Call it the great divide: From North Carolina's bathroom bill in 2016 to Alabama's abortion ban passed this past May, a number of controversial measures have torn America apart, sparking staunch approval on one side and bitter condemnation and a call for action on the other. Often this action has taken the form of a boycott, with organizations refusing to conduct business — including holding meetings — in a given state.
While many say such boycotts are an effective way to push back against what are viewed as rigidly constrictive policies, others have raised concerns about the unintended consequences such moves can cause and have urged organizations to find alternative ways to express their dissatisfaction.
One prominent opponent of travel boycotts is Destinations International, the association of destination marketing organizations (aka convention and visitor bureaus), which has labeled that method of protest as the "weaponization of travel," and unfair to the city and/or state under siege.
DI's chief advocacy officer, Jack Johnson, has overseen a wealth of research on the efficacy of and attitudes toward boycotts, most recently releasing a pair of toolkits — one for destinations, one for meeting planners — laying out action plans for combating such actions or redirecting protesting efforts elsewhere. M&C spoke with Johnson about his efforts and why he maintains that boycotts are bad for everyone. (And be sure to read our roundtable discussion on the legal and contractual ramifications of cancelling a meeting on moral grounds.)
How do you define the weaponization of travel?
It's using travel as a political tool to enact policies or legislative changes. Things like travel bans or boycotts are some of the most prominent examples.
Are boycotts effective?
They can be if they are narrowly targeted at the entity or individuals who can actually effect change. For example, the boycott against SeaWorld over charges of mistreating their animals was very effective, because it was up to SeaWorld itself to decide whether or not they would continue those programs
Yet, during the height of the North Carolina boycott, when we surveyed travelers and asked them to select from a list of 12 states which ones were being boycotted, just 31 percent identified North Carolina. When we asked if they thought boycotts were effective, just 15 percent felt strongly in agreement. We also found that people were more likely to boycott destinations they wouldn't have gone to anyway.
What kind of damage can boycotts inflict on destinations?
In the case of North Carolina, the state lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business and future corporate growth. There was reputational, long-term damage, as well. But there also was the damage to the frontline workers — those at hotels, convention centers, restaurants, the places where boycotts directly affected the bottom line in major cities like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh. Rural areas, which were more likely to support the legislation in question and attract much less meetings business, felt less of the pinch.
Meeting attendees tend to be the most valuable — not just because of the loss of their attendance to any one event, but the future business they could bring.
Jack Johnson, Destinations International
We've done four studies on this topic, and I'd love to do a fifth and a sixth, so we could identify the quality of the travelers that North Carolina lost. Meeting attendees tend to be the most valuable — not just because of the loss of their attendance to any one event, but the future business they could bring. If you replace meeting attendees with daytrippers or weekenders, the value's just not the same.
What's the alternative for attendees who feel strong disagreement about laws passed in a given state or city?
When we did our original study, every potential alternative that we tested performed as well or better than a travel boycott. Instead of not going there, we encourage a group to indeed go but do something to help: Build a constructive session around the topic at the event, or connect attendees who have concerns to local groups working to fight the offending measure and perhaps help raise money for the cause. When Bermuda was under attack for repealing the right to gay marriage, we encouraged people to work with the folks on the ground — the ones who can actually make change or who know how to work with legislators to bring about change.
Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer, Destinations International, manages overall public policy operations including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities.