Richard Yep, CAE, the CEO of the American Counseling Association (ACA), had some troubling news to share with his board. It was March 31, 2016, and ACA’s Governing Council was meeting in Montreal as part of ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo. Earlier that year, on Feb. 17, the Tennessee Senate had passed legislation that would allow counselors and therapists to refuse to treat a patient if doing so would “conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.” A little more than a month later, on March 23, the Health Committee of the state’s House of Representatives passed an identical version of the bill, sending it to the full House for a vote.
If the bill were to become law, it would be no small thing for ACA members practicing in Tennessee — who offer counseling in every area, from mental health and wellness to education and career goals. “The ACA Code of Ethics doesn’t allow you to deny services to anyone,” Yep, ACA’s CEO, said in a recent interview with Convene, “because if you’re denying service to someone because of who they are or what they look like or how they identify, then that means you’re bringing your values into that relationship. And that’s not what it’s about at all when you’re trying to counsel someone.”
Making matters more urgent, the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo was scheduled to take place in Nashville the following March. Yep needed to put the Governing Council on alert. In Montreal, he explained what was happening, told them ACA would be fighting the bill, and let them know that if things went the wrong way, they might have to move the 2017 Conference & Expo.
Spoiler alert: Things went the wrong way. ACA moved the 2017 Conference & Expo. It cost them a lot of money.
The economic impact of controversial legislation is usually tracked through missed opportunities. Indianapolis has lost at least $60 million in future convention business thanks to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, according to Visit Indy, while the Associated Press estimates that North Carolina’s bathroom bill will cost the state $3.76 billion over the next 12 years.
But ACA’s 2017 Conference is something different. It’s business that was on the books. It belonged to Nashville, Tennessee, until it belonged to another host destination. This is how it happened.
THE GOOD FIGHT
ACA hired a lobbying firm in Tennessee to work against the legislation and a crisis-communications agency to help spread the word about its opposition. But on April 6, 2016, the Tennessee House passed the bill. By the time it got to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk on April 27, its relevant language had been changed from “a sincerely held religious belief” to “sincerely held principles” (emphasis added). That didn’t assuage ACA or Yep, who described the new phrase as “code for a very religious-freedom, conservative perspective.”
Still, Haslam signed the bill into law, and now ACA’s efforts turned inward, to the 2017 Conference. The then-president of the Governing Council, Thelma Duffey, Ph.D., convened an emergency conference call on May 1, “and she said, ‘Look, we’re not going to talk about the money part first,’” Yep said. “‘We’re going to talk about what we think we should do.’” That conversation lasted “hours and hours,” with council members evenly split on whether ACA should relocate the conference.
“The ones who wanted to stay in Nashville, it wasn’t because they believed in the law that had passed; they were just as against it as everybody,” Yep said. “Their feeling was, are we going to be abandoning our members who live in Tennessee? In counseling, the word ‘abandonment’ means a lot. You don’t abandon a client. You don’t abandon a relationship.”
ACA also let the world know what it was considering. It posted a message on its website: “WARNING: In light of recent legislative actions in Tennessee, ACA is currently weighing options regarding the location of the 2017 Conference and Expo. More information coming soon.” Yep gave interviews with the local press revealing the numbers involved: close to 4,000 attendees, up to $4 million in tax revenue, and an economic impact of $10 million. And ACA set up a voice mailbox where members could weigh in, and also solicited their thoughts on its Facebook page. “I’d say most of them were leaning toward us not being there,” Yep said. “Some of them said, ‘I wouldn’t feel safe being there if that’s the way the state feels about the LGBTQ community.’ There were some who said, ‘No, we need to stay,’ because of the abandonment thing. And, let’s face it, there were some who said we should stay because they actually thought the law was a good thing. They were very much a minority, but we heard all sides.”
Meanwhile, before the Governing Council made a final decision, Robin Hayes, CMP, ACA’s senior director of conference planning and professional education, prepared a blind RFP and sent it to cities that had recently bid on the conference. “I did not put the name of the organization on there, just really the specs,” Hayes said, “and explained that there was a possibility that we would be relocating our meeting.”
On May 9, the Governing Council had a second conference call, during which it voted to move the conference out of Tennessee. Yep had explained the financial hit ACA likely would take in cancellation penalties and other costs, but the council knew that the organization could fall back on a healthy reserve fund. And really, that didn’t matter. “I think they would’ve made the vote,” Yep said, “regardless of whether or not we had a rainy-day fund.”
LEAVING MUSIC CITY BEHIND
The ACA Conference & Expo has a big footprint — 3,500 to 4,000 attendees, up to 500 education sessions, and 100,000 square feet of meeting space. ACA had booked Nashville for 2017 five years in advance, after an exhaustive site-selection process. Now it had nine months to find a new home.
Hayes had received about a half-dozen responses to the blind RFP. With the decision to relocate made, she went back to them with more details about the conference, so they could fine-tune their bids. Ultimately, ACA chose San Francisco. Yep calls the decision “poetic justice … because of how open and inclusive San Francisco is to all people, and the fact that the reason why we left Nashville was because Tennessee was being so not-inclusive of diverse types of people.”
But ACA didn’t forget its local community; members who lived in Tennessee were offered free registration for the San Francisco–bound conference. To limit damages, ACA negotiated with some of the hotels in its Nashville room block to use other properties in those brands for future conferences. Nashville’s meetings community was “disappointed,” Yep said. “I would say that Butch Spyridon, [president and CEO] of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, was outstanding. He said, ‘No, I absolutely understand why you have to do this. I’m really disappointed. I hope someday you’ll be able to come back.’ And we hope that someday we will be able to hold a conference in Nashville.”
Now the real work began. Nashville’s Music City Center, the original venue for ACA 2017, is a very different space from San Francisco’s Moscone Center, where the relocated conference would be held on March 16–19. Hayes and her team started in on “the contractual part of it, looking at space, looking at cost, and the program,” she said, “and how the program would fit into the space, because it didn’t quite look the same. So we had to be a bit creative and innovative.”
That was the silver lining. Moving the conference at the last minute gave ACA an excuse to change things up. Usually the opening party happens on one floor of the convention center, for example, but the space at Moscone mandated spreading the event over three floors, so ACA decided to stage each floor differently, with its own theme. Similarly, Hayes had already been thinking about redesigning the exhibit hall, and took advantage of the relocation to go ahead with that. She ditched long, straight aisles in favor of a semicircle configuration, with booth numbers on the floor instead of hanging from the ceiling. “It was good for the exhibitors,” she said, “because the attendees would do a roundabout walk-around, so they would hit all of the exhibitors.”
Another happy result of the move: a streamlined program. ACA has 20 individually chartered divisions — from the Association for Adult Development and Aging, to the National Employment Counseling Association — and each one has its own breakfasts, lunches, awards programs, and other events during the conference. Because of space limitations at Moscone, some of those activities were eliminated or moved off-site. That created some resonant opportunities. Each division could “hold a breakfast or a lunch in a hotel … costing them $70 a head,” Yep said. “Or they can go down the block to a facility that’s more meaningful to them. Like one group went to a homeless shelter that provides meals, and that’s where they held their event, which is really cool. It benefited the shelter, and it prevented them from having to spend 70 bucks a head for dried eggs and a piece of sausage or whatever. And it helped us, because we didn’t need as much space.”
Best of all, ACA could take advantage of everything San Francisco has to offer. The world-renowned San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the opening session, and San Francisco Taiko Dojo — dedicated to Japanese ritual drumming — took the stage for a morning show. There was a “Rainbow Run 5K” that partly bene ted the locally based nonprofit organization Gender Spectrum.
And members responded. It was one of ACA’s best-attended conferences, with around 4,200 delegates. “Part of it was because we did frame it as ‘This is the unity conference,’” Yep said. “‘We’re coming together in San Francisco, and this is why.’ I think it really resonated with our members, because they’re into those kinds of things.”
THE COST OF CONSCIENCE
How much did following its principles cost ACA? All told — staff time to engineer the move, cancellation fees in Nashville, the additional expense of a union city like San Francisco — about $750,000.
“That’s the cost of doing business,” Yep said. “That’s the cost of making a bold decision. And our board knew, eyes wide open going into it, this is going to cost us some money.”
It cost Nashville some money, too. A frequent argument against boycotting a destination over a controversial law is that it ends up hurting people in low-paying jobs as opposed to the people responsible for the law. Yep is sympathetic, but only to a point. “We feel that we moved the resources that would have gone to those people in Nashville,” he said, “and we brought them to people in San Francisco who have those same low-paying jobs and have an even higher cost of living. I can justify it like that. We did feel bad about that and our members are really sensitive to stuff like that, but this was the best way for us to register our concern over this terrible bill that was passed.”
And it’s not like this was something new for ACA. “We have a long history of supporting social-justice issues,” Yep said. “Social justice is a key component in counseling, and this was a social-justice issue…. And this time our board had the courage — and I’d say it was courage — to take a stand on something that we believe so strongly in. I was really proud of that.”