Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

Better than Bans and Boycotts

There are better ways than bans and boycotts to actually have an impact on state laws that are antithetical to your group, says Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer with Destinations International. Here’s what meeting organizers can do to really make a difference. 

Groups pulling their meetings from states with laws they disagree with is nothing new. In fact, says Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer with Destinations International (DI), you’d be hard-pressed to find a state that hasn’t at some point in time had a group cancel, move or threaten to take the state off its site selection list due to the local political climate.

However, he adds, “While the idea of bans and boycotts is not new, the sheer volume of touchpoint issues on so many fronts is,” he says. “It’s hard to find a state that’s not being boycotted by one side or the other these days.” Also, in today’s highly politicized and polarized environment, the level of hostility has ratcheted up to the point where some potential attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and staffers may fear that their personal safety could be at risk if they attend a meeting in a state whose laws are perceived to put them in harms way.

Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer with Destinations International

While some of that fear may be overblown, some may have legitimate concerns, such as laws that would prohibit a pregnant attendee from getting appropriate medical care should an urgent problem with the pregnancy arise while on site. “You have to be able to convey that attendees will be safe, whether you’re transgender, a Democrat, an African American, a Hispanic, an Asian/Pacific Islander, or Jewish. You have to be able to show what you, and the venue and the city, are doing to ensure they will be safe while at the meeting,” Johnson says.

Why Bans and Boycotts Aren’t Effective Change-Makers

While the economic impact of group events boycotting a destination will be felt, it’s not the best way to actually sway state leaders to take action to change laws groups find objectionable, Johnson says. Here are a few reasons why:

• They often fly under the radar. “No matter how well intentioned they are — and they are often well intentioned — boycotts as a rule don’t work unless they’re taken by major sporting leagues,” Johnson says. This is especially true if your group just quietly takes a destination off its site-selection list. “If they didn’t know you were considering coming in the first place, they won’t miss you. You’re better off taking out ads in local papers explaining why you’re not coming.”

• Political leaders may not see the loss the same way cities do. Even groups that make a big, splashy announcement about why they’re taking their business out of the state need to realize that, while the economic impact of that decision will hurt, “The state may lose the high-end, high-spend tourists — your business travel folks, your exhibitors, your convention attendees, your big special events — but the state can backfill with general leisure travelers. As we saw in North Carolina [with the bathroom law backlash], tourism went up every year and hotel tax revenues went up every year despite losing all those groups.” So it’s up to the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) or destination marketing organization (DMO) to explain to the politicians, in detail, why it still hurts to lose the revenue when the high-value group meetings don’t come to the state.

• The lost revenues usually aren’t felt for a few years. Because conventions and trade shows tend to be booked a few years out, there’s a serious time delay on the impact of losing that business, Johnson says. That takes the immediacy out of the impact.

• The people who get penalized are, essentially, members of our industry. “Most people who consider boycotts understand that they tend to hurt local members of our industry more than anyone else,” he says, adding, “The group you can be pretty confident won’t get hurt is the politicians who enacted the laws” your group objects to.

• The city may not reflect the state’s political stance. The other thing to take into account, Johnson says, is that, oftentimes, the destinations that are being boycotted may in fact agree with your group’s stances on the issues. “These often are places that have been very supportive LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, education on Black and Hispanic history, progressive immigration and gun policy, etc. When you boycott, you’re basically leaving these destinations to fight this battle on their own instead of supporting them and joining them.”

Better-than-Boycott Options

“My biggest problem with boycotts is they’re an emotional decision to a situation that needs a very logical attack,” says Johnson. “You’re in the legal arena. You’re in the political arena. Instead of a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to boycott, you need to go there and work with locals on the ground.”

• Explain your position to the locals. “For example, a medical group bought full-page ads explaining in clinical detail why they were in opposition to the reproductive rights law that was being passed in that state,” says Johnson. “That was good because it wasn’t an emotional reaction. It detailed the clinical, professional reasons why that group believed the bill at issue was flawed and could harm people.”

• Support the local opposition. Politicians are swayed by votes, by campaign contributions, and by projecting a positive image, he says. Groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting politicians’ attention because most attendees likely aren’t their voters. “If a group of outsiders boycott their state, you just get the backs up of those who oppose your views,” he says. “You need to empower local people who can register voters, people who can raise campaign cash, and people who can give positive feedback to those who support your side,” says Johnson.

• Highlight what’s available in the destination that supports your group’s mission. That could be protective local laws that are still in effect, previous experiences your group has had in the destination, a venue’s gender-neutral bathrooms and sustainability practices even though the state may be anti-your cause, that doesn’t mean that the location itself can’t provide a welcoming environment, Johnson says. Find local leaders to partner with you champion the causes your organization supports, and local supplier partners who support the populations your group wants to support.

“Think of it as an opportunity for dialogue,” says Johnson. Consider fostering connections to the local community through service projects or fundraisers, or holding sessions that include elected officials who support your cause to discuss the best way you as an industry can tackle the issue at hand. “I think it’s a great educational opportunity,” he says.

He adds that one of DI’s meetings was held in a destination that at the time was debating a reproductive rights bill that made some members feel uncomfortable about attending. “We connected them with local Planned Parenthood chapters, which provided a list of local restaurants and businesses that supported their side in the issue. Every night during the convention, they went to these restaurants and explained why they were there.

“Then it becomes more of a mission to go.”

Don’t Add to Today’s Polarized Environment

While calling bans and boycotts a “weaponization of travel” sounds catchy, it can just add to the polarized political environment and not necessarily lead to anything productive, says Johnson. “It does send people to their corners, so DI as a group has made a conscious decision to stop using it.”

He adds, “Not because it fails to describe what’s happening because that’s exactly what is happening. What it fails to do is take into account is the individual’s feelings, because I don’t think it was anyone’s intent to weaponize travel. Their intent is to hopefully engage in political change. And that’s a good thing.

“We’ve been able to go in my lifetime from being gay being called a mental illness to being able to marry because we were able to put a personal face on an abstract concept. When that happens, it stops being about ‘that’s bad and this is good.’ It’s becomes, ‘this is what’s happening to my son, my daughter, my friend. We can do more of that by going to destinations and showing who we are.”

Ultimately, boycotts and bans don’t work, he concludes. What does? According to Johnson, “Showing up and making a difference.”

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