Navigating How to Move Forward After the Dobbs Decision

When the Supreme Court took away the constitutional right to abortion in June, it threw a monkey wrench into many organizations’ plans to hold their events in about half of the United States. Events operate in an ecosystem, so PCMA convened a roundtable discussion on Aug. 8 among its constituents to begin exploring different approaches to a complex situation.

Author: Michelle Russell       

people in meeting

A group of association planners and executives and DMO and convention center representatives discuss the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and how it will affect business events. (Screengrab)

On Aug. 8, PCMA convened a roundtable discussion among association planners and executives and DMO and convention center representatives on how to navigate events in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision. The conversation was held in the offices of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., and moderated by American Society of Hematology Chief Event Strategy Officer Bill Reed. PCMA President & CEO Sherrif Karamat started the conversation by sharing PCMA’s position that boycotting destinations because of their legislation doesn’t “serve our industry well,” nor is it easy for event organizers to move their events, while acknowledging that it’s a complex issue. Here is an excerpt of the 90-minute conversation.

Alex Zapple, CMP, CEM, DES, Director for Meetings and Member Experience, American Society of Nephrology: We are putting it in our RFPs about agreeing with our values, including our DEI values as well as sustainability. I am watching things very closely, but I will say it’s really hard to put specific items in — you don’t really know what’s coming down the pike. When I booked Orlando in 2016, I never would’ve thought we would’ve been in this position [today with the overturning of Roe v. Wade].

Desirée Knight, CAE, CMP, Senior Director of Education and Meetings, American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association: I love that your association is concerned about their values, but I have [a different challenge] based on the culture of the board — once a new chair comes in, they might change their mind, and there might be an issue — but I might be too far along as far as contracting is concerned to make a change. I do like that there are opportunities to put clauses in contracts.

Nneka St. Gerard, CMP, Chief Strategy Officer, Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine: My members are high-risk obstetricians. Starting in 2019, we put into all of our contracts a frustration of purpose clause, which basically states that central to our mission is that we respect reproductive choice and access to health care. And we are very specific about what triggers that clause, which is any sort of law or regulation that restricts abortion pre-viability, which is 20 weeks as defined by ACOG. We will not contract with any venue that won’t accept that clause. In 2019, we booked with cities like New Orleans and in Texas and Florida, where we thought this we would be protected because even though there were trigger laws in place, we had Roe v. Wade. Starting in 2021, when Texas passed SB 8 [which bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy], we pulled every contract that existed out of Texas, because again, central to our mission is reproductive choice and access. For us, it’s not something that changes when the board changes, it’s in our mission statement and right now that limits me for our size meeting to just 10 states.

Bill Reed, FASAE, CMP, Chief Event Strategy Officer, American Society of Hematology: That is directly tied to your mission and it’s in your swim lane, so to speak, but what happens when the issue is swim-lane adjacent or it’s nowhere close to where your swim lane is?

Suzanne (Suzy) Leous, Chief Policy Officer, American Society of Hematology: Last year we were in Atlanta and when the restrictive voter law came out and we realized that law was most certainly going to impact cancer patients who cannot be in long lines, who need access to water, individuals with sickle cell disease. We were far in our contract, we couldn’t pull out, but we also came to the decision that boycotting because of that law, actually will impact the very people in that area. So we had a meeting with the mayor, we talked with the state and local officials, and a recommendation came for us to express our concern through a letter to the editor or an ad. We went with an ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and we were able to work with 16 other organizations who signed on … we had specific examples in that letter about how this law impacted the members or the constituents of those organizations. But this year, once again, Roe v. Wade, and our meeting is in New Orleans, and concern. And there is a definite connection between hematology and OBGYN. So, that’s that lane. It’s not a direct lane, but it’s closely aligned. What can we do to show our concern? Moving a meeting of our size is extremely difficult. And we don’t want to impact the very people — and New Orleans is the one blue dot in a red state.

So again, our approach there is, let’s talk with the local leaders, let’s see what we can do to keep our members safe and think about the patients that they serve. How can we bring education to this issue?

Bill Reed: In our particular case, we actually fit in five cities in the country. Our constituency is looking for a commitment to not plan future meetings in certain locations. And the difficulty with that is, we confirm destinations 10 years in advance. So, now we’re going to be in the position of having to try to predict which locations will or will not have legislation that is in conflict with our values and introducing the swim-lane component as well — it becomes very, very challenging.

Desirée Knight

Desirée Knight (left) addresses those gathered for the roundtable discussion.

Suzy Leous: With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, how can we arm our members in those states to be active in those states to help educate? We have a policy statement on the right to maternal health care and hematology. We’re turning that into a fact sheet, with talking points, if a member wants to engage with their state legislator. We’re trying to arm our members with what they need to be active in their own states and localities.

Lauren Parr, Senior Vice President of Meetings and Learning, American Geophysical Union: Our members are a couple of swim lanes over from women’s health issues. But we have members who care about this from a public safety issue. So, a pregnant person going to a meeting, we would hope that they would speak to their physician and have enough information to make that decision for themselves. Then where does that liability transfer to the organization in terms of our ability to keep you safe? It’s the question we all ask ourselves in any location we choose. Can we keep you safe first and foremost? And can we make you feel welcome?

We’ve got to really look at safety. What’s the personal responsibility of the individuals there? I think it’s wonderful that many of us are holding onto virtual meetings as a strategy, but we can’t just say, “Well, we have virtual, you can try that,” because they feel excluded, like they are not welcome.

But our members also are saying don’t pick these destinations again. Unfortunately, we also are booked 10 years out for many of these things, and we’re talking to the cities and the cities are devastated — it’s really the impact of a cancellation, the impact on our ability to book future business. And it’s not just with the cities, it’s the hotels. That kind of buying power, those kinds of decisions, impact us long term in terms of our ability to seek business.

Alex Zapple: We hired an ethicist in combination with another organization in April — 50/50 with another medical association. They help us with some of these issues.

Melissa Riley, Vice President Convention Sales and Services, Destination DC: Partnership with your DMO in these cities is imperative, because there’s often a lot of small nuances within legislation — people read headlines and they’re headline decision makers. I think oftentimes uneducated and highly emotional decisions are made, because they think things are black and white, but they’re not really. I think a leadership-to-leadership conversation with your DMO is really important because we can help change that narrative with your members, with your attendees, with people within your organization that may be for or against.

Bill Reed: Will we see DMOs add a position solely dedicated to this — an expert in legislative matters? You can get tangled up in doing things that are not going to bring value to anyone if you don’t have someone who understands how the state legislature works.

RELATED: Wading In: Events Challenged With Another Complex Issue

Kathy McAdams, CASE, Senior Vice President, Convention Sales, LA Tourism & Convention Board: We have one person that handles basically business affairs, legislative. We were starting to get more and more RFIs from customers asking for specific legislation issues in our destination. And I think it’s getting to the point now where we are considering — do we need to add a body to that because it’s becoming so important to the organization’s RFP process.

Leonard Hoops, President & CEO, Visit Indy: We just had a show in town — Gen Con, 52,000 attendees, the largest hobby gaming show. they spend about $60 million when they’re in town. And they area very socially liberal group. But interestingly, Gen Con looked at where their attendees are coming from and over half their attendees come from states with similar restrictions. It’s made it very complicated for them to say, “Well, a bunch of you are coming from states with this issue, but we can’t meet in a city with this issue.”

We’re all going through the same thing as CEOs in blue cities in red states. And what I think we’re finding is that there are kind of four buckets of customers that are being impacted by this. Bucket No. 1 are groups that are female-dominated. The Society of Women Engineers has already announced, for example, that they are going to pay the penalties to get out of Salt Lake City because of that reason.

Second bucket is medical associations. What we’ve found in talking with customers of ours is that medical associations in general are pro-reproductive rights. That’s an issue that may or may not be a deal breaker. Third bucket is educational meetings. We’re hearing from university presidents and others that that is going to be a challenge. And then last, but not least, is if the mission and/or demographics of the attendee base fall into that very socially liberal [group] like Gen Con.

Bill Reed: I think it’s important to remember that, for most associations, you probably have individuals on both sides of any issue — constituents that are happy we’re not moving the meeting and some that are not happy. I would suggest we all have to get comfortable that there is no solution that’s going to make everyone happy. So it’s going to be, What is the priority? And the average person does not fully appreciate how complicated this is. You know, they’re mad as hell regarding whatever the topic is and they want to strike out with a boycott, but we know economic boycotts don’t work, but for some reason everyone’s jumping to the solution that impacts us the most.

Lauren Parr: I think, at AGU, we need to do a better job of explaining how we make decisions and why we do go to specific locations. And for us, we have a very specific criteria that we use to source locations. We don’t do a good enough job of sharing that criteria. We ask about their personal alignment with the location, we do survey on that, and it always comes in last — until Roe v. Wade is reversed, or something else happens. I think that serving your members [means asking], “How important is it to you that your personal value system aligns with a state or a city that you’re going to?”

Frustration-of-purpose clauses can be a wonderful tool, but frustration of what purpose? Where are you going to put the pin in? Is it going to be voters’ rights? Is it going to be LGBTQ-plus rights? Is it going to be public safety? Is it going to be abortion rights?

I think there’s work that we can all do individually with our own organizations to say, what are our criteria? And then how do we survey on those criteria? How do we talk to our membership about criteria?

Jenifer Hamilton, Chief Communications Officer, American Society of Hematology: I wish when our members complain that they could just sit down with Bill for a cup of coffee. Because I think once they talk to him and understand his process and how complex the decision is, they do understand. But it’s very hard on a mass level to explain that to everyone in an email or what have you because it does just come across like a list of excuses.

I really like the survey idea — it’s not just asking what elements go into your decision and where your personal values land, but what trade-offs would you be willing to make for those things? Because I think we’ve seen, if we were to just vote with our conscience and go somewhere else, we could still move the meeting, but it’s going to be over Thanksgiving or it’s going to be in a place that’s not adequate. And people would be mad about that once they got there. I think just hinting at those trade-offs and having people think about it would be helpful, and then something we could point to when we use it in our decision.

RELATED: Site Selection After the Dobbs Decision, from a Corporate Event Marketer’s Viewpoint

Jane Dahlroth, Senior Director of Meetings and Exhibits, American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics:One of our concerns [in terms of] advocacy activities is we don’t want to bring attention to ourselves. We do have a session that was already in development on reproductive rights [at an upcoming meeting in Salt Lake City], but we’re being very careful about what kind of advocacy activities [we’ll engage in].

Bill Reed: That’s a danger too, because the last thing you want to have happen is some form of demonstration taking place at the convention center and making yourself a target.

Charles Starks speaks seated

Charles Starks, President & CEO, Music City Center, Nashville

Charles Starks, President & CEO, Music City Center, Nashville: I would tell you that if [you’re considering booking in Nashville], we certainly can get you in touch [with the right people] to talk about what’s going on right now at the legislature.

Where we’ve had some limited success, because it’s just getting started — but what a [great] pulpit you have when you come to our city [or other cities] that are that blue dot: Our media is more than happy to come cover speakers, people that are subject-matter experts to get them on TV. We’ve had some success in two occasions now where the media has come and covered a topic and ran it in the news.

And I think taking out an ad in the paper [is something you can negotiate with your DMO] — “Hey, we’re going to come to your city. We want you to take out and pay for an ad [advocating on an issue].”

Nneka St. Gerard: I was just going to tag onto that to say that when we contracted New Orleans, they did put a credit in the contract to support a media event or bring attention, because we knew they had the trigger law in the books at that time. It didn’t stop us from canceling, but it was an incentive that they offered.

Janice Lachance, Executive Vice President, Strategic Leadership and Global Outreach, American Geophysical Union: I had a lot of phone calls after the Dodd decision came down [with] people saying, “What can we do? How can we help?” And I’m afraid I wasn’t particularly constructive because my response was, “It’s too late.” This has been years in the making and now we’re going to have to live with it for quite a long time. So this group coming together today and thinking about how to cope with it, I think, is critically important for the health of all of our organizations and our members.

As our colleagues have brought up, you don’t know what’ll happen a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. Things change very, very quickly. But this notion of really partnering with the local community is something that would benefit us all.

Ada Phillips, CMP, Director of Meetings and CME, American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: I want to circle back to the goal of the organization. Our members are a 50/50 type of thing — some would be very annoyed with us if we pulled out of, say, Texas for gun rights or abortion rights. And then you have people who are kind of like, “We shouldn’t be supporting these cities.” We haven’t really as an association come up with our stance on [these kinds of] things. But our membership is changing — younger folks are coming in and the more seasoned folks are phasing out. It’s definitely on our mind.

Brooks Hanson (Executive Vice President for Science, American Geophysical Union): I think the more that we can educate our communities respectively on the thought, the care, the perspectives that go into this and why we pick different cities and how we try to balance things, the better.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

Takeaways From Convene Roundtable: Navigating Social & Political Challenges Impacting Business Events

Carrie Johnson headshot

Carrie Johnson

By Carrie Johnson, PCMA Senior Director of Education

Navigating social & political challenges will continue to be a constant, ever-changing challenge going forward for association and corporate leadership, event professionals and suppliers, particularly DMOs.

For planners, the goal is to be proactive instead of reactive so you get ahead of the headlines in how you’re communicating your values as an organization and being transparent about the site selection process/criteria.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to any of these challenges because of all the variables involved, however, there are questions and various approaches to consider, like the following, that can be tried so you are making every effort to ensure attendees feel safe and feel welcome at events and in a destination.

  • It helps if an association has clearly delineated values that you can incorporate into your contract clauses and RFP language — that is not the case across all associations. Frustration of purpose clause can mean not contracting with a venue that doesn’t accept a particular value embraced by the organization.
  • It’s more challenging for associations that are dealing with a legislative/social issue that doesn’t directly tie in with their mission and/or is connected in varying degrees. If this isn’t clear, talk to your leadership.
  • Survey your members to understand them at a deeper level to gauge how they should receive communications based on their values going forward — also, what trade-offs would they be willing to make on future locations?
  • How are you working with your DMO partner to ensure your attendees feel safe and welcome? How do you balance duty of care with individual responsibility?
  • Take an ad out in a local publication, invite local media to see a speaker at your event to raise awareness on how your organization is addressing an issue. This may not work for other organizations who are concerned about potential protests or security risks if they communicate in their host destination too much around a particular issue.
  • Speak to your DMO, the local officials, empower your members with the tools to communicate to their local officials.
  • Donate to a local cause to make a direct impact and raise awareness with the potential to create change.
  • Educate your stakeholders and membership with fact sheets and talking points so they are not solely relying on emotionally charged headlines but have information to gain deeper understanding of the issue, talk to their local/state officials, and vote. Also inform them how it impacts members and hospitality staff located in those destinations/states if there’s pressure to move to another city. Remember you likely have members on both sides of any issue so it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
  • Communicate the various trade-offs in site selection, if in fact, you are being encouraged by members, executives, board members, other stakeholders to select different cities going forward.
  • From a destination perspective there are generally four buckets of customers impacted by anti-abortion legislation: 1) female-dominated organizations 2) medical associations 3) educational meetings 4) if the mission and/or demographics of an organization are socially liberal.
  • Do you have the right resources at your disposal to help you navigate these challenges? That could include partnering with your DMO, other associations, local officials, an ethicist, legislative experts, etc.
  • Don’t hesitate to collaborate with other organizations whether you’re a corporate, association, or supplier DMO because everyone needs support facing these challenges now and in the future.

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