Maritz’s commitment to combatting human trafficking began with a lightning-bolt of a wake-up call for the company’s president four years ago. At an industry event, David Peckinpaugh found himself in a discussion about the unwitting role travel venues took in the sexual exploitation of children. Someone showed him an online ad, a photograph of a very young girl posed seductively in a hotel room. Plainly visible through the window was the outline of not some foreign skyline, but the arch in St. Louis — Peckinpaugh’s own hometown.
“His response was, ‘Oh my God this is in my own backyard,’” recalled Ken Sien, the most recent co-chair of the trafficking awareness committee. “People think children are abused this way in other countries, but the truth is, it’s in hotels everywhere. And David said, ‘We can’t just sit by and close our eyes to this in our industry.’”
When Sien volunteered to be co-chair of the company’s CSR program in 2016, he was motivated by concern that the committee’s focus was faltering. The mission had become diffuse: What were they really trying to accomplish? They weren’t likely to be able to ride in and rescue victims that law-enforcement had been unable to find. However, with so many industry members in hotels and airports and on the roads, they could make a difference in awareness, and add many sets of eyes watching the dark corners.
Sien and the committee’s training program focus on education, and the signs of children and teens traveling in the barely visible binds of these arrangements. “Typically the children will not make eye contact with you. They will not have identification, they have a solemn look, and they really don’t even know where they are,” he said. “If you try to say hello, the person … pimping them, for lack of a better word … will speak up for them, and usually look a little shady.”
Sien and his team have worked with local safe houses such as The Covering House, have created a card with an 800 number for reporting suspicious activity, have brought in speakers, and have acted as speakers themselves for other organizations looking to make trafficking their CSR. They are also working to encourage participation in the app TraffickCam, where travelers can upload photos of hotel rooms worldwide from many angles — increasing the database for law enforcement to find the visual clues to identify places where the commercial exploitation of minors is happening.
It’s not a flavor of the month for us. It’s a commitment.
Above all, Sien wants to keep up the visibility of the problem, in hopes increasing the industry coalition of suppliers will sign on with The Code of Conduct, a travel and tourism initiative to fight human trafficking. “It’s not a flavor of the month for us,” Sien said. “It’s a commitment.”
For Sien, increasing awareness about human trafficking in the travel and tourism industry is top of mind. “This has been going on for thousands of years,” he said, “it’s nothing new. But the internet has made it easier. By making people aware of it, we can connect with others who hadn’t known about it before but are moved by it, because it’s flat-out evil.”
Support the travel and tourism industry’s initiative to fight human trafficking by signing The Code of Conduct at thecode.org/about.