In 2012, Nix Conference & Meeting Management in St. Louis partnered with the U.S. arm of Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT-USA) to develop a Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct related to child sex trafficking — an extension of ECPAT International’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children From Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, which is aimed at tour operators and hotels. Both codes are meant to draw attention to the fact that human trafficking often occurs within the infrastructure of the hospitality, travel, and events industries, with victims being moved on airlines, through hotels, and within the orbit of conferences and high-profile shows.
The code of conduct turned out to be just the beginning for Nix. “There just became a lot of interest in Nix Conference & Meeting Management, looking for information about sex trafficking in travel and tourism and about that Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct,” said Molly Hackett, a principal with Nix. “And the only thing we can guess or presume is that we were not a faith-based organization and we were not an advocacy group or a nonprofit, so people seemed to be extremely comfortable calling us and asking us a lot of questions and looking for information.”
Eventually Nix fielded so many requests for information, interviews, and speaking engagements related to sex trafficking that Hackett and her fellow principal, Jane Quinn, decided to create the Exchange Initiative, whose mission is to “empower individuals and organizations with real resources to help end sex trafficking.” But still there was a need for something more. “We still had more requests for information, and really a need to put the pieces together,” Hackett said. “We could see that law enforcement and criminal justice was having a one-day symposium. We could see advocacy groups having one-day symposiums.
“But everybody was working in their own arena. We could not find someone who was pulling all the stakeholders together into one conference for cross-training and to ask some of these tough questions, and what’s the next step? So that’s where the Ignite conference came from.”
Ignite: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking was held at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel on March 2-4, with programming tracks for criminal-justice professionals, corporate managers and travel planners, not-for-profit and faith-based organizations, and educational administrators and counselors. A little more than a hundred stakeholders from those four groups attended, from nine different states, and from as far away as Nigeria. “We had a big old snowstorm — ice storm — that came in on Sunday, when our conference started,” Hackett said. “So people were very brave to come out.”
Ignite’s approach was to tackle the business model of sex trafficking, as a way of understanding and dismantling it. “That seemed to be a pretty new way for people to wrap their head around the topic,” Hackett said. “If you think of sex trafficking as, it’s a business and there’s profits to be made, it’s a basic principle of supply, demand, and distribution…. When you talk about supply, those are the kids. So, how do we break the supply chain?
“The kids being targeted right now, the average age — which I really like to spend a minute on that word ‘average’ — is 13,” Hackett said. “Who’s 13? Well, it’s your middle-schoolers. So how do you look at sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and say, how do I talk to them about sex trafficking? They’re the target. We can’t protect them from being the target by not telling them.”
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) kicked off the program on Sunday night. Co-chair of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, Wagner has introduced the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which is designed to “close Internet marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial exploitation of minors.” During her remarks, she underscored the importance of a conference like Ignite. “This gathering allows so many stakeholders to share ideas, and I hope solutions, to wipe this heinous act off the face of the earth,” Wagner said. “… Many times, front-line employees in the transportation and hospitality industries are the ones best suited to identify trafficking victims and their predators. As many of you are aware, conferences and conventions can also be magnets for sex trafficking. The conference and hospitality industry along with corporate partners have a vital role to play in combating this sexual exploitation.”
The following morning came Ignite’s opening keynote from U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who introduced the End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013 and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2013. And then Ignite presented two days of education workshops that attacked sex trafficking from every angle, from “Reporting and Response: Assistance Through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children” and “Corporate Implementation — Training Your Corporate Personnel” to “Emergency Rooms, Doctor’s Offices, and Clinics — Trafficking Identification” and “Approaching Spirituality With the Rescued.”
“I had the scripts. I knew who our speakers were,” Hackett said. “I knew what was going to be talked about. And I was so blown away. It was amazing. People can sometimes just talk, but they were amazing. They’re so passionate about it. You can’t really rock a conference on sex trafficking, but they did.”
That especially applies to the three women who delivered Ignite’s closing keynote: Katie Rhoades, founder of Healing Action Network; Holly Austin Smith, author of Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery; and Christine McDonald, author Cry Purple: One Woman’s Journey Through Homelessness, Crack Addiction, and Prison, to Blindness, Motherhood, and Happiness. All three are survivors of sex trafficking.
Rhoades “graduated with a master’s degree from Washington University in social work and has started her own organization [to combat sex trafficking],” Hackett said. “So when she speaks, she’s an everybody’s-daughter kind of thing. She’s educated, speaks well. She’s not what people might have in their mind of what a trafficking victim looks like.” Likewise, Smith “is a teeny little teeny thing, short little blond bob of a haircut, really cute, but she looks like the girl next door,” Hackett said — until Smith talked about how “her first encounter with the person that would eventually traffic her was about 30 seconds long at the mall and she was with her girlfriends.”
McDonald, Smith, and Rhoades “all had different stories to tell,” Hackett said, “which kind of completed the circle of different ways that people are trafficked, and [showed] that there really isn’t a socioeconomic model of a child that will be trafficked.”
Which fits into the Exchange Initiative’s ongoing mission to expand awareness of sex trafficking into areas and sectors that aren’t typically associated with it. “If we look back to our economic triangle — supply, demand, and distribution — there are businesses everywhere that don’t consider themselves in travel and tourism,” Hackett said, “but yet participate in travel and tourism. There are people that hold conferences, there are people that send their employees to conferences, there are all these people and associations. So how do we get people that do not see themselves as part of this to see themselves as part of it?”
During Ignite, Nix Conference & Meeting Management’s Molly Hackett, Jane Quinn, and Kimberly Ritter found themselves in an unusual place for meeting planners: onstage. “All three of us played a role in the conference,” Hackett said. “We kicked off the conference with the opening general session, and we spoke at all the general sessions and really gave a history on where we came from, how did we end up here.”
And there was the extra thrill of being emotionally invested in the programming they were organizing. “We knew our AV and our videos and our timing were impeccable, of course, because that’s our job. It has to be, right?” Hackett said, laughing. “But it was really cool to do the programming part of it and watch it be so successful. Because you just don’t know when you’re planning some of that out.”