Tough Calls

Author: Michelle Russell       

protestOn April 4, days after North Carolina repealed its controversial “bathroom bill” — House Bill 2 (HB2), which restricted which public bathroom transgender people could use — the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) announced that it would no longer blacklist the state from hosting its championship events. The repeal didn’t satisfy LGBT advocates, however, who said that while the compromise removed the bathroom provision, it still limited the ability of local governments to pass anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people.

What the repeal did do, according to Dennis Edwards, president & CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau, was to “create a moratorium where we’re kind of just taking a breath before cities are able to institute any new ordinances.” The “good news,” he told Convene, “is that any non-discrimination ordinance or policies that were in place prior to HB2 now apply and are in effect.” 

In Raleigh, “we already had non-discrimination policies regarding sexual orientation, race, gender, identity — all that was already in place since 1988,” Edwards said. “I don’t think there’s a city in the country that has better non-discrimination laws than what we have. [So if a planner] liked North Carolina in 2015, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t like it today. We feel very optimistic.”

Even so, Edwards admitted that “there is still a lot of confusion out there in terms of what exactly did happen or didn’t happen.” To help clarify matters, the Raleigh CVB has created a House Bill 2 repeal Q and A. “Once people read that,” Edwards said, “they should feel comfortable that this bill absolutely addressed their concerns.”

No Right Response

Meanwhile, similar bathroom bills are being considered in other states — 16 as of last month, according to CNN — which can certainly affect a planner’s site-selection process. But what recourse do conference organizers have when discriminatory legislation is passed in a future host city that is already on the books? It’s a dilemma: Pulling an event has economic implications for both the host organization and the host city, and money isn’t the only thing at stake. 

Gender-neutral signs posted at public bathrooms in West Hollywood, California.

Gender-neutral signs posted at public bathrooms in West Hollywood, California.

How to respond depends on the organization itself, its stakeholders, and other factors. For example, last year, North Carolina’s bathroom bill was passed just two months before the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) was scheduled to hold its four-day Bus & Paratransit Conference in Charlotte. APTA kept the conference in Charlotte, and decided to make a statement by incorporating sessions on diversity and inclusion into its program.

“APTA’s leadership reviewed all our options for the event and we came to the conclusion that holding the meeting would be our best option,” said Lenay Gore, senior director, meetings and tradeshows. “We wanted to support the city of Charlotte, who tried to do the right thing and our host agency, Charlotte Area Transit Service. We took this opportunity to reinforce our belief that public transit is open to all and we are an inclusive industry.”

APTA allowed anyone to cancel without penalty, whether as a result of a travel ban imposed by an employer or personal beliefs, Gore said, and APTA staff were not required to work at the event.

The conference offered an opportunity for us to have “open and honest dialogue with our stakeholders and reinforce our diversity policies,” Gore said. “APTA has had a diversity council for a number of years and three years ago we added an LGBT task force. In Charlotte, we opened the meeting up to all who wished to attend and learn more about APTA’s inclusion and diversity policies and participate in a dialogue.”

APTA also added sessions including a “diversity listening session,” in which representatives from Equality NC, a local non-profit, and APTA members participated. The session was livestreamed so that those affected by a travel ban could participate, Gore said. APTA also invited Mayor Jennifer Roberts to the Opening General Session, where she spoke on how the law has affected the citizens and businesses in the community. The mayor “remained at the hotel for our opening reception,” Gore said, “and continued one-on-one conversations with our attendees.”

Staying put was not what the American Counseling Association (ACA) chose to do last year when a different discriminatory bill — this one allowing counselors to deny services based on their personally held beliefs — was passed in Tennessee. ACA removed its annual conference from Nashville, and took on the nearly $1-million expense of moving it to San Francisco. (Stay tuned for a story about this move in the July issue of Convene.)

ACA’s move obviously had a negative economic impact on Nashville as well. As president and CEO of DMAI, Don Welsh believes that his organization has work to do regarding “the weaponization of travel and tourism for political reasons.” CVBs exist for “the economic vitality of their community,” he told Convene. “We have to be the advocate and the voice for our CVBs around the world, which, in some cases, are being sort of held hostage for things they have absolutely no control over.”

At the same time, Welsh said, it’s not DMAI’s place to “get into that area of trying to define what’s right and wrong when it comes to civil liberties. We support civil liberties. We’re trying to serve in many cases as a conduit to at least have a discussion.”

What Can Organizations Do?
One way for conference organizers to protect themselves is through legal means. Tyra W. Hilliard, Ph.D., J.D., CMP, has worked w
ith clients who want to avoid being contractually bound to hold their events in destinations where discriminatory legislation may get passed. “I always tell them that coming up with the contract language is easy,” Hilliard said. “Getting the other party to agree to it is the hard part. I have been pretty impressed that many hotels have been willing to accept it. They are putting their profits on the line for principle. It’s admirable.”

Hilliard provided Convene with suggested contract language below. “Like most legal language,” she said, “there is a tendency to want to make it longer to eliminate any ambiguity. I use this (and still want to add a few sentences, but resist).”

Group shall have the right to terminate the contract without liability in the event that any discriminatory law in the state, county, or city in which the Hotel is located is passed or in the legislative process prior to or during Group’s meeting. For purposes of this contract, “discriminatory law” includes those proposed laws, ordinances, or government policies that can be reasonably construed as discriminatory on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Group may terminate the contract in writing at any time between signing and the anticipated meeting dates upon learning of such discriminatory legislation or ordinance.

Despite all the controversy, Welsh casts the issue in a positive light. “There’s never been a better time of collaboration within our industry,” he said. “At the senior levels of [destination marketing] organizations, we’re all discussing it as an industry and the importance of resolving it.”

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