Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2018

Cover Story

Meeting Groups Wary About
Restrictive State and Local Laws

Meeting professionals are taking a much closer look at restrictive state and local laws when selecting meeting destinations.

The background. When some states years ago held back recognition of Martin Luther King Day, groups canceled existing meetings or refused to book new ones in those destinations. In 2010, Arizona’s controversial immigration law initiated meeting reconsideration and cancellation. Bursting onto the news in late March came Indiana legislators’ version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but with language that departed from that law and similar ones in 19 states. Opponents took the measure to mean that businesses could deny services or products to groups, in particular lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. So businesses canceled expansions in the state, some states and cities banned their workers from travel to Indiana, and groups considered canceling future meetings.

Within days, Indiana legislators backpedaled, amending the law so that “providers” (individuals and businesses) can’t refuse to serve any member of the public (and specifically on the basis of “sexual orientation [and] gender identity”), and prohibiting the law from overriding local ordinances that ban such discrimination (Indianapolis has one).

(Editor’s Note: The National Conference of State Legislatures updates its pages about state RFRA laws monthly.)

These laws matter to meeting planners. The North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) recently considered taking its institute training courses on the road to three to five cities, hosting between 200 and 1,000 attendees each. “As we were narrowing down the cities, our team decided we would not go where anyone who is part of the organization may feel disenfranchised or find an uncomfortable environment,” said Thomas Bohn, MBA, CAE, chief executive officer. It’s something they are hearing more and more.

NAVC now incorporates the overall cultural and political environment at a destination into its scorecard ranking. Through state chapters of related associations, social media and local articles, the association gauges if what’s happening on the ground could be contentious. “Our organization is now more diverse and female-centric, and we have a fairly large contingent in the gay and lesbian community,” he noted. “Competition is fierce, and reputation is everything. So we scrutinize the destination and everyone we work with.”

What’s coming: “From the conference and hotel procurement perspective, you’ll see language put into contracts that allow a show to move should a political situation undermine their constituency,” Bohn predicted.

The legislative issue touched a nerve at the American Occupational Therapy Association. It was concluding the final contractual point before signing in 2010 for a future annual meeting in Phoenix when Arizona signed an immigration law. Back then AOTA got “tremendous feedback not to go to that state,” and “as soon as Indiana happened, texts and e-mails poured in,” said Frank Gainer, MHS, OTR/L, FAOTA, CMP, CAE, director of conferences. The organization tries to remain apolitical, “but when hot button issues come up, we must respond to what resonates with members.”

Gainer is finding destinations “more proactive” in talking about these issues. “They’re telling their state governments that ‘you’re hurting business’ with these laws,” he added. “It’s the 21st century, and they can’t behave this way anymore.”

North Carolina is a good example. Identical House Bill 348 and Senate Bill 550 — modeled on the federal RFRA law — are wending their way through the state legislature. Many voices are being raised (including that of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory) about the potential impact of the proposed law on business and economic development in the state. “We are proud of the fact that Charlotte is a diverse and inclusive visitor destination and community,” said Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray. “We would not support any legislation that makes an individual feel unwelcome.”

Indeed, Visit Indy was a loud, vocal and active critic before the Indiana law as originally written ever took effect. “It didn’t align with Indianapolis’ longstanding human rights ordinance — on the books since 2005, with protection for sexual orientation and gender identity — and could cause a misperception of Indy being unwelcoming,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications, Visit Indy. Once the law was amended, the sales and convention services teams met in person with convention customers, and the destination posted a “welcome to all” on its web site.

Visit Indy also has received widespread support  from national LGBT rights groups and industry associations. “We didn’t have a single Visit Indy-booked group cancel; in fact, the two most cited cancellations both rescinded their cancels after the law was amended,” he noted. “’Hoosier Hospitality’ hasn’t gone away. The 75,000 people who depend on tourism for a paycheck will continue to display the hospitable nature we are known for worldwide.” — Maxine Golding

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