ECPAT-USA, the U.S.-based arm of ECPAT (Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking) International, is the first to admit that there is “a startling array of contradictory and unconfirmed statistics” relating to the number of children who are being sexually trafficked in the United States and around the world.
But one thing is not disputed: Child sex trafficking often happens within the framework of the meetings and hospitality industry. Children are housed in and moved through hotels. They’re transported along the same routes as business and leisure travelers. And large-scale live events such as the Super Bowl or a city-wide trade show can bring spikes in child sex tourism.
Which means that meetings and hospitality professionals are in a position to do something about it. And some of them are.
Following up on 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, ECPATUSA has partnered with St. Louis–based Nix Conference & Meeting Management to develop a Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct. Nix became the first company to sign the new code in January - coinciding with National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“Conference and meeting planners are in a unique position in the travel and tourism industry, because they work with both the general public and with venues for events,” said Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s private sector project coordinator. “Their interactions with the general public raise awareness about the issue of child sex trafficking, and when they contract with the travel industry, they can help persuade them to get involved with the [travel and tourism] code of conduct.”
Molly Hackett, a principal at Nix, said: “We know that when we walk into a [meeting] facility, we’re a big fish for the four or five days that we’re there. And it’s really easy for us to get an audience while we’re there. … The other part is, [child sex trafficking] follows with conferences. If your conference is big enough, traffickers know that, so [as a planner] you have the ability to educate people. You have an ability to do something about it.”
In many cases, Guelbart said, the key connection happens at a hotel. “With the use of online classified ads, child trafficking has moved off the streets and behind the closed doors of local hotel rooms,” she said. “American youths are strategically targeted and manipulated by pimps who use hotel rooms as venues to abuse children, knowing that systems are not in place to protect the victims. Therefore, it is increasingly important to get hotels involved in this issue.”
Nix only became aware of the issue several years ago, when the company was planning a meeting for the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph. “They asked us if we knew of hotels where they were going to have a conference, which happened to be St. Louis, that had a policy regarding trafficking,” said Nix principal Jane Quinn. “It was through their questioning of us and our RFP process that we became aware of it.”
Hackett added: “There was a lot of confusion. Most properties did not have a policy on human trafficking, and did not know it was happening. … Also, when they talk about trafficking, some people think of it as labor - they think of it as documentation for their housekeeping staff.”
Nix was successful enough in its initial efforts that the property it booked for the Sisters of St. Joseph meeting - the Millennium Hotel St. Louis - ended up signing ECPAT’s travel and tourism code this past July. The new code for meeting planners offers guidelines to address child sex trafficking, from establishing an ethical policy, to training employees, to providing information to hotels and other vendors.
“One simple question to hotel managers - ‘Is your staff trained on how to identify victims of human trafficking?’ - is a quick and simple way to raise awareness on the issue,” Guelbart said. “In addition, they can inquire about the human-trafficking policy of the venues in their RFPs.”
Nix now includes a standard clause in its RFP asking hotels about their policies on sex trafficking. “It was so easy to dovetail it into our own process,” Quinn said. “It wouldn’t take much on our end to have an impact.”
Both ECPAT-USA and Nix would like to see more meeting planners sign the new code - and also encourage more hotels to sign the travel and tourism code. “Now that Nix has paved the way, other meeting planners can learn from the work and will not have to reinvent the wheel,” Guelbart said. “I also hope the connection meeting planners have with companies results in more signatories to the code. Awareness is already being raised with the news from Nix’s signing of the code, and I can only see the momentum growing stronger this coming year.”
Signs of Trafficking
ECPAT-USA’s Michelle Guelbart advises planners and attendees alike to look for these signs of child sex trafficking:
- Teens traveling with little to no luggage.
- Travelers who seem disoriented or unaware of their surroundings.
- A man who pays for a room in cash and escorts various men into the room; he often will stay around until they leave.