After a ruling by Judge Susan Bolton of the U.S. District Court for Arizona that strips out some of the most controversial aspects of the Arizona immigration law (S.B. 1070), Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has called off his boycott of meetings and conventions to the state, which has evoked reactions from every corner of the meetings industry.
“I am encouraging national groups to return their conventions and conferences to the state to help us change the political and economic climate,” said Grijalva in a statement released on July 28, the same day as the ruling. “The best thing to do now is to consider the meaning of this decision, bring people back together after the divisiveness of the past several months, and address the needs of the state in a substantive way.”
Last spring, Grijalva was among the first to call for meeting and convention groups to boycott the state to protest the bill. Other groups also took up the effort to discourage Arizona meetings, and since the immigration law was announced April 23, at least 40 meetings and conventions have been canceled or relocated outside of the state, said Kristen Jarnagin, vice president of communications at the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association.
Steve Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that the city and convention center had “lost only two definite pieces of business, and will probably lose a third,” due to the boycott. Where the real impact lies, he said, “is in the pipeline”—meetings that are not yet definite or meeting managers who are looking elsewhere because of the controversy. He spoke at the annual meeting of the Destination Marketing International Association in Hollywood, Fla., on July 21. Moore said he met with Grijalva while he was in Washington, D.C., to attend [ASAE & The Center’s] Springtime in the Park and U.S. Travel Association activities the week of April 26. “I had a one-on-one with him,” said Moore. “I asked him why he selected conventions and conferences as part of the business boycott. He said it was because it was the most important industry in Arizona. But the collateral damage is that this hurts the very people we’re trying to protect.”
On July 6, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the state seeking to strike down the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. A major concern among groups was that the new law would lead to racial profiling because it required Arizona’s state and local police to question people about their immigration status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be illegal immigrants.
On July 28, a day before the law was scheduled to take effect, Judge Bolton rendered her decision. She struck out provisions that permitted law enforcement to question people about their immigration status based on reasonable suspicion and that required aliens to carry and present registration papers upon request. The rest of the law went into effect as scheduled on July 29. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who signed the bill, has filed an expedited appeal, asking the court to lift Bolton’s injunction that removes portions of the law.
Several groups, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which relocated its meeting from Arizona because of the law, applauded Judge Bolton’s decision. “We’re very pleased with yesterday’s ruling,” said Crystal Williams, executive director at Washington, D.C.–based AILA. “However, our understanding is that Arizona is going to appeal it, so right now we are still in the position that we won’t be locating any conferences in Arizona as long as Arizona continues to try to keep this law on the books.” If there was no appeal, she added, “We’d be really pleased to be scheduling a new conference in Arizona.”
The National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy organization, also cheered the Bolton’s decision but did not call off its Arizona boycott. According to a statement, NCLR said its boycott will remain in effect until “the law is permanently repealed, overturned by the courts, or superseded by federal comprehensive immigration reform legislation.”
In a statement released July 29, the Greater Phoenix CVB said, “Tourism boycotts have always been misguided, and this decision should lower the temperature of this heated debate and return the dialogue to Congress, where national immigration reform should be addressed. We have already heard today from customers who are re-affirming their decisions to hold large conventions in Phoenix.”
Jarnagin of the hotel association said the most frustrating aspect of the debate for the hospitality industry is that “Arizona is still the exact same destination today that it was six months ago.” Groups have been meeting in Arizona throughout the controversy and have not seen attendance slip or the experience suffer, she said. And the rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle does not match the reality of what’s actually happening, she added. “Arizona is a safe, warm, welcoming place with a diverse culture,” she said. “Visitors are seeing zero impact from any of this.”
Since the controversy began, hotel occupancy in the state has risen. Statewide, occupancy rates were up 6 percent in May and 8 percent in June over the same period in 2009, according to Smith Travel Research. In both Phoenix and Scottsdale, occupancy rates were up 11 percent for May and June. But Jarnagin explained that those numbers are compared to 2009, which was the worst year ever for the destination, and that the impact of meeting relocations and cancellations are not reflected since meetings are usually canceled several months or years out.
Jarnagin has heard from planners who want to book meetings in Arizona but are hesitant to do so because of perception issues. Meeting planners are very risk averse, so they are waiting for the controversy to die down, she said in an interview just one day before Judge Bolton’s ruling.
Looking long-term, Jarnagin said the impact is impossible to quantify “when your phones just aren’t ringing.” Going forward, tourism officials will be aggressively marketing the destination, she said, to get out the “true message” about Arizona.