How far can you go without being a sellout?

This article in today's New York Times questions the fairly common practice of selling sponsors an opportunity to pay to get one-on-one time with conference-goers, in this case, people who had no choice but to attend. From the article:

    The setting for a conference of university, school and hospital officials could not have been more luxurious: a resort in the high desert north of Albuquerque, with a championship golf course, swimming pools, a spa and views of distant mountain peaks.

    And for companies wanting to do business with the 200 or so officials attending the gathering, the Sustainable Operations Summit, there was an added benefit.

    For $18,500, a vendor was guaranteed 15 one-on-one sales meetings with officials at the conference, held here in June. A company that sent two representatives paid $25,500, with each promised 15 private sessions. The university officials and others who were attending were told flatly that they were required to go to the meetings.

    “We’re just organizing an opportunity and a format to encourage discussion and relationships among people,” said Craig Lehmann, a co-founder of the company that organized the event.

    But on the heels of the student loan scandal, some higher education officials — and even some consultants seeking access to them — called the conference’s format deeply troubling. How, they asked, could university executives tolerate having access to them bought and sold so overtly?

This happens all the time in the "marketplace" events we see in the meetings industry, among many other types of professional events. Is it just business as usual, or is it a breach of ethics? Does it make a difference if attendees pay to attend or not? If they are required to do the one-on-one with sponsors or not? If that particular industry had undergone a recent scandal, as this one had?

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