Meeting Industry Brings Human Trafficking to Forefront

With the world’s sporting spotlight set to shine brightly on New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on February 2, the 82,500-seat gladiatorial cauldron will slowly fill with fans drawn from coast to coast for Super Bowl XLVIII. Shaping up to be the greatest NFL spectacle yet, some well-drilled traffic management will need to be deployed to ensure the armies of travelling Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks fans can get smoothly from the highways to the parking lots and to their seats, all in good time to get fully behind their team.

On the fringes there is another kind of traffic also being generated, but one that is unwelcome and less straightforward to manage—the trafficking of humans, specifically the sexual exploitation of children, which is increasingly displaying an unhealthy predation on large-scale events and exposing the dark side of the sex trade on the broader travel and tourism industry.

“Not just the Super Bowl, but conferences and large trade shows are a target and traffickers will travel to those cities where they are being held and bring their children with them,” says Molly Hackett (MPI St. Louis Area Chapter), principal at Nix Conference and Meeting Management and founder/principal at the Exchange Initiative social action organization. “If you monitor a city’s activity of these websites that sell children, you can watch the number available for sale grow as it gets closer to a conference. If you’re a trafficker you can go on websites and see where these conferences are, so it’s easy to find out where to go and follow conferences that are more lucrative to you.”

Just how lucrative trafficking must be comes across through its astounding scale, with UNICEF estimating that up to 300,000 U.S. children and 1.2 million children worldwide are prostituted annually. Meeting industry activists such as Hackett have responded to this by taking positive action towards a firmer framework for tackling it.

“As we learned more about human trafficking in the tourism and travel business, especially of minors, we thought that Nix Conference and Meeting Management could really make an impact on this issue,” Hackett explains. “That’s when we found ECPAT-USA (End Child Pornography and Trafficking USA) and also found ourselves in the position of being staggered at the whole situation. We then understood that once we knew about it, we couldn’t let it go.”

The discovery of ECPAT’s work in raising awareness of child trafficking and policy development to address it led Nix Conference and Meeting Management to initiate and sign with them the first-ever meeting planner code of conduct—The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct (the Code)—in 2012. Since then they have continued to urge industry peers to follow suit. A number of major organizations have recently taken up the call, including the MPI Washington State Chapter.

“I really couldn’t believe it was such a prevalent issue in Seattle, let alone across the world,” says Lesley Young Cutler, director of sponsorship and strategic partnerships for the chapter. “Once we started getting involved in this at a chapter level we realized how close to home it is and that there are organizations in Washington State and in the Seattle area trying to fight this right at our home door. For this reason we decided we needed to do something through the chapter.”

While the Washington State Chapter became the third Seattle-based organization to support the Code, they are the first MPI chapter to do so, and in the process were recognized as one of ECPAT-USA’s Tourism Heroes throughout January.

“We were pushing for this status as the first MPI chapter to do this, because we wanted to create a little bit of urgency and competition amongst other chapters to do the same thing,” Cutler says. “For our chapter it’s a matter of creating awareness and providing an avenue for education. While we can’t actually create any policies for our vendors per se, we can encourage them to get involved, and we’re asking our membership of suppliers and planners to take a look at this issue and get involved within their own organizations to help fight it.”
Increasing awareness of the Code will bring the attention of meeting industry professionals to its cornerstone of six criteria that they must adhere to when they sign up, which seek proper policy procedures, training, value chain repudiation of trafficking, better information, stronger collaboration and annual reporting on achievements. Response to the Code is that it has been empowering in dealing with the issue of child sex trafficking.

“Before reading the Code I was wondering how I, as an individual, could make an impact,” Cutler says. “Once I read it I realized that I could do things—I could put a statement in my RFPs and my contracts to vendors to say that we want you to be a vendor that takes a stand against child sex trafficking and sex tourism. That’s part of what the Code is—it helps me understand what I can do on an individual basis as well as within the chapter to help fight it. As small as it can be for an independent meeting planner, it makes a big impact as it starts to spread throughout the industry.”

Helping accelerate the spread throughout the industry and to complement U.S. President Barack Obama’s designation of January as Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month, the MPI Washington State Chapter has organized a February 25 educational program dedicated to the topic: “Hospitality’s Dark Side: Human Trafficking & How to Keep it Out of Your Events.” Building on the momentum and nudging awareness of the issue yet further, Nix Conference and Meeting Management’s newly launched Exchange Initiative organization will be holding its inaugural three-day national conference of Ignite: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel March 2-4, with a number of sessions and workshops designed to engage, educate and empower professionals from across different industries in the battle against child sex trafficking. Importantly, the registration fee will also go towards the initiative of building a resource database to fight trafficking, hosting vital information such as a hotel/motel photo database to help identify locations in online advertisements and information on certified trainers on a geographical basis.

On February 2, as the 82,500 fans sift out of the MetLife Stadium into the late night, child sex trafficking will still remain a real and serious issue for the event industry. In promoting and supporting the Code, industry professionals have the real opportunity to act against this and take great strides towards a not-too-distant Super Bowl where the only pressing issue of traffic should be for the winning fans to find out how to most quickly get to the closest bar to start their celebrations.

Meeting Professionals International ©January 2014