Big Ideas

How Meetings Can Effect Social Change

Meetings and events increasingly are being invoked as part of the debate over same-sex marriage, race relations, and other hot-button issues.

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Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

What does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly have in common with Gen Con, North America’s largest annual show for the tabletop-game industry? Not much, you might think, but this past spring both groups moved to cancel conventions in Indianapolis following Indiana’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). While supporters said the legislation was simply meant to guarantee religious freedom for business owners, opponents across the country said it opened the door for discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people.

The Christian Church and Gen Con had plenty of company. Nine CEOs from Indiana’s largest businesses also voiced opposition to RFRA, as did big brands like Apple and Walmart, while Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson called the legislation “pure idiocy from a business perspective.” CEO Marc Benioff, one of the new breed of social-activist chief executives, tweeted that all employee travel to the state was being canceled. Meanwhile, Visit Indy, Indianapolis’ convention bureau, made clear its opposition to the bill and worked in overdrive to get the message out that the city welcomed everyone.

The upshot: A week after being signed into law, RFRA was revised to clarify that it could not be used to discriminate against business patrons based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the end, no scheduled conventions were canceled and RFRA disappeared from national headlines — but not before what started out as a state legislative matter had grown into a firestorm, tarnishing the Hoosier State’s image.

Subsequently, business and tourism interests successfully applied pressure to RFRA-type legislation under consideration in Georgia and Arkansas, with Georgia’s failing to pass and Arkansas’ getting revised to prohibit discrimination against gays. And when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order upholding “religious freedom” for businesses, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau among other industry groups openly challenged it.

What’s driving this unprecedented wave of social-issue engagement by meetings and travel groups? We asked thought leaders from across the industry to weigh in.

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JOHN GRAHAM, CAE, is president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). In a letter sent on behalf of ASAE to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Graham called for the state’s RFRA to be amended to protect civil rights: “Laws that permit discrimination are not only regressive, they put our members at risk of being denied service anywhere from restaurants to meetings and convention facilities.” (Read ASAE’s letter.)

Is the meetings industry becoming more outspoken on social issues?

Yes, as far as social issues that revolve around discrimination and accommodation, in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation. We’ve seen a rapid shift in less than a decade, with the majority of Americans accepting marriage equality for gays and lesbians; and just as the civil-rights movement made race a protected class [against discrimination], we are now seeing efforts to provide similar protections based on sexual orientation.

Discrimination against LGBT people is a particular issue for our industry for a couple of reasons. There’s a higher percentage than average of gay people in the hospitality industry, and in addition to that, we’re all in the business of providing accommodation, regardless of a person’s disability, race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. It’s about being accommodating and inviting to all.

What about other divisive social issues, such as immigration reform?

When immigration is framed as discrimination against a class of people, there is a lot of resonance in that. Right now it’s not as strong of an issue as sexual orientation, but that’s not to say three or four years from now we might not be having a different conversation.

Corporate America is speaking out on LGBT issues as never before. What do you think is driving that?

A big factor is the Millennial generation, which is more “color blind” and more open to differences in sexual orientation than previous generations. Since Millennials will shortly be 80 percent of the global workforce, corporations are more interested in aligning themselves with the social values of the next generation of workers and leaders.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.30.20 PMMEGAN TANEL, CEM, is vice president of exhibitions and events for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and chair of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) — which Tanel urged to issue a statement opposing Indiana’s RFRA, a first for the organization. 

Why did you advocate for IAEE to come out with a statement opposing RFRA?

This was uncharted territory for the association, as we usually don’t speak out on social or political issues, but we wanted to respond immediately to potential issues of discrimination affecting our industry. Of course, we didn’t act unilaterally but covered all our bases, checking in with other industry organizations like ASAE and SISO [Society of Independent Show Organizers].

Did the original RFRA have any impact on AEM’s meetings?

We hadn’t been aware of what was going on at the state-legislature level until it hit the front-page news. At that point, we were in negotiations with Indianapolis for a trade show in 2018, but we put contract negotiations on hold after we became aware of what was going on. We didn’t want to put our attendees in a situation where any of them would feel uncomfortable, even though we knew that our group would certainly be welcomed in Indianapolis. If a destination doesn’t want you there, it doesn’t bid on your business.

What challenge does this speak to on a personal level?

We live in a new era where the line between professional and personal is blurred as never before, thanks in large part to social media. Whatever our views are as individuals, we need to practice tolerance in the workplace and in our professions, and make everyone feel welcome, especially in our industry.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.31.02 PMDEBORAH SEXTON is president and CEO of PCMA, which as a member of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMBC) lent its support to MMBC’s advocacy against the RFRA legislation. When RFRA was revised to protect LGBT rights, Sexton issued a note in support of meeting in Indiana.

Why did you feel it was important for PCMA to release a message in support of Visit Indy and the amended version of RFRA?

Through our collaboration with the Meetings Means Business Coalition, PCMA participated in speaking out against the RFRA as it was approaching the governor’s desk, yet he still signed the bill into law. Once the collective voices and outrage were heard and the RFRA was amended, it was important for PCMA to show support for Visit Indy and the entire Indiana hospitality community, who from the beginning had opposed the RFRA.

Do you think the meetings and travel sector is becoming more outspoken on social issues?

I don’t think the rise in outspokenness is unique to the meetings and travel sector — it’s everyone. With today’s 24/7 news cycle, where many news outlets now believe it is their job to create the news versus reporting it, we are constantly “on” and informed. Opinions are now relentlessly streaming through our mobile devices versus having to wait for the six o’clock newscast, and we have the technology to instantly respond.

Is a destination boycott an appropriate response to legislation or policies that meeting organizers and/or their attendees don’t agree with?

Those often hurt by destination boycotts are the innocent bystanders — the minimum-wage workers that have no influence on the political agenda and are dependent on their employment to feed their families. Boycotts should be a last-resort tactic and not considered until all the facts are crystal-clear and we know exactly how the boycott will impact the community.


Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.35.56 PMMICHAEL GEHRISCH stepped down as president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) last month. We spoke to Gehrisch before he left DMAI, not long after it was announced at DMAI’s Annual Convention in July that an updated version of its DMO Advocacy Toolkit that includes social issues is available.

How was the reaction against religious-freedom legislation introduced in various states different from previous responses to controversial legislation?

The role of business is changing in our culture. We’ve seen this happen formally through [Supreme Court cases] such as Citizens United and informally with businesses like Starbucks that are attempting to stimulate social conversations. There’s no doubt that companies like Apple, Walmart, and Salesforce played a major role in reshaping the [RFRA] legislation in Indiana.

At the same time, local experiences and culture are playing a greater role in the destination-selection process for leisure and business travelers alike. Amadeus just released its Future Traveller Tribes 2030 report. One of the influential tribes is Ethical Travellers, who allow their conscience, in some form, to be their guide when organizing and undertaking travel. In essence, the brand of a destination is playing a greater role for consumers. Choosing a meeting destination is now about much more than infrastructure and square footage.

How does this change the role of DMOs?

The DMO role is evolving as the travel ecosystem evolves. This is the focus of the DestinationNEXT initiative, which DMAI launched during our convention last year. We surveyed 327 DMOs from 36 countries, and found a number of new, emerging roles being contemplated by DMOs, including DMOs playing a more central role in advocacy for a destination, becoming more involved in broader economic development, forming more strategic alliances outside the DMO industry.

Advocacy is a critical component in Phase II of DestinationNEXT, and we’ve just released a new version of the DMO Advocacy Toolkit, which showcases case studies that we hope will help foster a community of DMOs that are championing the social and economic viability of their communities.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.36.38 PMDAVID PECKINPAUGH, CMP, is president of Maritz Travel Company and Experient and co-chair of MMBC. Earlier this year, Peckinpaugh and MMBC co-chair Michael Dominguez, CHSE, wrote a blog post titled “What the Meetings and Events Industry Can Learn From RFRA,” which concludes: “With the potential for RFRA to emerge as an issue in more than a dozen other states, it may now be time to ask whether it is fair to leverage local businesses in order to win political battles.”)

Why did MMBC write this post?

Our mandate at MMBC is to protect and defend the value of face-to-face gatherings. That’s the essence of our mission, not taking stands on political or social issues. But we thought it was unfair, the knee-jerk reactions that some had to boycott Indiana, which would negatively impact businesses like hotels and restaurants — the vast majority of which support the LGBT community, and which employ a lot of LGBT people. We wanted to convey the message that meetings should not be used as weapons.

Speaking as the CEO of a major corporation, why do you think corporations are getting involved in social issues?

Corporate social responsibility is evolving, and what we are seeing is that for more and more companies, corporate culture is being defined by the values of the individuals who make up the enterprise. This very much affects meetings as well. You see RFPs now stipulating sustainability practices and asking about core company values, for instance. We’ve also seen meetings and hospitality groups taking on a major social issue, combating human trafficking with the ECPAT [End Child Prostitution, Abuses, and Trafficking] initiative.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.32.42 PMSTEPHEN PERRY is president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, one of the largest economic-development corporations in Louisiana. Perry has helped shape national travel policy in various roles, including serving on the first U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, formed by President Obama in 2010. Weeks after the firestorm over Indiana’s RFRA, a similar bill was proposed in the Louisiana State Legislature. Perry marshaled local and state businesses and other tourism groups to oppose the legislation, which was voted down in committee. When Gov. Bobby Jindal subsequently issued an executive order mirroring the intent of the bill, Perry and other tourism leaders responded with a statement saying the executive order did not carry the weight of law, was essentially a political positioning statement by a presidential candidate, and was bad for the state’s economy. Read the New Orleans CVB’s response to the legislation and executive order.

What was the New Orleans CVB’s goal in opposing the governor’s executive order?

For the first time, after a lot of discussion, the New Orleans CVB took a leadership position in rallying businesses and groups statewide to prevent laws and policies that could harm our economy and brand. But this is really a national story playing out on state and local levels. We are seeing a major shift in how our industry approaches politics and social issues, and it all ties in with the evolution of the U.S. Travel Association over the last decade or so, starting when [President and CEO] Roger Dow stepped in to lead the association.

Roger has strategically built out the reach of the travel industry, involving major DMOs from around the country, and has put together a politically astute staff with strong ties to Capitol Hill. Now we have the U.S. Travel Promotion Act, the U.S. Travel PAC, and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, and the U.S. travel industry has become a major player in shaping travel policy. On the state and local level, we’re seeing a linkage as never before between DMOs, local and national businesses, and governing bodies coming together. It’s historic — a quantum leap forward.

Destination boycotts have had a lot of power to push back against these kinds of controversial laws. What do you think of them?

This is an age-old question, a real conundrum. But boycotting a destination is not the right way to achieve results. When I was a teenager, I went to college for a while in the Soviet Union and traveled around [behind] the Iron Curtain, and I could see then the impact that travel could have in changing the world. Travel is the ultimate enemy of bigotry and ignorance, and has a profound impact on tearing down walls, real or imaginary. Travel and meetings are powerful tools for helping to create more tolerance and openness.

Where do you see the next step?

I see the next step in brand development — whether it’s a convention, a destination, or a business — is going to be around social values and creating strategic partnerships with organizations that share those values. I think we will continue to see pushback as an appropriate business and moral decision to laws and policies that discriminate. We need to welcome everyone and stand for the protection of all citizens’ right to travel. 

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 1.40.22 PMREV. DR. SUSAN WATKINS is president and general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has been headquartered in Indianapolis for nearly a century. Watkins and other church board members voted unanimously to move their 2017 General Assembly, scheduled for Indianapolis, to a different state after Indiana’s RFRA was signed into law — which would mean the loss of about $5.9 million in visitor spending in the city. The Christian Church later reversed that decision when RFRA was amended to preclude discrimination against LGBT people. Read the Christian Church’s responses to the RFRA.

Why did the board vote to cancel the 2017 meeting in Indianapolis?

We are all about celebrating religious freedom — it’s one of the hallmarks of our church. But we are also about diversity and inclusion, and the RFRA was divisive in this regard.

What were the financial stakes in canceling the convention?

The financial losses to us could have been tens of thousands of dollars. There were other cities who contacted us indicating a willingness to enter into negotiation, but thankfully the situation was resolved before we had to count all the costs, from negotiated hotel rates to transportation. We were firm in our decision that our attendees needed to be assured of welcome.

Had your church ever canceled a convention before?

One other time that I am aware of that we considered moving a scheduled assembly was in the 1960s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to speak. Local people were nervous about him as a speaker. Our leader at the time, Dr. A. Dale Fiers, looked at his associate and asked, “What were the other cities that wanted this assembly?” The assembly was not moved. Dr. King was the speaker.

Regina McGee

Convene Contributing Editor Regina McGee is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts.