A new code of conduct for hotels fights sex trafficking.
By Mitchell Beer
A St. Louis, Missouri, meeting planner is generating an avalanche of attention and some glimmers of action after drawing public and media attention to human sex trafficking in hotels that host participants in major conventions and sporting events.
Kimberly Ritter of Nix Conference & Meeting Management first learned about the problem when she was organizing a meeting for a client, the Sisters of St. Joseph. As she searched through the victim profiles on sex trafficking sites, she recognized the wallpaper and furniture in the hotel rooms where the photos had been taken — and realized the scope of a devastating illegal trade that meeting and event planners are uniquely positioned to fight.
Conventions Attract Sex-Traffickers
With the world’s largest meeting and events association, Meeting Professionals International, holding its global conference St. Louis next month, thousands of delegates will have the opportunity and the clout to question hotel properties on their own commitment to confront the issue.
“We need to fight what we sometimes create,” Ritter told CSRwire. “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.”
Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct
Ritter began approaching St. Louis-area hotels to sign the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct developed by ECPAT, an international campaign to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children. By signing, the properties commit to training their staff to identify and report signs that their rooms are being used for human trafficking. The St. Louis Millennium Hotel signed in 2011, and Real Hospitality Group became the first U.S. hotel management company to join the campaign earlier this month.
“I encourage other companies to follow suit,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) at the signing ceremony. “Law enforcement authorities cannot, by themselves, win the struggle against human trafficking, the twenty-first century form of slavery. That’s why enlisting the support and active participation of the private sector in this critical effort is so important.”
Meeting Planner Code of Conduct
Ritter also worked with ECPAT to draft a Meeting Planner Code of Conduct, and Nix was the first company to sign. The connection matters, because planners have the economic clout to bring the entire hospitality industry into a serious conversation about ending child sexual exploitation.
“When we walk in as meeting planners, we don’t represent one sleeping room for one night,” she explained. “We’re reserving 2,000 sleeping rooms for five nights. And we don’t just represent those 2,000 rooms. We organize 50, 75, 100 meetings per year. So we bring revenue, and if the general managers want our business back, of course they’ll take the time to meet with us and listen to us.
“As we go city to city, we hope they will cooperate, research the Code of Conduct, and sign it, so we can continue to use their properties.”
Implementing The Code of Conduct
As the first hotel to adopt the Code, she said the Millennium St. Louis had earned great publicity that would translate into future business. But to get to that point, meeting planners and their clients have to cut through a couple of levels of resistance.
At first, “many GMs will say, ‘I can’t believe this happens at my property. We’re a resort, we’re a family property, and that certainly doesn’t happen here,’” she said. Then they recognize the decor in the photos and realize with a shock that “it’s happening at all hotels, all brands, all star ratings. It happens everywhere.”
After hotels sign the Code, the next step is to make implementation a permanent, public activity.
“They commit to training every staff member, continuing that training with new employees, and reporting every year.” But when it comes to posting notices in guest rooms, the campaign trips over an instinct that runs deep in anyone who’s ever worked in hospitality: every effort is made to create a seamless, worry-free experience for every guest, even if it means smiling problems away and pretending that all is well.
“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. My clients will purposefully choose a hotel that has signed the Code of Conduct…there just aren’t enough properties that have signed.”
Ritter said the campaign is still new enough that it would be unrealistic to expect large conference and hospitality associations to play an active role. But with MPI on its way to St. Louis, genuinely adopting and implementing ECPAT could be the key to what every hotel account manager is looking for.
“We did this because it’s what you should do. It’s good business practice,” she said. “But for the sales staff who want to book more business: Sign the Code, put it into practice, and you’re above and beyond the rest.”