(Photo Courtesy ECPAT-USA)
Michelle Guelbart always felt driven, even in high school, to work for human rights issues, “especially ones that affect people’s freedom,” she said. “But sometimes I felt like I was just shoveling snow in an endless snowstorm.”
That changed when, as a graduate student earning a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University, Guelbart encountered ECPAT-USA, an anti-child-trafficking nonprofit based in New York City and the first U.S.-based nonprofit to work to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
It was a perfect fit for her, Guelbart said, because not only did ECPAT-USA work to protect the freedom of children, it was focused on policy and on creating the foundation for change. Their approach — which combines advocacy, awareness, and training — means that the organization addresses the problem closer to its source, said Guelbart, who now is ECPAT-USA’s director of private sector engagement.
Nobody was talking very much about trafficking when the organization was founded more than 25 years ago. “We laid the groundwork to pass the first law that even defined human trafficking in the United States,” Guelbart said. The organization also developed a systematic way for organizations to get involved, creating the ECPAT-USA Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, known as The Code, a voluntary set of principles that businesses agree to adopt, which includes training employees in how to recognize and report suspected cases. Companies signed on slowly at first, but ECPAT-USA, which is a member of ECPAT International, now works with six of the world’s largest hotel companies — employees at nearly 22,000 hotel properties in the U.S. have access to ECPAT-USA’s training.
‘A Potential Ally’
The organization’s first contact with U.S. meeting planners was initiated, not by ECPAT-USA, but by Nix Conference & Meeting Management, a St. Louis– based company, Guelbart said. In 2012, Nix was asked by a client — the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph — to research a hotel’s policy on preventing human trafficking before it signed a contract, and Nix turned to ECPAT-USA for help.
“That was the first time that we identified the meeting and events industry as a potential ally of ours,” Guelbart said. Since then, ECPAT-USA “has scaled up its efforts to include the meeting and events industry into The Code of Conduct itself,” she added, “and in a primary way, as a partner on our initiatives.”
In January, ECPAT-USA began offering online training for meeting and other travel professionals adapted from material that ECPAT-USA already was using for the hotel industry, Guelbart said. The course was developed with input from a committee of meeting, corporate travel, and education professionals, all of whom vetted the material and added feedback, she said.
So far this year, about 3,000 meeting professional have had access to the online training, she said. (That number includes PCMA staff — PCMA President and CEO Sherrif Karamat signed The Code in January 2019.) Organizations and corporations pay a fee to provide the training to their employees, and it also is available for a fee to individuals.
There are obvious benefits to training meeting professionals to spot and report potential trafficking — in addition to hotels, meeting professionals spend a lot of time in airports and convention centers where they could potentially identify trafficking and report it, she said.
But there are other ways, Guelbart said, that meeting professionals can have a wide impact. For example, meeting professionals who are educated about trafficking are more likely to show a preference for suppliers who have signed The Code, which shows a return on a hotel or other vendor’s investment in the corporate social responsibility initiative. “It proves that doing good in the world is good for business,” Guelbart said. “That’s huge.”
And meeting professionals also can make sure the topic is on conference agendas, ensuring that business professionals can learn about this issue, she said. “That may be the first time they ever have considered what they can do with their skillset, and their businesses can do, to address the issue,” she said. Meeting planners can tailor it to their audiences, offering a specific panel about how a particular industry can address it or present it in the context of being a good citizen of the world, she said. “It’s important that we raise awareness about this issue, because most people don’t know it’s happening or they think it looks like it does in Hollywood movies. … Meeting professionals end up being multipliers in raising awareness and they can amplify that message.”
Another way meeting professionals can make an impact is by using it as a CSR activity — hosting a 5K walk, or a networking event to raise funds for ECPAT-USA. “And then we can use that money,” Guelbart said, “to double down on our programs to combat the issue.”
Guelbart won’t know until later in the year the exact number of meeting professionals who will complete the online training course this year. But “from my experience — this is non-statistical — I’ve always felt that meeting professionals just care. I’ve had so many situations, where the minute they hear about the issue, it’s almost a no-brainer. Their response is: ‘What can I do?’”
A Tipping Point for CSR?
In the decade since Michelle Guelbart began working for ECPAT-USA, she has seen big changes in the willingness of businesses to take a stand on the issue, she said. “For a long time,” she said, “ECPAT-USA had a lot of trouble getting corporate partners to really join in the fight to end human trafficking.” Corporate engagement was focused on philanthropy. “There was a feeling that issues like human rights and children’s rights were something that governments took care of and nonprofits took care of. And it wasn’t really so common that companies were involved in human rights initiatives. Corporate social responsibility wasn’t as big as it is now.”
Learn more about The Code at ecpatusa.org/code and find training resources designed for meeting professionals at ecpatusa.org/travel-elearning.
Barbara Palmer is Deputy Editor of Convene.