Biz travel group's CEO under fire after whistleblower alleges misconduct

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An anonymous email alleging misconduct by Global Business Travel Association CEO Scott Solombrino has been circulating among industry insiders.

Sent to Business Travel News on June 12, the letter claims, among other misdeeds, that Solombrino has created a hostile working environment for women and racial minorities and has enriched himself and board members with a continuous string of luxury hotel stays and high-end perks, while denying basic expense reimbursements to GBTA staff. Read the full letter.

GBTA has placed Solombrino on leave.

The letter also alleges negligence among senior staff -- particularly, executive vice president Lisa Censullo, who joined GBTA from Solombrino’s previous company, Dav El Boston Coach -- as well as among board members for allowing Solombrino’s conduct to go unchecked and even for rewarding it. 

Solombrino last month was promoted to CEO in a unanimous vote by the board, even as one-third of GBTA’s staff was laid off or furloughed.

The whistleblowers’ letter, which was signed “current & former GBTA Staff,” pointed to a number of ongoing and specific incidents. Namely “racist, divisive and derogatory comments such like ‘Chinese are murderers, this is a Chinese disease... Canadians and Europeans don’t count... Mexicans are thieves.” The letter accuses Solombrino of a “misogynist attitude and rhetoric such as... put[ting] more men on the Winit board because they are smart,” and saying “women don’t know how to manage technology.”

The letter notes ongoing derogatory references to past and present staff, board members, buyer members, vendors and media, along with daily comments directed to staff like “you are crazy, you are insane, you are stupid, idiot, you are boring,” and Solombrino’s declarations that GBTA is not a democracy and that “they [the board] don’t care and they let me do whatever I want.” The letter notes the lack of intervention from Censullo.

The whistleblowers claimed high staff turnover rates since Solombrino took his leadership role in May 2019 and, in particular, the firing of four black women earlier this month even as GBTA said it was hiring a new communications VP. The letter also claimed announcements about further force reductions at the organization are forthcoming. It claimed workers already laid off never received their approved bonuses from the prior year.

The letter also questioned Solombrino’s and Censullo’s extensive travel schedules, including their demand for luxury accommodations at St. Regis hotels and high-end meals. It noted these perks were also extended to the volunteer board, whereas “a cup of coffee” would not be reimbursed for staff. Whistleblowers also accused Solombrino of signing chauffeured car service contracts that would enrich his family members. 

Whistleblowers urged the current board of directors to take action on the allegations and immediately initiate an investigation.

The board now has hired New York-based law firm Polsinelli to conduct an internal investigation, but it is not clear whether they took action prior to the story breaking earlier this week in The Company Dime. That outlet substantiated some of the claims in the anonymous complaint by obtaining an internal email sent by Scott Solombrino on June 7 that berated staff and hurled invective about Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who apparently has withdrawn permission for GBTA to hold its annual convention at the Denver Convention Center Nov. 6-11. GBTA would not confirm the fate of the convention when BTN inquired on Thursday. The association said only that an announcement would be made “shortly.”

In the meantime, GBTA has hired PR firm Leibowitz Solo to manage the evolving reputational situation. The Leibowitz Solo website promotes “crisis communications that diminishes your worst story,” and the organization has apparently directed board members to send press inquiries regarding the crisis to Leibowitz Solo consultant David Leibowitz.

Asked on Thursday to show that the GBTA board was committed to running a thorough investigation of the issues, which includes the board’s own governing effectiveness, Leibowitz returned a pre-composed statement from Wednesday.

“The GBTA Board has the utmost confidence in the organization’s executive leadership team. We’re proud of what this team has accomplished, especially amid an unprecedented pandemic that continues to impact the travel industry worldwide. At the same time, GBTA stands fully committed to providing every one of our team members with a respectful work environment, a workplace free from all forms of unlawful harassment and discrimination.

“GBTA takes very seriously any allegation of workplace conduct inconsistent with our commitment to professionalism. GBTA’s Board is aware of an anonymous, unsubstantiated complaint regarding some of its employees. In response, the Board has initiated an independent, comprehensive third-party review of the allegations contained in that complaint. The executive leadership team is cooperating fully with this review, which we hope will be completed in an expedited manner.”

A response to the anonymous allegations attributed to Solombrino, but provided by Liebowitz via email, pushed back on the complaint, citing the GBTA CEO’s self-proclaimed spotless record when it comes to workplace conduct.

“In business and as a leader, I’ve always treated the men and women around me with honesty and fairness. While at times I may need to choose my words more carefully, in my 44-year career, I’ve never faced a single workplace complaint, let alone anything like the allegations contained in these anonymous emails.

“I’ve been cooperating fully with GBTA’s internal review, and I will continue to do so. I will also continue to support and work hard for organizations like WINiT. As one of the organization’s earliest supporters, I’ve always done what I can to make sure women in the travel industry have every opportunity to move forward in their careers. This commitment isn’t window dressing; I believe in my heart that no one should be treated unequally  --  ever. 

“I hope that the decades I’ve spent “walking the walk” count at least as much as these anonymous accusations  --  a smear campaign that I strongly reject as false.”

The statement rang hollow for plenty of industry observers, particularly his avowed dedication to women’s advancement in the workplace, which Solombrino seemed to use here as a catch-all for multiple accusations contained in the whistleblowers’ letter.

Indeed, private car service provider Blacklane dropped its GBTA 2020 exhibition sponsorship in January, following the emergence of a panel discussion captured on video in a January 21, 2019, Limo University LABLive meeting in Nashville. During that panel (time stamp 53:53), Solombrino pushed his political views and called out the “crazy broads” and “lunatics” who participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the previous day.

Blacklane CEO Jens Wohltorf cited this and other incendiary remarks in the video in a letter to GBTA board chair Christle Johnson that outlined why the firm decided to distance itself from Solombrino and his views that “undermine and overshadow the great work” of other members and aspects of GBTA, according to the memo. Though the LABLive session occurred prior to Solombrino’s current leadership role at the association, he served as GBTA’s Allied Leadership Council president at that time and sat on the board.

Wohltorf wasn’t the only CEO questioning their company’s association with GBTA. Festive Road withdrew its GBTA exhibition participation in February, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic fully spreading throughout Europe and North America.

Managing partner Paul Tilstone told BTN, “Every supplier needs to consider its own position based on its own values. From our point of view, before ‘the email’ we were already uncomfortable with various GBTA positions, so Festive Road withdrew from the convention as soon as GBTA applied surcharges to exhibitors to pay for the opening reception. It wasn’t the cost of the surcharge, but the principle. And it’s this overall attitude that concerns a number of the members.”  

Tripbam CEO Steve Reynolds voiced similar concerns and indicated, as a result of the current controversy, he would consider withdrawing from GBTA participation altogether even if it meant some pain for his company.

“We need to take a step back and think about it. Is it worthwhile?” he asked. “We are on the accommodations committee, the tech committee ... probably three committees. Should we continue that? Don’t get me wrong, there has been value in the past. But if the momentum continues in this direction, we will probably terminate everything and see how it goes.”

In addition to the current misconduct allegations, Reynolds noted a recent dustup regarding an op-ed that appeared in BTN that undercut GBTA’s official position on hotel RFPs and Solombrino taking retaliatory action by cancelling a scheduled interview with Reynolds as part of a CEO series Solombrino started post Covid-19.

That said, Reynolds conceded there could be some opportunity losses should Tripbam discontinue all GBTA involvement. “As a sponsor and a company trying to make money off corporate travel, where do you go to generate pipeline? GBTA was kind of the Super Bowl,” he said. “You can go to BTN, you can go to [the Association of Corporate Travel Executives] if it manages to stay around, and there are a couple of events in Europe.” Unlike many companies in corporate travel right now, however, Reynolds said Tripbam has a healthy pipeline and could withstand that hit.

Beyond Solombrino

Nearly everyone BTN interviewed for this report said the issues at GBTA extend beyond Solombrino. The board, they said, needed to review its governance and would need to provide more transparency about its decision-making -- not just going forward, but also going back to the process of hiring Solombrino and the board’s unanimous decision, according to a GBTA press release, to promote Solombrino to CEO even as the company laid off a third of its workforce.

“This is a board that already had issues around the succession question,” said ARC CEO Mike Premo, referring to Solombrino’s appointment to executive director and COO last May, which did not include a full-scale executive search. “There were questions around Scott’s succession to the role, and the board’s lack of transparency on that topic was not helpful to Scott or GBTA. The board needs to up their game here.”

Premo suggested inexperience might be an issue for some GBTA board members.

“A lot of times this is the first board people served on -- whether it’s ARC or an organization like GBTA,” he said. “It’s not intuitive how people should behave and what their duties and responsibilities are. And how effective boards should behave.” He added that ARC supports board education programs at organizations like the National Association of Corporate Directors. “We are very big into board education, and I would hope at a minimum, GBTA would have their directors enroll in that kind of education so they can represent this fantastic industry in the way we all expect.”

Tilstone, a former GBTA board member who said he stepped down early from his term in frustration, agreed that board issues extend back farther than Solombrino’s current tenure as GBTA’s senior executive.

“It’s the very construct of the board that needs to change as well as any other more immediate action that’s needed [regarding the allegations],” he said. “The GBTA board should, therefore, implement a root-and-branch review of its practices and work to establish a format which ensures fresh people, fresh thinking and a deeper connection with its membership. ... Without it, GBTA will struggle.”

To that end, GBTA’s public relations rep Leibowitz wrote in an email to BTN that the legal firm is expediting a thorough review and has “full authority to question whomever he sees fit and to ask whatever needs to be asked. Every member of the Board is anxiously awaiting the results of that review.”  

The buyer community may not wait.

Anthem director of global travel and meetings Cindy Heston said she for many years had found working with the organization difficult and that the dysfunction of the board, lack of transparency around board elections and other organizational intrigue had exhausted her patience years ago.

“I don’t know the last time I paid for a membership. Maybe three years ago,” Heston said. “I didn’t go to convention last year and never plan to go again. I had mounting concerns about overall structure and transparency [of the organization].

“When you are at GBTA [convention], 50 percent of the discussion is about the nonsense that was going on at GBTA,” she added, calling the organization “obtuse” and questioning its value. “If your leadership knew what was really going on with that organization, would they look at you and say they were proud of your participation? Would they say your time, resources, energy spent there is valuable and justified? When you can’t look your leadership in the eye and say you are proud to be a part of the association, it’s time to cancel the membership.”

This week, Heston instructed the rest of her Anthem travel team to withdraw membership from the organization and quit committees they were involved with. She said she is encouraging other buyers to do the same.

At least one has taken her advice. In an email to BTN on Friday morning, Takeda head of global travel, meetings and events, fleet, and aviation Michelle De Costa said she had instructed everyone on her team to withdraw participation as well. Kim Hamer Kaye, a longtime buyer and industry consultant, took a new role recently as a buyer for a payment company. She told BTN her membership is about to lapse, and she also will not renew.

Heston said it’s time for buyer members to take a position if they feel they are not being represented by the organization.

“If you are a buyer and you are not there, suppliers won’t come,” she said. “If suppliers don’t come, GBTA can’t exist. It will have no money. It’s easy. It’s not Scott [Solombrino], and it’s not just this board. It’s the compliancy of all the previous boards. It’s been years and years in the making. There are other avenues for education and networking that offer a more earnest endeavor than [the GBTA] convention and those chapters, and having to deal with all that noise. It’s too much noise.”

Other participants aren’t quite ready to pull the plug. They want to wait for the investigation to take its course and give the existing board a chance to make things right.

A spokesperson for BCD Travel provided the following statement attributed to BCD Travel president and CEO John Snyder.

“We will not pre-judge anyone, but the allegations around Scott Solombrino are troubling. BCD Travel supports a thorough investigation into the matter. BCD Travel has had a long partnership with GBTA, and we support the many great people who work or volunteer for the organization. We are fully committed to ensuring that its leaders represent the strong values BCD Travel holds dear, and that they serve the travel industry with the utmost character and professionalism.”

BCD Travel VP digital and global product strategy Will Pinnell is a GBTA board member. BTN contacted Pinnell for comment, but the request was forwarded to the crisis communications firm.

ARC’s Premo is another leader looking for the story to unfold before deciding whether to break a decades-long relationship with GBTA.

“I find myself often sympathetic with CEOs, having been one twice. And, honestly, I’ve found myself similarly situated, with allegations made about me and my company sent to my board,” said Premo. “They were baseless. My board reacted much the same to how the GBTA board has reacted -- to bring in a third party and investigate. Ultimately, those allegations were unfounded. If that had gone public the way this has, however, it would have been damaging to me and to ARC. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’m happy to be patient here and let the process unfold. GBTA deserves that, the board deserves that and Scott deserves that.”

Even Reynolds indicated he wouldn’t be rash about completely withdrawing support, but voiced a sense of the fundamental problem and a potential solution.

“You know, maybe this is just a bad hire. Maybe the board just needs to say, ‘O.K., we hired the wrong guy,’ and just move on. It’s the perfect time to do it. We’ve got the Covid situation, the convention is in the [dumpster.] Get someone else in there and turn it around. I would recommend looking for a strong female candidate with great buy-side experience. There are a lot of great candidates out there. They just have to go out and find one.”
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Disclosure: The BTN Group, particularly its Conferences & Events division and the Business Travel Show in the UK, competes for market share with with GBTA’s annual convention and its regional conferences, and could be considered a conflict of interest in reporting this article. The mission of Business Travel News as a journalism outlet is to provide our readers with access to critical, unbiased managed travel industry news and analysis.
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Source: Business Travel News

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