Meetings Industry Steps Up Efforts to Fight Human Trafficking

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human trafficking, meetings industry, sex slaves, ECPAT, Nix, IMEX
Molly Hackett of Nix Conference & Meeting Management, has been a pioneer in the fight against human trafficking.


The meetings industry has come a long way in its awareness of human trafficking—but there’s a lot of work left to do. Around the world, it’s estimated there are 21 million people being held as slaves, and many of them cross paths with meeting planners on airplanes, in airports, and in the same hotels where their events are held.

How can planners can take proactive steps to educate and inform their employees and suppliers about this crisis? That’s the focus of a session at IMEX on Tuesday, October 14, by Prevue Editor Barbara Scofidio and ECPAT USA Director of Private Sector Engagement Michelle Guelbart, entitled “The Travel Industry Takes on Trafficking: Real World Examples of How Your Company Can Join the Fight.”

ECPAT International, a global network of organizations dedicated to the protection of children from sexual exploitation, created the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct (“The Code”) in 1996. Companies that sign The Code agree to take six steps toward preventing human trafficking, from providing employees training on how to spot instances of trafficking to creating a clause for all contracts that states a zero-tolerance policy of sexual exploitation. They must report back to ECPAT annually on their activities.

Early travel industry companies to sign on included Hilton Worldwide, Wyndham Worldwide, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, Sabre, Maritz, and Delta Air Lines. In 2013, at its 25th anniversary meeting, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives made a strong statement by signing The Code, but no other industry associations have followed, only chapters. In 2014, 11 more companies in the United States joined the fight, but only three were from the meeting/hospitality industries: CorpTrav Management Group, the Hilton Parsippany and Platinum Travel & Events.

Nonetheless, Guelbart is far from discouraged. “When I started speaking to meeting planners about this issue, it was clear that it was the first time they had ever even heard of it. I had to create the connection between the issue and what they do.

“Not any more,” she says. “Now they come over and ask how they can help.”

Leading the Way

One planner who has been on the forefront of combating human trafficking is Molly Hackett, owner of Nix Conference & Meeting Management in St. Louis. Nix was the first meeting planning company ever to sign The Code and then, this past March, held a conference on the topic that drew almost 100 attendees from nonprofits, law enforcement and schools. She calls the meeting “a great success,” and plans to do one every other year.

“What blew me away was that we left a half hour for the coffee breaks but people didn’t leave their sessions—they just wouldn’t get up,” she says.

Nix routinely engages with its suppliers about steps they are taking to fight human trafficking. “Our RFPs ask the question. And since our clients tend to be big, taking over hotels for 5 to 10 days with 1,000 people, we feel there is no reason the GM shouldn’t make time to discuss the issue with us.”

Overall, she says, most of her hotel partners have been “very gracious. Some are polite but slightly disinterested. Others are interested and want to know more.” During one such encounter earlier this year at the Caribe Royale Orlando, the hotel’s management agreed to sign The Code. “We pointed out in a casual conversation with the director of sales that that they were already doing three of the six things in The Code—they just didn’t know it. Suddenly they realized that it wasn’t that big of a leap or a financial burden to sign it.”

Coming Soon

Nix has also developed a version of The Code specifically for meeting planners. According to Guelbart, other companies are also starting to include language in their RFPs, among them USG Corporation, Reed Elsevier and Hewlett-Packard. She’s developing a list of planners/business travel managers who include language in their RFPs that will be available on the ECPAT web site.

Also coming soon is an ambitious project initiated by Hackett—The Exchange Initiative—the foundation of which is an app allowing travelers and others to capture hotel room images of suspected sites of human trafficking.These can be matched with a database of images of hotel rooms across the United States. The goal is to include an interface for investigators and law enforcement, so they can locate victims via the matches. “The pictures are even time-dated, so you will be able to tell how long people are being trafficked,” she says.

For more information or to support The Exchange Initiative, which is being sponsored in part by the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation website, click here.

Despite the progress, both Guelbart and Hackett feel the meetings industry has a long way to go to reach the point where planners routinely include human trafficking in their discussions with hotels. “I liken it to sexual harassment—it’s difficult to talk about,” says Hackett. “At one point, that was a topic that was a somewhat hidden, but now the training starts in high school and college and companies are making it mandatory. It’s now common—and some day, human trafficking will be too.”

Meet Guelbart at the session at IMEX on Tuesday, October 14 from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m. in the Sustainability Hub on the show floor.

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Barbara Scofidio
Barbara Scofidio is editor of Prevue and heads up the Visionary Summits, our exclusive conference series targeting senior-level meeting and incentive planners. In 25 years of covering the industry, her articles have spanned topics ranging from social media to strategic meetings management. She is currently the media liaison for FICP's Education Committee and was the first member of the media ever to be invited to sit on a committee by GBTA, where she spent three years on the Groups and Meetings Committee. She has also been an active member of Site, chairing its Crystal Awards committee and acting as a judge. A familiar face at industry events, Barbara often leads panel discussions or speaks on topics close to her heart, such as green meetings or how the industry can help combat human trafficking. Barbara is based outside Boston, in Groton, Mass.