By Julia M Johnson
At first glance, hospitality and meeting management may not seem like professions normally connected with social justice issues. But in an age when business can be done secretly with the touch of a button on a mobile device, criminals who would exploit others for money have an open playing field. Any hotel or motel can serve as a clandestine sex trafficking site where human beings are held against their will and sold for their “services.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states, and as many as 300,000 U.S. children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation each year. In 2010, authorities identified more than 49,000 known trafficking victims worldwide, an increase of nearly 60 percent from the previous year.
Nix Conference & Meeting Management, a St. Louis-based planning firm, learned of the problem of trafficking about four years ago when representatives of the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (FSSJ) approached the company about finding a conference site. FSSJ was interested in using a hotel with a clear policy against trafficking, so Nix principals Jane Quinn and Molly Hackett looked into it as part of their services for the client.
“This was an issue we were not aware of at the time,” says Quinn. “But as we researched it, we realized the magnitude of the problem, and that hotels were a venue for this hidden crime. Four years of research and education brought Nix to a renewed level of social responsibility.
“Meeting planners have an advantage when managing requests to choose hotels for meetings,” Quinn says. “As an industry, we represent and manage countless meetings every year.” That puts planners in a strong position to encourage the hospitality industry to combat trafficking, she says.
To set an example for planners and hotels in a position to make a difference, Nix has been working with ECPAT-USA, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based network of organizations and individuals committed to ending child prostitution, pornography and trafficking. ECPAT-USA developed a Tourism Child Protection Code of Conduct in 2004 to promote and support businesses in their efforts to combat child sex trafficking. To date, its major signatories include Carlson Cos., tour operator Global Exchange, Hilton Hotels Worldwide, Delta Airlines, the Millennium Hotel St. Louis, and Wyndham Hotels Worldwide.
And at a special St. Louis ceremony on January 11, 2012, Nix became the first event planning firm to sign a special Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct, which it developed with ECPATUSA in the fall of 2011. Katie Rhoades, founder and executive director of the St. Louis-based nonprofit Healing Action Network, spoke about her personal experience as a young victim of trafficking, and the importance of preventing its spread. At the evening event, held at the Soulard Preservation Hall, guests partook of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres as they learned about the magnitude of the problem in the United States.
“The Code of Conduct is the most comprehensive and effective way to engage in child-wise tourism,” says Michelle Guelbart, private sector project coordinator for ECPAT-USA. “It arms signatories with tools to discourage a passive atmosphere for exploiters who use hotel properties to abuse children.” When companies such as Nix sign the code, Guelbart explains, it allows for a “unique, open conversation with hotel companies on the issue.”
The importance of hotel involvement in the code has grown since its initial launch, according to Guelbart. “With the use of online classified ads, child trafficking is moving off the streets and behind the closed doors of local hotel rooms,” she says. “American youths are strategically targeted and manipulated by pimps who use the rooms as venues to abuse children, knowing that systems are not in place to protect the victims.”
Guelbart, Quinn, Hackett and their colleagues hope that as public knowledge of trafficking expands, more event planning and hospitality businesses will apply their signatures to the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct. “Planners have the ability to bring awareness to numerous hotel properties annually,” Quinn says. “With the assistance of ECPAT-USA, we feel we have started something that will have an impact across the United States.”
For more information on the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct, or to learn how hospitality and event businesses can become involved, visit www.ecpatusa.org or www. nixassoc.com. To learn more about the Healing Action Network, visit www.healingactionnetwork.com. MM&E