Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

How Well Do Your Attendees Deal With the Homeless?

In September, President Trump put a spotlight on the issue of homelessness, particularly that of homeless people ruining the “prestige” of the California cities they inhabit, specifically San Francisco and Los Angeles. While prestige may not be the word you would choose, passing by areas in which the homeless and panhandlers tend to congregate — often near convention centers and hotels popular for meetings and events — can be disagreeable, perhaps even deal-breakers for some conference-goers.

In fact, said Joshua Grimes (pictured), attorney with Grimes Law Offices in Philadelphia, earlier this year a high-profile medical group pulled out of upcoming events in San Francisco, saying that their attendees were uncomfortable with the vagrants they were encountering around the Moscone Center. The city acknowledged the issue and has vowed to work to resolve the situation moving forward.

Of course, this challenge is not limited to San Francisco or any other California city — every major urban area is faced with homelessness, vagrancy and panhandling to some degree. And every meeting organizer needs to acknowledge it if, in fact, the discomfort of being in the midst of homeless people, vagrants and panhandlers could be a deal-breaker for his or her attendees. “If their attendees are accustomed to big-city environments, they probably won’t have an issue because, unfortunately, homelessness is not unknown in many U.S. cities. However, if they’re not used to big cities, they might be intimidated,” said Grimes.

6 Ways to Address the Issue

• Rule out cities where the environment near your meeting venue includes a high concentration of homeless people. “So if a group is likely not to be comfortable in that environment, it’s better not to enter into an agreement in that city to begin with, since those conditions are just a fact of life.”

• Include a walk around the neighborhood during your initial site visit. “Meeting planners need to examine the areas around the hotels and convention center they might use and walk the routes people will use to get from the hotels to the center, to get a sense of the landscape,” including its homeless residents.

• If the convention and visitors bureau (CVB), hotel or convention center promises to do something to alleviate the condition during your event, “get it in writing as part of the contract, and make sure you are comfortable with what they plan to do,” Grimes said. For example, some cities have been known to do a sweep of homeless people before a meeting to make sure attendees don’t have to encounter them. “That may not sit well with your attendees,” Grimes warned.

However, most hotels and other meeting venues will refuse to make any representation about the conditions outside of their doors, he added.

• Know that attendee discomfort about having to encounter homeless people or panhandlers outside a meeting venue does not rise to the level of force majeure, so if you cancel on those grounds, it will be a cancellation without cause, added Grimes. “If it is not a force majeure event — and it is not — cancellation on these grounds would entitle the hotel or convention center to cancellation damages.”

That’s why it is important to deal with the issue up front, he said.

• If this likely is going to be an issue for your group, work with the CVB or a destination management company to create walking routes that avoid the areas where heavy panhandling tends to take place, Grimes said.

• Make a positive out of a negative: Some attendees might welcome the opportunity to do a community service or corporate social responsibility activity, such as feeding the homeless, aimed at alleviating some of the conditions they see around the convention center.


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