The worlds of child sex trafficking and meeting planning may seem at first not to have any intersection at all, but actually they do. Children are often housed in hotels, especially in major metropolitan areas. Recently, a conference-planning company, in the course of booking a faith-based meeting, decided to push the issue front and center of the hospitality and meetings industry.

On January 11, 130 people came together in St. Louis to witness the first signing of a Meeting Planner's Code of Conduct to fight child sex trafficking. MOLLY HACKETT AND JANE QUINN, principals at Nix Conference & Meeting Management, were in the spotlight that day, signing the document on behalf of their organization and taking credit for working with ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) to create a meeting planner version of ECPAT's hotel Code of Conduct. We talked to Hackett to get the story behind the Code and to learn more about the issue.

Religious Conference Manager: How widespread is the problem?

Molly Hackett: The statistics are staggering. Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide and it's estimated to be a $9 billion industry in the U.S. alone, according to the Polaris Project, an organization combating human trafficking. People tend to think of it as a problem that exists only in other countries, but it's happening here. There aren't many statistics on the number of children involved in sexual exploitation in the U.S. because these situations have typically been labeled “child abuse” and lumped in with domestic abuse and other crimes that don't involve sexual trafficking. That's changing but we still have a way to go.

Investigators are finding that trafficking is an issue in cities nationwide, and hotels are often the place where traffickers sell minors.

RCM: How did the issue of child sex trafficking come to your attention?

When we were doing site selection for the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph's 2011 conference, they asked us what information we had on the hotels' policies regarding human trafficking. We began researching and learned about the ECPAT Code of Conduct for hotels, a commitment to ethical policies, staff training, outreach, and reporting aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation.

We brought the Code to all the hotels we were considering. Some were receptive, others were resistant. St. Louis was among the cities the Sisters were looking at and through our relationship with the Millennium hotel there, we were able to act as an intermediary between the hotel, the New York-based ECPAT-USA, and the Sisters of Saint Joseph. In the end, the Sisters booked the Millennium.

When the meeting was over, we began wondering what our company could do to support the cause. We looked at the hotel code and asked ECPAT if we could sign it, but its board declined — the criteria for a hotel didn't fit a meeting management company. We went back to them and offered to develop a Meeting Planner's Code of Conduct using the hotel code as a framework. We worked with ECPAT through the fall and finalized the elements of the new code in December. We signed it on January 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

RCM: What does it mean for a meeting management company to sign the code?

The first criterion of the code is to establish an ethical policy regarding commercial sexual exploitation of children. The second is to train and sensitize company personnel about the issue. That's been an ongoing endeavor for us. We presented our staff with information and you could see people getting lost in the horror of it. We've learned that we need to have multiple trainings and make this an ongoing effort.

The third criterion for signing the code is that you provide information to vendors. We developed a brochure and we take [copies] with us everywhere we go. We believe that talking about the issue has such an impact.

RCM: Why is advocacy the meeting professional's role?

When you bring a group into a hotel for four or five days, you're a major source of revenue. Chances are very high that the general manager won't turn you down when you ask for 20 minutes of his or her time to talk about a code of conduct. Before and after your meeting, the hotel is busy with other clients, but while you're on site, you have a window of opportunity to have a captive audience.

RCM: How can meeting professionals learn more about the Meeting Planners Code of Conduct?

The best way to learn more is to contact ECPAT-USA's Michelle Guelbart (718-935-9192, ecpat@ecpatusa.org). Of course, Nix is always happy to discuss the implementation of the code with any meeting professional.

Sample Ethics Policy

Here is the policy that Nix Conference & Meeting Management created:

“Nix Conference & Meeting Management is committed to the ECPAT-USA Meeting Planners Code of Conduct to combat commercial sexual exploitation of children. We stand firm in our resolve to protect all children and will unite with others in the industry to bring awareness to the issue of domestic minor sexual exploitation. As a socially responsible company, Nix will utilize our professional resources in the travel and tourism industry to create awareness of domestic minor sex trafficking of children.”