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Should Groups Boycott Destinations?

June 28, 2010

Mention the words “Arizona boycott” to a meeting planner and you’re sure to get a response far more animated than a shrug of the shoulders, because boycotting destinations in response to political issues is an issue that cuts straight to a person’s social outlook and livelihood.

So it’s no wonder that when Meetings Media reached out to meeting planners to discuss the Arizona meeting boycotts, there was no lack of emotion on both sides of the issue.

On April 23, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, one of the strictest immigration laws ever written. Its most controversial aspect, which some fear will lead to racial profiling and others say only enforces existing federal law,  is that it directs law enforcement officials to ask for documentation from people they suspect of being in the United States illegally.  

The actual wording of SB 1070 provides room for interpretation itself, in the opinions of many:

“For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.”

The law is scheduled to go into effect July 28, various city governments, associations and corporations are boycotting travel to the state, and many meeting planners are finding themselves stuck between that proverbial rock and a hard place.

Mixed Feelings
“I have mixed feelings,” says Joan Eisenstodt, meetings and hospitality consultant, facilitator and trainer for Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, based in Washington, D.C. “First of all, I understand the hit that this could be for the state of Arizona and for the people who work in our industry. It has been a very bad two years. Everyone has suffered and business is down.

“On the other hand,” she continues, “for any of us who have been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, it is hard to see this without seeing it as a civil rights violation for a lot of people.”

According to Eisenstodt, boycotts can indeed be effective, and in the past have lead to much-needed change.

Boycott supporters point to such historical incidents as the boycott of British goods by American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War and the boycott of segregated lunch counters by activists in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.

Arizona itself was the target of a boycott by convention groups in the early 1990s over the state’s refusal to designate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a legal holiday. [The state overturned this decision in 1992.]

In the case of Arizona’s new law, the ink from Brewer’s pen had hardly dried when groups began cancelling meetings. Municipalities from San Francisco and Los Angeles to St. Paul, Minn., and Boston promptly placed Arizona on black lists of places to conduct city business.

At press time, more than 20 meeting groups had cancelled their events in Arizona, with a total loss in tourism revenue yet to be calculated. Leading travel and meetings industry organizations, including the U.S. Travel Association, MPI, DMAI and ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership, have come out against the idea of politically inspired boycotts, claiming that the end result will only harm the people who work in the hospitality industry in the destinations that are affected.

MPI CEO Bruce McMillan recently issued the following statement: “[The boycott] only hurts local communities and the 200,000 workers in the state that benefit from the meeting and event industry. It also frustrates growth and innovation at a time when it’s never been needed more. We encourage options for dialogue that don’t sacrifice a $7 billion Arizona meeting and event industry in the middle of an economic recovery."

Staying Put
Several meeting professionals have no plans to move groups away from the Grand Canyon State.

“Boycotts will not affect this legislation,” says MaryAnne P. Bobrow, owner of Bobrow & Associates, an association and meetings management company based in Citrus Heights, Calif. “I was recently at a meeting in Arizona. We continued with our meeting as a show of solidarity with our fellow industry people.”

Dianne Davis, vice president of TulNet, an independent meeting planning company based in Tulsa, Okla., often plans meetings in Scottsdale and Phoenix and doesn’t see any reason to change that now.

“I am in the middle of a contract right now for that area,” she says. “Ultimately, when we begin to cancel business in cities, we hurt the entire marketplace, as dollars are not coming into the community. It seems like a reckless and preliminary thing to do.

Right now it is so early that I think there is a lot being cancelled based on hype.”

Some planners feel that Arizona’s law is the purview lawmakers, and not meeting planners or the organizations that they work for.

“If a planner wants to make a statement as a private citizen, that is everyone’s right and I would encourage that,” says Steve Collins, president and owner of Resort Meeting Source, a Breckenridge, Colo.-based third party site selection and contract negotiation company. “However, dragging our industry into the debate on something that is totally unrelated [i.e. meetings] just allows us to became a political football whenever there is any kind of controversy, and that hurts us all.”

According to Collins, meeting relocations punish workers, not legislators.

“Boycotting Arizona probably hurts the people the boycotts are trying to help,” he says. “If you make it painful enough for everyone, it may cause change, but the thing is…who are you really punishing?”

Associations Hit Hardest
Association meetings may be the hardest hit when it comes to boycotts. Members are under no obligation to attend events, leaving association planners with questions of attrition, member concerns and contract liability.

The ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership is urging its members to continue with their meetings in Arizona, according to CEO John Graham IV.

“We are against the Arizona boycott and are neutral on the law,” he says. “We are not suggesting that the law is either right or wrong, but we are suggesting boycotting is not the way to achieve a political message.

“These boycotts, while they can send a message to lawmakers and regulators, the fact of the matter is that people who are being hurt by this are frontline people,” Graham continues. “Being racially profiled is not worse than being unemployed.”

Graham says the best way to fight a political issue is with political action.

“The most effective way of making a point is in the election booth,” he says. “This is not a tourism issue; this is a political issue, a policy issue. Fight policy the way policy is fought by raising money and supporting candidates that support your viewpoint. If membership feels that strongly, they can form political action committees.”

The one exception, Graham says, is if an organization has a mission that directly conflicts with Arizona’s new law.

“We feel that boycotting is the wrong thing to do unless you are an organization that is engaged in that line of work,” he says. “I suspect if you are organization of immigration lawyers, you may pull your meeting and be willing to pay the cancellation fees. That piece I understand; that is their call.”

Some feel that because the issue lies within Arizona’s borders, those from the outside should keep quiet.

“For the people outside Arizona, this is not a national issue,” Collins says.

Bobrow agrees.

“In my community, I hear local politicians coming out and saying we need to take a stand and get a resolution to boycott Arizona,” she says. “I think these people need to stay in their own backyards and think about what is going on in their own communities.”

Douglas L. DuCate, president and CEO of the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, says people living outside Arizona have no right to pass judgment on those inside its borders.

“We need to be careful in passing judgment on issues that don’t involve us,” he says. “We all need to stand back and recognize that we can’t paint our country with a single brush.”

Moving Out
On the other side of the controversy sits a myriad of groups who’ve shunned Arizona. Several were contacted for this article, but only one agreed to be interviewed on the record: the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.

“As a civil rights organization, we decided to announce a boycott of Arizona,” says Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for NCLR. “We as an organization do not normally engage in these kinds of activities, but in the case of Arizona, the law that was passed was so extreme, it called for extraordinary measures.”

According to Martinez, NCLR officials consulted Arizona-based community organizations as well as other partners across the state.

After talking with all of them, the organization decided it “needed to do this,” Martinez says.

NCLR, which is an umbrella organization for nearly 300 community groups around the country, is “asking folks not to hold conventions, conferences, special meetings and events that involve significant travel from out of state,” Martinez says, adding that it is also trying to get Major League Baseball’s 2011 All-Star Game moved out of Arizona.

“This law sanctioned the racial profiling of Latinos and anyone who seemed to be foreign,” Martinez says. “Thirty percent of the state of Arizona is Latino and the majority are citizens. To make that many people suspect in their own communities is unacceptable.”

In response to those who say they understand organizations such as NCLR supporting the boycott only because of its mission, Martinez responds sharply.

“Part of our pledge is calling on American institutions and people of good conscience,” she says. “You may not have a mission about civil rights, but as a person of good conscience, you may not want to condone a place that considers racial profiling a sanctioned activity. Whether that is your mission or not, you should take that into account.”

According to Martinez, NCLR is “cognizant of the fact” that the boycott may hurt frontline workers in Arizona, but that the organization is working with community organizations to establish relief measures for those in need and “trying to support legal challenges through the law.”

When will NCLR’s boycott of Arizona end?

“We will boycott until the law is repealed or overturned by the court and/or superseded by federal immigration reform,” Martinez says.

Contract Concerns
With tensions running high, planners for groups thinking of meeting in Arizona, groups already planning to go and those deep into contract negotiations are stuck in the middle.

“You have to look at your organization’s mission,” Eisenstodt advises. “What is the impact of going to a state that has a law that has the potential of discriminating against some people? If you haven’t booked, look at your mission and bylaws and talk with senior-level people in your organization. Realize that this law is being considered in a lot of other places. How are you going to go forward with booking meetings and contracting in the future?”

“If you’ve already booked, you have to weigh the financial and legal issues of cancelling your meeting,” she continues.” You really have to sit down with legal council and talk it through. Also, make sure to talk with the venue about your alternatives.”

Jon T. Howe, president and founding partner of Howe & Hutton, a Chicago-based law firm representing the hospitality industry, says planners need to take a close look at their contracts.

“What does your contract provide?” he asks. “If you have a meeting set for the next 30 days and you want to cancel, are you prepared to pay the price for breach of contract? If not, what is your excuse for not meeting?”

According to Howe, it is unacceptable to cite the new immigration law as a reason for breach of contract.

“Some planners say the ‘law makes it unadvisable for me to meet there,’” he says. “What does that mean? It is not an act of God. Situational ethics don’t excuse you from what you are legally obligated to do. There is a price to civil disobedience.”

Like Howe, Joshua Grimes, principal of Grimes Law Offices, in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., says planners may have a difficult time getting out of contracts.

“It is not force majeure, which is an unanticipated occurrence that makes meetings impossible, impractical or illegal,” he says, adding that he’s recently been advising planners who want to get out of Arizona-based contracts. “I tell them to call the hotel and try to work something out. But at the end of the day, unless you have something special in your contract, you don’t have the right to get out. If they think their group or organization has particular sensitivities to things that happen in the locale, they need to think about a clause for their contract for situations like this.”

From a planner’s perspective, Davis says it is best to open the lines of communication, especially when a group wants to break their contract.

“Contact membership directly and explain the situation,” she suggests. “Say, ‘Look, in order for our organization to continue, we cannot get out of this without serious detriment to our organization.’ Get as much information as you can about the truth of the matter.”

For groups bent on booking in Arizona, Eisenstodt recommends revving up the public relations machine.

“You have to have a good PR plan,” she says. “I haven’t heard a lot of planners talking about this. The plan needs to be broadened to include situations like if one of your participants gets arrested because they don’t have documentation.”

Like It or Not
Whether or not Arizona’s new law stays on the books—whether by state government or judicial system action—dealing with possible boycotts by meetings groups is likely here to stay.

“I think in the future we are going to see new proposed contract clauses that speak to these issues,” Bobrow says. “Before September 11th, there were no terrorism clauses in contracts. Every time something happens, things change in contracts. I don’t think this is much different.”

 Katie Morell is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Meetings Media editor. To contact her, visit www.katiemorell.com.

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About the author
Katie Morell