Meeting Mentor Magazine

October 2019

Industry Associations Look at “Weaponization” of Travel

Abortion-restricting legislation, bills allowing discriminatory practices against LGBTQ people, controversial immigration regulations — these and other issues have prompted some organizations, and even states and municipalities, to call for boycotts and travel bans of certain states, requiring meeting planners to scramble for new locations or scour already-signed contracts for clauses allowing them to cancel without bearing the bulk of the financial burden.

But does this so-called weaponization of travel work? Do travel boycotts achieve their objectives, or do they just end up hurting innocent bystanders — the cities and businesses in those states that are trying to create open, welcoming environments for all?

These are some of the questions that Destinations International (DI), the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Foundation and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition sought to answer in research studies addressing this issue. They commissioned APCO Insight to poll travelers in 2017, and meeting and event professionals (MEPs) in 2018, to determine the effectiveness and impact of travel bans and boycotts on legislation and the travel industry.

Although more than 70 percent of surveyed travelers agreed that boycotts hurt local businesses, the impact on legislation was not so clear. While policymakers in Indiana and North Carolina ultimately backed off of discriminatory legislation after backlash from large businesses and organizations, in other states, such as Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee, the controversial regulations still stand.

While safety and security is at the top of the list of industry concerns for MEPs, less than half of respondents (48 percent) said they feel prepared to handle a travel ban or boycott should the situation arise.

In response, DI, the U.S. Travel Association and Meetings Mean Business put together a tool kit to help MEPs deal with travel bans or boycotts in order to “ensure event attendees not only feel safe, but also welcomed, updated and engaged.” The resource focuses on what MEPs should do before an event; key messages to use to inform stakeholders about travel bans and boycotts; considerations for implementing a crisis response; and sample communications. The following is a sampling of key points.

Planning and Preparation
• Contact the venue, local destination marketing organization, or convention and visitors bureau to discuss an action plan.
• Monitor local media and social media so your team has access to relevant coverage quickly.
• Consider attendees’ and other stakeholders’ expectations of your organization.
• Create talking points and core communications, and have organization leaders review them in advance.

Crisis Response
• Establish specific triggers that would initiate a formal response (for example, 5 percent of attendees reach out with questions or concerns about a travel ban or boycott).
• If a response is deemed necessary, be transparent in relaying verifiable information to attendees quickly via a variety of channels.
• Ensure the lines of communication are open, and evaluate the effectiveness of your response every step of the way.
• Carefully navigate the media, and avoid wading into discussions about policy. Politics today are unpredictable, and engaging in partisan debates is risky.

Among polled MEPs, the best-viewed alternatives to changing locations should a boycott arise are to work with meeting stakeholders to ensure discriminatory policies aren’t enforced (58 percent in favor) and to show support for inclusivity (44 percent). For some, adding a session on advocacy for interested attendees is worth considering (28 percent support), but speaking out against the policy on social media or scheduling lobbying days could be polarizing (37 percent and 30 percent opposed, respectively).

When considering what messaging to use to explain why a meeting isn’t changing locations in support of a boycott, most MEPs supported these statements:
1. We do not support discriminatory policies, nor will we support businesses that enforce them. All businesses and staff hosting event(s) have committed to create spaces where attendees feel welcome and safe. (77 percent strongly in favor)
2. Travel boycotts and bans hurt innocent bystanders — local residents and businesses who rely on the meetings and events industry. (69 percent strongly in favor)
3. Meetings and events are a way to bring people together; our industry is all about hospitality and inclusion. (65 percent strongly in favor)
4. There are better ways to influence policy that are less harmful and just as, if not more, effective, such as donating to advocacy groups or using a meeting or event as an opportunity to organize advocacy activities. (53 percent strongly in favor)

Download a copy of the tool kit here. Watch for a more in-depth look at how the weaponization of travel impacts the meetings industry in a future issue of MeetingMentor magazine. — Marilyn Pritchard

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