If you’re attending Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress July 28–31 in St. Louis, you’ll have a chance to lend your voice to an urgent issue that is just beginning to show up on the industry’s radar.
In addition to hosting this year’s WEC, St. Louis is the epicenter U.S. for action on child sex trafficking in convention hotels. To be very clear—St. Louis is the epicenter of the solution, not the problem. Sex trafficking happens right under our noses, around the world, and in all classes of hotels. It first came to light here thanks to one determined meeting planner and the facilities that are beginning to support her.
It matters to our industry because planners, with the market pull of millions of room nights per year, have the clout to ask hotel chains to take notice.
Kimberly Ritter of Nix Conference & Meeting Management first learned about the issue while sourcing hotels for a client who required her organization’s meeting properties to sign a pledge against child sex trafficking. Newly aware, Ritter viewed victim profiles on sex trafficking sites, and when she realized that she recognized the wallpaper and furniture in the hotel rooms where the photos had been taken, she knew she had to take action.
“We need to fight what we sometimes create,” Ritter said. “With large sporting events like the Super Bowl or the World Series, it’s very public that trafficking occurs. But when a large convention comes to town, that also attracts the traffickers, and it’s usually meeting planners bringing these events to town.
“In essence, we’re alerting these traffickers that there’s an opportunity to make money.”
Ritter began pushing, prodding, and cajoling St. Louis–area hotels to sign the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct developed by ECPAT, an international campaign to end child sexual exploitation, and the St. Louis Millennium Hotel signed in 2011. She also worked with ECPAT to draft a Meeting Planner Code of Conduct, and Nix was the first to sign. Other U.S. companies that have signed the EPCAT code to date are: Carlson Companies, Delta Air Lines, Global Exchange, Hilton Worldwide, Wyndham Worldwide, and, most recently, Ocean City, Md.–based Real Hospitality Group.
But many facilities still refuse to believe—or acknowledge—that sex trafficking happens under their roofs. “Some of the hotels are concerned that it will look like there’s a problem at their property, or like they’re in a red-light district, when that’s not the case at all,” Ritter said. “If all the properties worked together, trained their staff, and took action against this, it would be uniform and no one would question it.”
Ritter’s example points to the unique power meeting planners can bring to this fight: “We’re reserving 2,000 sleeping rooms for five nights,” she said. “We organize 50, 75, 100 meetings per year. So we bring revenue.” Here’s what you can do to bring your own power to bear while you’re in St. Louis:
- Learn about ECPAT before you leave for WEC.
- If you’re planning local site visits, ask facilities whether they’ve signed the Code of Conduct. If not, ask them why not—and don’t buy the line that it couldn’t happen here. It can, and it does.
- In the , ask hotel exhibitors whether they’ve heard of ECPAT. If not, give them the link, and let them know that you’ll be watching for them to take a stand.
While you’re on site, let MPI staff know that you see this as an issue that affects the whole industry. (During WEC, you can usually find them in the Global Village.) It’s no criticism of MPI that this issue isn’t on its to-do list—the conversation is new, and Corporate Social Responsibility Director Roger Simons recently left the organization. But when I called MPI for comment on this column, I was referred to the St. Louis CVB. MPI needs to understand that child trafficking is a global issue, even if it’s addressed locally. And just like the hotel chains, they’ll get the message faster if they hear it from planners.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.