Meetings and hospitality veterans Joan Eisenstodt and Roger Rickard—no strangers to entering the fray when it comes to addressing hot-button issues and promoting industry advocacy and awareness—discuss the rather unenthusiastic current state of industry advocacy and how we can all get more involved to champion issues that directly impact our profession. Listen now.

Tyler Davidson: Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today podcast. Today, we have a real topical issue with a couple folks who are really front and center in the meetings industry and really on top of all the issues that affect it: Joan Eisenstodt, Principal of Eisenstodt Associates LLC, and Roger Rickard, founder of Voices in Advocacy, thank you for joining us.

Joan Eisenstodt: Thanks, Tyler. Roger and I have had an interesting relationship for years, and recently we’ve been talking more. And in fact, Roger, you were so nice to be interviewed for a recent Friday with Joan newsletter and blog for Meetings Today.

Tyler: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Joan is our Friday with Joan blogger and does a fantastic job with that, so I got to make sure everyone knows that. I’ll just let you roll on.

Joan: Thanks, and I mentioned it because it was specifically about talking about issues that our industry—that the meetings and hospitality industry—faces. And we then got into even more in a Facebook chat with others about why it’s important for people—and everybody in the world really. And so, we were addressing the people in our industry, because this is where I work. Roger works more broadly, and he’ll talk about that.

I think what we both know, Roger and I, and I think Tyler obviously you do, is that having just had an election, looking at the upcoming US presidential election, looking around the world at the unrest, that is truly impacting our industry. I think that as I see what people talk about, what I believe is that too few people in the meetings and hospitality industry are aware of the issues on their own ballots, on the issues on ballots in cities where they may be meeting, on ballots where they may be traveling to.

We did recently on the Friday with Joan, we did a poll about—and it’s not scientific—but how many people were registered to vote and plan to vote. The majority said they were, and they plan to. A very small number of people said they weren’t. I think that when we look at issues, and I’ll let Roger in a second go into more of the specific issues, I know that I posted, tweeted from Meetings Today, just one vote that occurred in Austin, Texas, that has a huge impact on the industry in terms of taxes, in terms of the convention center.

I think we have an obligation as industry professionals to educate—I think our associations have an obligation to educate about what the issues are, and I think we all have an obligation to ensure that people are registered to vote, and then they vote. So, Roger, I’m going to turn to you and let you talk on some more specifics.

Roger Rickard: Well, thank you very much. And thank you, Tyler and Joan, for having me be with you today. And you’re correct. My work at Voices in Advocacy is that I help grow advocates. And with that, I help train people and I try to inspire them, that they have the voice to participate in the process. And in that, I kind of wrote a book and I want to kind of start off with that, where I have the seven actions of highly effective advocates.

Just yesterday, I was speaking in Iowa and someone came up to me and said, “I have the book, and boy, your number three item,” which was discuss the issues, “was really vitally important to me.”

So, I think the point here is that as an industry and as the multitude of different industry associations out there, we don’t necessarily do a great job of educating our members about the specific issues and issue categories with that.

Just to give a couple examples, Joan, you mentioned Austin. But I do a program called Ripped from the Headlines, and we break them down into different issue silos. I break it down into, what are all the transportation issues, what are the safety and security issues, the tax issues, the infrastructure issues, the education issues, technology, the social issues?

I think it’s vitally important. Sometimes it’s hard for people to grab on to the big picture of the issues, and if we start kind of subdividing them and categorizing them, it becomes more of an easier focal point. Would you tend to agree with that, Joan, as an educator?

Joan: I do, and what I think is interesting, Roger, you said that there was an uptick of programming around the #MeToo issue and around panic buttons for hotels a couple of years ago, when that was more in the headlines. Sandy Biback, who’s a friend of all of ours, does a lot of educating on issues of human trafficking.

I look at the programs that I get the emails for and the various industry associations, and I see very few, if any, that are focused on not only broad advocacy that you do, in other words, how to be an advocate, how to educate yourself. They’re not focused on these issues.

I have been begging the industry associations to register people to vote at every single meeting or even just put a link in a newsletter, something that reminds people of the importance.

And realizing our industry is very broad, we’re international, and you and I are talking more about the US. I think we have to realize that in an industry, in a world that’s multinational, there isn’t anything that impacts any of us that doesn’t impact all of us and our entire hospitality tourism meetings industry.

Tyler: I gotta just jump in on that point because Roger was saying that also. We are in such a broad industry. There are so many topics that are relevant across the board to our industry, whether it be something like a bathroom bill or a bed tax increase.

I mean, how do you narrow it down to what’s important, and how can you even grasp what’s important specifically?

Joan: Tyler, I want to add a question to that, and then maybe Roger can answer it. As individuals, are you saying how do we decide what we want to follow? Or are we saying as an industry and organizations or both?

Tyler: I thought maybe both, and is it the job of an industry association? Maybe if it’s a social issue, maybe there’s a little bit of a standoff approach, I don’t know, depending on what your politics are.

But it may be if it’s something as very basic as a bed tax, or sort of a financial or a tax issue in a destination. Do they have a place to come out and advocate for or against things like that, and how do they narrow it down?

Getting back to the individual level on what’s important, just everyone and all of our jobs, and meeting planners especially, have so many things to think about and juggle and worry about. How do they know what’s important for them to advocate?

Joan: I want to ask you a question before you answer because, as Tyler said that, I thought it is really hard for me, Tyler, to answer because my brain connects lots of dots. And so, for instance, when I see the fetching, and so many groups, about the cost of coffee or labor unions and the costs that people have to pay, what I broaden that to—I take it all the way out. And I look at what’s going on in the world with growing coffee, and then I look at the cost of labor and all of that. Roger, do you have an answer for how do you narrow it down?

Roger: This has always been one of the biggest challenges since I became very active from an advocacy standpoint in the industry since the early 90s. The hard part about our industry is—and when I say industry, I’m putting the blanket over kind of the trade organizations—is that they have embraced a model that says the member, the direct member, the purpose for the association and the supplier have an equal footing.

The challenge with that is what may be good for one side is the opposite for the other side. Meaning what might be great for a destination with an increase in a bed tax to help get more money to produce more visitors to that destination, is born on the back of the planner. And it’s not that it’s right or it’s wrong. It’s just that the diversity of the issue splits the group into many different factions.

So, as you’re trying to sit back and say fairly, what’s best for all of us, is you start to eliminate a lot of what we would might view as the real direct issues.

Joan: I want to ask a question because what I’m hearing you say, and from Tyler’s question, what my brain is doing is hearing a number of things and that is, I think it’s not necessarily saying what’s good. It’s the same thing as saying register to vote without saying vote for a candidate or vote for this bed tax or vote for whatever the issue might be. It’s saying be aware of, understand that these are issues.

Let me just quickly bring up Global Meetings Industry Day, which years ago, as you and I both know, it used to be a day on Capitol Hill where people—before it was called that—where people learn from you and others how to talk with their senators and representatives or on the state level at the statehouse. And now it seems to be, and what I’ve heard from people involved at local chapter levels about the education, it’s a celebration and there is no directive about education.

So, even if we did, if there was a directive from Meetings Mean Business that encompasses the industry from US travel, so what if it was said that at your meetings, you need to cover one of these issues? I mean the list is long, and just to have people begin to understand them and to help people register.

Roger: Alright, Joan. You gave me a lot of things in one statement there that I’m supposed to try to kick the tire for here. So, let me go back to one thing.

Let me be very clear, even though the issue may be split among who the membership is, that one side believes this the other side believes that, does not mean that we shouldn’t be educating people, but there is that diversity within the industry.

I think it’s really important that we see both sides of an issue because this isn’t political. This is more about governing and understanding what the issues are.

So, it’s not a right or left or a personal belief, it’s about strictly how does issue A affect group Z versus issue A affecting group Y? So, that’s very clear.

In that regard, I absolutely, unequivocally believe we must educate people, and we must actually leave them with more questions than answers. Because then that provokes them to dig a little bit deeper and to see how does that affect them individually, their jobs, their career, their organization that they represent, whether that’s the supplier side or the planner side, and then about the overall arching industry.

So, having said that, let me address the GMID. You are absolutely correct, Joan. When we were involved—back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth—we had what was Meetings Industry Legislative Action Day, and that was in the 90s. And there were 11 co-sponsoring organizations that encompass the entire industry.

One of the hardest things about doing that was not recruiting people to come to DC and to go to Capitol Hill and meet with their members of Congress and staff. The hardest thing was trying to figure out what our key issues—could we all agree—are vitally important to us with without hurting somebody else.

A hotel may have a stand on one thing, an airline may have a stand on one thing, planners may have a stand on one thing, and they may not congeal, they may not come together. Because of that, that’s what makes this difficult from a standpoint of clearly listing a group of 3, 4, 5, 6 priorities that we all should be fighting for. That makes it difficult, but that does not mean that people shouldn’t do their research and use the trade publications like Meetings Today and the podcasts and that, to be able to educate themselves about what the issues are, and will they affect their organization.

So, in a sense, I think of things, like we brought up the social issues and we brought up, Tyler, you said the bathroom issues, the religious freedom issues, and things like that. One of my questions that I asked people when I do educate them is, should these political issues be used as a weapon against the destinations by meetings? And the reason why I bring that up is the destination may not be for those bills at all.

Tyler: They hardly ever are.

Roger: They hardly ever are.

Tyler: I could say they never are because I think that’s probably an accurate statement.

Joan: Yeah, and I want to jump in on that because working with a lot of different clients, some of whom have had to cancel meetings because of bills that have been passed, I think that it—whether or not it is—I think that each individual meeting, let’s look at everybody in the industry.

But from the meeting planner side, I think that we represent those of us who were in parties have to advise our clients on issues that are going to be faced on a ballot or that may be considered by a city council or a state house—in a place they’re considering going or they may have a contract with.

We are then responsible for those who attend the meeting and what the impact may be. So again, it to me, it’s understanding any issue and whether it’s what we’re calling a social issue or a financial issue, but a financial can also fall into a lot of categories.

So, I think it’s a matter of understanding what the issues are that cause your group to have any difficulty and ensuring that people are going to come to your meeting.

Tyler: Yeah, and I think just getting people involved, coming full circle almost back to where we started this. I mean, that’s not really a right or a left political concept, paying attention to what’s going on with your government and how it affects your industry.

Joan: I was gonna say that I’m horrified at how low the voter turnout is in the United States, including where I live in the in the nation’s capital. I think at the very least to me, the industry has an obligation to not only educate on the issues, to encourage people to be involved.

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Roger, to go back to when we did the day on the Hill, people live in communities where there are laws that are being passed and where there are issues. When you mentioned infrastructure early on, all of these issues impact everything that we do, and to me, to just even raise the issues so people are aware and then to say, here’s how you do it. And sadly, Roger, you are one of the few people, if not the only person, who is, for our industry, doing work on advocacy.

Tyler: Yeah, and I want to thank you for that Roger, and you too, Joan. I mean someone’s gotta be front and center on this. It’s just too important to let it not be addressed right.

Roger: Well, you know, first of all, thank you for the for the compliment. I want to kind of get back a little bit to GMID, the Global Meetings Industry Day, because I think I think that’s the ideal venue.

Tyler: Yeah.

Roger: I think it’s been morphed over the few years that it exists. I think it’s now morphing into, well, let’s have a celebration, let’s have a party and let’s say we’re an important industry.

Well, you know, fluff doesn’t get it, fluff doesn’t get you the press, fluff doesn’t help you elevate your profession or elevate what you do for society because of your profession.

Meetings are the largest form of adult education in the world, and we need to be advocating what those key values are, what is our good story? Why do we exist? What do we bring to different stakeholder groups?

I think we’re all about advocacy and whether that advocacy is about learning the issues, whether that advocacy is about saying we as an industry need to make sure that we as an industry are counted when it comes time for election day, and that we’re voting.

Every nonprofit, according to the law in the United States, is allowed to conduct voter registration drives. They are not allowed, if they’re a 501(c)(3), they’re not allowed to recommend which party affiliation and can’t preordain a party affiliation.

But they can surely say, here are the forms that you can fill out, here’s the link to where to go if you want to do it online, whatever the state regulations are for registering to vote, the state and the district.

Joan: Thank you, and Puerto Rico and Guam and you know the other categories.

Roger: Well, but more importantly about the fact that they should be using that in every way shape or form to register people, to help them engage in the fact that we do have issues. And sitting here in front of me because I use these cards when I am doing programs educating on Ripped from the Headlines, one of the things that I do, and in these cards, I listed off those different pillars of issues.

And I’m sitting here and I’m looking at one, infrastructure, well, who in our industry would be against better airport development, more Lyft, better roads, bridges, mass transit facilities that we can use to help people attend meetings in an easier way? Who was against safety and security?

Joan: That’s interesting to me because I think if we look at infrastructure as an example again, because I live in the nation’s capital and people are always surprised when I say there was a power outage city wide or we had our water, in fact, next week is going to be turned off by the city for at least 12 hours. And I’m right across from the FBI, so I’m in a major location.

I think that infrastructure, I think all of these issues should be addressed by GMID. It should be addressed by the chapters. And I don’t have a magic wand to figure out how to get the chapters, to get the industry, to get GMID on board to say that we must educate, and we must help people understand just basics of even these broad topics for people to look at. I write about some of them. It’s tough.

Roger: Joan, the answer is none of this is ever easy. It’s the old adage though of how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We have got to continue and be vigilant about the fact that issues are vitally important.

It reminds me, when I sat on the Government Affairs Committee for MPI in the 90s, and we were the catalyst behind the Meetings Industry Legislative Action Day. And it reminds me that we decided it would be really good for chapters to have a government affairs program at the chapter level, and they kind of got extra points.

They were incentivized as chapters to do these kinds of things. And the pushback was, but our members don’t ever say that that’s what they want. And my pushback is, you don’t know what you don’t know. And if you don’t know that this is important, you’re not going to do that.

So, we went out, we did focus groups, we did these education programs and they turned out in many cases to be the highest rated programs of the year for the chapter. Because the fact that all of a sudden it opened eyes to people that never thought that they existed.

And we’ve got to remember, while the three of us on this call are what I would call seasoned individuals in the industry, we’ve got a lot of people that are new to the industry. We’ve got young professionals that are inundated with all the details of what their job are, and they can’t see the forest for the trees because of that. And so, we need to get back down into the grassroots level of these organizations and educate them.

One of the things I find interesting is the Events Industry Council has what 32, 34 organizations that are a part of the Events Industry Council, including all the major meetings organizations. But when you look at all the US members of those organizations that make up the council, we may have 40-50,000 people.

Yet our own economic significant study indicated in the US we had 1.8 million full-time people in the industry. What’s happening to the other 1.7 plus million, and are we educating them in no way shape or form? So, it’s even broader than...

Tyler: Lots of things to contemplate on today’s podcast, I don’t know if any of you have anything to add. I mean, the one thing I would say is what really kind of hit home with me on that whole GMID thing. Let’s maybe push back against any mission grief on that. And maybe you don’t have to be all advocacy 24/7 on that but keep that in the loop and the importance of that, of the very genesis of really why that whole Industry Day was created. That’s my two cents.

Joan: And Tyler, you know I have written on that a number of times in the blog and it is something I talk about frequently and that I have issues. I think as we probably begin to wind down and we’ll both have, I think, similar closing issues. And I agree with you, Roger, that the number of people who work in this industry is far greater than those represented by EIC, by those who attend GMID that are represented by the chapters, even US travel.

I think that Tyler, this is where Meetings Today can certainly help in terms of being an advocate. We can maybe come up with something that we can do on the website and elsewhere to make sure people become aware, and I will also give a plug for @meetingstoday on Twitter, since we do post a lot of things about current issues and things that we should be aware of.

My wish, my hope, my demand is that anybody who hears this, at least registers to vote and votes in both their local elections as well as any national or international elections, wherever they are. And that they take a few other people with them.

Roger: One of the things I’ll piggyback off of that, Joan, is most people don’t realize there are over 350,000 elected officials in the United States. I’ll take a second to absorb that number. 350,000. There are 537 that are elected that go to Washington, DC. 537 versus 350,000.

So, to piggyback on your point about voting in local elections, that’s where most of these issues, really the rubber meets the road as far as a standpoint of how you’re affected, particularly our industry with taxes and with infrastructure issues. Yeah, the federal government funds it, but it’s the state and the counties that make the decisions as to what gets done and how it gets done.

I’d like to close with two thoughts. One, there are some organizations in our industry that are doing a good job, and I know that IAEE has their legislative day called Exhibitions Mean Business, specifically for the exhibitions trade show side of things, and they’re working all year long on specific goals with legislation.

But my second point to this is, if this becomes a big issue, meaning we should have these conversations about the issues in the industry, well then why not throw this out here, Tyler? Meetings Today, be a leader here, and maybe once a month, say we’re going to address a pillar of an issue, and we’re going to start to have some specific conversations, drilling down on specific issue categories.

Tyler: I like that idea, but I might need some help doing that.

Roger: I think I know somebody that can help.

Joan: I know at least two of us that can help with that.

Tyler: Well, we all talked yourself into more work, but it’s for a good cause. Right?

Roger: Absolutely.

Tyler: All right. Well, thank you, Joan, and thank you, Roger. I’m just so happy we did this. I’m really excited. A great topic.

So, thanks, you guys, and thanks all of you out there in listener land for listening to Meetings Today podcast. If you liked what you heard, or you want to hear some podcasts about many other issues, head on over to meetingstoday.com. We have a whole site set up for podcasts, and you can also subscribe to them, get them pushed to you on your various devices. Thanks for joining us and register to vote.

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