In what is sure to be one of the key industry developments this year, the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA) has introduced a Code of Conduct, which will be formally adopted on January 1, 1999. The document is a statement that, for the first time in this industry, lays down a specific set of principles to which all ESTA members are expected to adhere. The text of the Code reads:

"The members of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association share a common commitment through this statement of ethical practices to promote the highest possible standards of professional conduct. All members of ESTA pledge the following:

* To abide by all applicable laws, codes, and regulations, and protect the public against fraud and unfair trade practices. * To maintain the highest level of safety for all products and services, and support the development of industry standards and safe practices. * To provide a safe working environment. * To present products and services honestly without misrepresentation. * To be responsive to and available for customers before, during, and after the sale. * To refrain from discriminatory practices in dealing with customers and associates. * To share knowledge, expertise, and skills to advance the industry while respecting the confidentiality of customers and associates. * To recognize the rights of others to compete for business. * To fully disclose common or related ownership of entities involved in any competitive bid process. * To fully disclose the terms and conditions of all agreements or undertakings to all relevant parties. * To follow through and complete any lawful agreement. * To support and honor the association by taking a pro-active role in ESTA activities and promoting the association to the industry."

The text concludes: "This Code of Conduct is a guideline and does not represent the entire scope of good conduct behavior. Acceptance of and adherence to this Code is a condition of membership."

This last statement is not to be taken lightly. As part of an overall goal to raise the quality of members, new membership requirements were adopted. All existing members were asked to reapply for membership under the new guidelines. In addition, as a condition of membership, they must promise to adhere to the Code.

In a position paper by ESTA executive director Lori Rubinstein, titled "Should ESTA Adopt a Code of Ethics?" she wrote that a code "provides members with guidelines for their professional conduct; encourages fair and equitable practices and competition among all engaged in the industry; fosters ethical and professional business practices with customers, employees, and fellow members; helps establish and maintain public confidence in the industry; sets members apart from other suppliers in the industry; makes membership in the association a recognized mark of experience, stability, reliability, integrity, and competence; specifies and sets forth the means to enforce the minimum ethical conduct expected of all members; and serves notice to the government that the association expects its members to abide by all applicable laws and regulations and that the association is concerned about and promotes fair practices."

John McGraw, president of Production Arts and chair of the committee that developed the Code of Conduct for ESTA, notes that the idea for such a code has been around for some time. "The initial bylaws for TDA [Theatrical Dealers Association, the organization that preceded ESTA] stated that it would be a goal of the association," he says. Serious discussion of the topic began in 1997, and ESTA president Paul Vincent appointed the Ethics Committee. Rubinstein notes that the committee studied similar codes for other organizations, including the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), Meeting Planners International (MPI), and International Special Events Society (ISES). A draft of the Code was submitted to the organization's counsel, David Saltiel of Bell, Boyd and Lloyd, particularly with regard to anti-trust issues. The document was then submitted to ESTA's board of directors, which after minor changes unanimously approved it.

Once the Code takes effect, a procedure for filing and processing complaints will be implemented. The key points are these: Initially, only ESTA members will be able to file complaints. Complaints will be sent in writing to the ESTA Ethics Committee. A review panel, consisting of ESTA's president, executive director, and immediate past president (who is also the head of the Ethics Committee) will review the complaint, with ESTA's legal counsel, to determine if it merits further investigation. (The Ethics Committee will not handle cases that are best dealt with in courts of law, such as copyright violations or anti-trust issues.) If the complaint is accepted, the respondent (the subject of the complaint) will be given the opportunity to respond in writing. Once the response is received, the complaint will be referred to a hearing panel, which will consist of four members of the Ethics Committee (the directors of the association and the immediate past president comprise the Ethics Committee). The hearing panel consists of one dealer, one manufacturer, one affiliate director, and the chair. At the hearing, both sides will have a chance to present their cases; the hearing panel will then render a decision by majority vote.

If a respondent is found to be in violation of the Code of Conduct, there are four levels of sanctions that may be taken. Level 1 is a finding of violation transmitted in writing solely to the complainant and respondent, with notice given to the committee. Level 2 is a finding of violation sent to ESTA's membership. Level 3 includes a recommendation to suspend a member's privileges from ESTA for a specific time not to exceed 12 months. Level 4 is a recommendation to the committee for expulsion from ESTA.

These are just the high points of what is meant to be a very formal process. "The nature of the process is meant to ensure that the complaints we receive are well thought-out and documented," says Rubinstein. McGraw adds that the important point is not the complaint process but the existence of the Code. "Our real goal is to set standards, so there won't be any complaints," he says. "The goal of ESTA is to promote ethical and professional conduct."

Rubinstein emphasizes that such codes are standard in many other industries. In fact, all members will be given a laminated version of the Code of Conduct, for display in their places of business. "The Code of Conduct is a way of giving end users a sense of confidence when dealing with our members."

All involved are aware that 1999 will be a transitional year, in which some claims may be filed by ESTA members as a way of defining what it is that makes a complaint actionable under the terms of the Code. Yet everyone involved is clearly proud at this step being taken by the industry. As Rubinstein and ESTA president Paul Vincent wrote in a recent issue of ESTA Protocol, "The members of ESTA and the board of directors feel very strongly that our industry has matured, and the time has come for companies to accept responsibility for their actions and to acknowledge basic standards for ethical conduct." Call 1999 the year ESTA comes of age.