to help process and remember what they learned in the larger sessions?
—Samantha

Thom and Jeff are doing great work around this important topic. But rather than simply adding opportunities for connection piecemeal into our events we can do better. We can build opportunities for meaningful connections right into our entire event design. This means that we need to adopt meeting and session formats throughout our events that facilitate effective participation, connection, and engagement in the sessions themselves. We’ve known for years that the learning and connections that occur when we do this are far superior to what happens at traditional meetings. This is not rocket science—I’ve been designing and facilitating meetings like this for over twenty years. Participants love them. And more and more of them are taking place, all over the world. Let’s do this!

Photo attribution: Flickr user michigancommunities