How the Meetings Industry Is Confronting Human Trafficking

Forced labor and sexual exploitation is a global problem — and now airlines, hospitality companies and meeting planners are taking serious steps to combat it.

What Airlines Are Doing to Combat Human Trafficking
Delta and United are providing comprehensive training for personnel on the telltale signs of trafficking. Read more about it here.

The statistics are stark: Depending on which agency you consult, anywhere from 30 million to 40 million people in the world today are estimated to be victims of human trafficking — defined as the illegal transportation of individuals for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation — and one quarter of those are children. As many as 100,000 minors are trafficked in the United States alone every year, some as young as 12, according to Brooklyn, N.Y.-based ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), a nonprofit founded in 1991.

Trafficking experts point to the Internet and the increased popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, which perpetrators use to lure and groom vulnerable targets — most of them female — with promises of modeling jobs, gifts and even simple friendship. Meanwhile, the hospitality industry has become an unwitting platform for such crimes, thanks to the anonymity that hotels, motels and home-sharing sites afford their guests.

As ECPAT and other entities make strides in raising awareness about this global crisis, major hotel chains have begun to acknowledge their role and take responsibility for finding solutions. At the same time, meetings industry organizations are aligning with the cause, pledging to be a part of the solution.

Hiding in Plain Sight

January has officially been named National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This year, Marriott International marked the occasion by hosting a panel discussion at its Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel in Manhattan.

The hospitality giant was justifiably proud of its educational efforts on the problem: More than 500,000 hotel workers worldwide have completed mandatory human-trafficking awareness training since the program was begun in 2017, which has led to several victims being identified and rescued. But it was Shandra Woworuntu, a trafficking survivor and panelist, who had the audience completely riveted. A native of Indonesia, she was just shy of her 25th birthday in 2001 when she answered an ad in a local newspaper that promised a well-paying, six-month hotel job in Chicago. It was anything but.

Upon arrival in New York City in 2001, she was immediately taken and sold into an underground sex-trafficking ring, where she was threatened daily, beaten often and repeatedly plied with drugs and alcohol to keep her in a submissive state. For the next several months, her life was one of daily prostitution, working hotels, casinos, clubs and private residences up and down the Eastern seaboard. She eventually escaped her captors by jumping out of the second-story bathroom window of a Brooklyn apartment.

"I can remember sitting there in hotel lobbies, at the bar and in the casino, and all those people walking around me," Woworuntu recounted at the Marriott event. "They all saw me, and I was wondering, why don't they do something? But even though they all saw me, they didn't really see me. I was hiding in plain sight."

Sandra-Woworuntu-1
A survivor of sex trafficking, Shandra Woworuntu (center) now shares her story to help others.

She's not hiding anymore. In 2014, Woworuntu founded Mentari (the word for "sun" in Malay), an organization that advocates for and helps victims of trafficking. The following year she was appointed by President Obama to be a member of the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, dedicated to bringing a worldwide problem out of the shadows. "This year I am providing vocational training to my clients for jobs like home health aid, makeup artist and cook," she says. "Cooking is holistic. You are serving people with meals and a smile, which is something other than your body."

Elusive Numbers

The 169 trafficking-related arrests made by the FBI in Atlanta in the days before Super Bowl 2019, as well as the recent high-profile bust of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft as part of a widespread sting of massage parlors suspected of sex trafficking in Florida, have sparked a national conversation. The fallout has led to renewed calls for individual states and the federal government to strengthen antitrafficking laws.

Solid statistics are hard to come by since the practice is so entrenched in secrecy, but most interested parties agree that human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the number of trafficking victims is increasing every year. The latest statistics available from Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to combat the problem, show 8,759 cases were reported to its National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) and BeFree Text line (233733) in 2017, representing 10,615 individual victims, a 13 percent jump over the year before.

In 2014, Pennsylvania revised its criminal code against human trafficking to allow victims to sue hotels if they financially profited from the crime, however inadvertently.

The data on how extensively U.S. hotels are being used for trafficking is similarly limited. The most recent numbers from Polaris, which analyzed calls to its national hotline and text lines between December 2007 and February 2015, cit-ed 1,434 cases involving 1,867 victims that were tied to trafficking in hotels and motels. Of those cases, 92 percent involved sexual exploitation. According to Polaris, only 22 percent of those calls were made by victims themselves.

Such statistics have helped lead to a belated sea change in how all related parties, including airlines, hotels, meetings industry associations, independent conference-planning companies and suppliers to all of the above are approaching the problem.

A Call to Action

The list of entities that have signed ECPAT-USA's Tourism Child Protection Code of Conduct (ecpatusa.org/ code) is growing. The code consists of six guidelines that hospitality and travel companies can use as best practices for implementing an antitrafficking policy, including the definition of trafficking, awareness training for employees on signs of trafficking, and legal language for contracts to hold all stakeholders accountable. "We have seen that once a business gets involved, they only do more," says Michelle Guelbart, director of private-sector engagement for ECPAT-USA. "You don't come once to this issue and then leave. It's too powerful. You always grow your engagement level."

Compelling Stats on Slavery
At any given time, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor, according to the Geneva-based Inter- national Labor Organization.

• There are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world.

• One in four victims of modern slavery is a child.

• Out of the nearly 25 million people trapped in forced labor, 16 million are exploited in the private sector in areas such as domestic work, construction and agriculture; 4.8 million are in forced sexual-exploitation situations, and 4 million are in forced labor imposed by state authorities.

• Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99 per- cent of victims in the commercial sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors.

Marriott's dictum to require mandatory trafficking-awareness training for all hotel employees at its more than 6,500 properties worldwide was a watershed moment for the company, says Tu Rinsche, the chain's director of social responsibility, a role Marriott created in 2016. "We have to prioritize where we can make the biggest impact," she says. "We have 700,000 employees coming into contact with guests every day around the globe. That's a lot of eyes — and it's working. We have had many situations where employees have come forward to identify suspicious activity, which have ended up in people being rescued."

One of the most recent trafficking cases to land at Marriott's front door happened on Feb. 2 of this year. Louisiana State Police responding to a call at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel on Canal Street encountered a missing 16-year-old who was listed as a runaway in their computer system. She told them she had been beaten, drugged, raped and "pimped out" by several different men for several days.

"The GM at the property credits Marriott's human-trafficking training in educating his hotel staff on what to look out for and what to do," says Rinsche, who noted that the victim was not a registered guest of the hotel. "The staff recognized the situation as potential trafficking and engaged with authorities, which ultimately resulted in the arrests and recovery of the minor."

At press time, the case was still under investigation by the Louisiana State Police, as they worked to determine if the girl was being exploited by a registered guest, or if she simply showed up on the premises asking for help.

Legal Imperatives

While Marriott took the initiative with its training program, the threat of potential corporate liability is pushing other hotel owners and operators to enact training standards. In 2014, Pennsylvania revised its criminal code against human trafficking to allow victims to sue hotels if they financially profited from the crime, however inadvertently. New laws in California and Connecticut require all lodging staff to be trained in identifying the signs of human trafficking, and similar measures are working their way through the legislatures in a number of other states, including Florida and New York. "No hotel wants to be the one that hasn't gone through training," says Jeff Keith, CEO and founder of the Bend, Ore.-based Guardian Group, which educates hotel personnel under its Guardian Seal Training program. "There comes a tipping point when people have the information and questions to hold people accountable, which can lead them to changing their business model."

California's new law, Senate Bill 970, requires all hotel and lodging employees to undergo training in trafficking awareness by Jan. 1, 2020. To ensure its members are in compliance, the California Hotel & Lodging Association is providing free classes through the Seattle-based nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking.

"No one wants to talk about human trafficking, but it's not going away. It's getting worse," says attorney Charles Spitz, co-chair of the hospitality and retail practice group at Post & Schell, a Philadelphia-based law firm. "The hotel industry will have to take more steps to combat it, because more state statutes now give victims the right to go after the hotels from which they were trafficked out. From a trial attorney's point of view, I tell my hotel clients that proving they have trained their employees is the only shield I can hold up in court in their defense."

The Power of Meetings

In 2016, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence became the first meetings industry organization to sign the ECPAT-USA Code. Since then, Meeting Professionals International and the Professional Convention Management Association also have taken up the cause.

"As an industry currently worth over $150 billion, we have the power of advocating and raising awareness of the human-trafficking epidemic," says David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events and chair of the PCMA Foundation, in announcing the association's signing of the ECPAT Code.

Also earlier this year, ECPAT-USA extended its reach into the meetings industry's front lines by launching an e-learning module on trafficking awareness, which allows anyone taking the training to get CMP or continuing education credit. The goal, says Guelbart of ECPAT-USA, is to have 700 people trained by the end of this year and to grow those numbers every year after.

"We would love to see every single hotel mandating training, and we would love to see it required in every single RFP everywhere, just like you ask about green protocols," says Guelbart. "Why are we asking about that and not about child and human-rights protection?"

There has been some change, however. In 2016, when Sandy Biback, CMP, owner of Toronto-based Imagination+ Meeting Planners and founder of Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking, decided to hold her first community event on the topic, her local church stepped up to host a breakfast because, Biback says, she couldn't get a single hotel in the city to take on the event.

Sandy Biback of Imagination+Meeting Planners says hospitality graduates should ask, "What is your human- trafficking policy?" during job interviews.

Today, hotel executives from some of Toronto's major meeting hotels, as well as ECPAT officials and the head of Toronto's human-trafficking investigative unit, sit on the volunteer-staffed, nonprofit MPAHT's board.

"Can you imagine if Cvent gave out a Good Housekeeping-style seal of approval for every hotel on its site that had an anti-human-trafficking policy?" posits Biback. "Imagine what that would mean when they are competing against each other for an RFP. And imagine if every hospitality student who graduates in the next two years asks the question, 'What is your human-trafficking policy?' during a job interview. That would send such a powerful message. That's what we are hoping for."

Mission Critical

ConferenceDirect has made human trafficking a major component of its corporate mission. The West Hollywood, Calif.-based third-party firm, which has more than 4,000 clients and booked close to 15,000 meetings and events in 2018, signed the ECPAT Code and then implemented some hefty muscle of its own. Not only does the company have a mandatory training program in place and use social media to drive awareness, a clause in all its contracts requires sup-pliers to have their own such policies.In addition, ConferenceDirect has created a five-member committee that meets monthly to review the company's human-trafficking progress.

"This needs to be talked about a lot more in the meetings industry. You just don't realize how big it is," says Larry Hanson, chief marketing officer for ConferenceDirect, who emphasizes that awareness is a key component in the fight. "Once you get trained on a couple of warning signs, suddenly you are much more aware and can pick up on situations."

Years before being acquired by Chicago-based PRA Business Events this past February and renamed PRA South Florida, Koncept Events was a fledgling destination management company looking to align with a corporate social responsibility initiative. The all-female firm decided on human trafficking after a chance meeting in 2014 with ECPAT's Guelbart. "We immediately flagged it as something that spoke to us all," says Courtney Lohmann, CMP, director of corporate culture at the Fort Lauderdale-based DMC.

This past January, after a four-year period that saw the company grow from a handful of employees to a team of 40, PRA South Florida officially signed the ECPAT Code. Since then, almost all of its staff has completed awareness training on human trafficking, and the company has implemented a policy that requires all potential suppliers, from catering and A/V to transportation, to have their own antitrafficking policies in place.

"We never really saw ourselves as a small company that couldn't make a difference," says Lohmann. "Being that we are based in South Florida, which has one of the highest rates of human trafficking, we knew from the get-go that we were 100 percent committed to this cause. Our industry has the ability to put an end to human trafficking."

Third-party meetings management firm Experient is on board, as well. "We started on the journey about four years ago, when we signed ECPAT-USA's Code of Conduct," says Mary Anne Zoldak, senior vice president of people and development for Maritz Global Events, an Experient subsidiary. "We held a series of town hall meetings across the company — we have about 1,500 employees — explaining the code and the different signs of trafficking to watch for. From there we eventually built an online training program, which every employee has to take, and we put a question in our RFPs to suppliers ask- ing if they have a policy against human trafficking. Our commitment is about creating as much awareness as we can."

Time will tell if all this work can make a significant difference.