With Roe v. Wade Overturned, States Will Lose Events Business

Local abortion laws will impact planners' conference site-selection decisions, per Northstar research, but canceling events will be more complicated.

NMG Roe v Wade Primary Question
*Of the 43 percent of planners who said state abortion laws would affect their future site-selection decisions

Updated July 1, 2022

States stand to lose meetings and events business based on their abortion laws, according to recent research by Northstar Meetings Group, with those that ban abortion at much higher risk of losing that business. Because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, about half of U.S. states intend to outlaw or severely restrict abortion; many already have done so. The other half will maintain more liberal rules governing the termination of pregnancies. (See this summary of state laws pertaining to abortion.)
 
This controversial issue will effectively shift more meetings and events to states where abortion remains legal and accessible, according to NMG’s Flash Survey, fielded from May 13 to May 17 in anticipation of the Court’s decision. Forty-three percent of the 281 planner respondents said state-by-state abortion laws would impact their organizations’ site-selection decisions. Of those planners, more than 80 percent will favor states that allow abortion, with 54 percent reporting they "will not meet in states with anti-abortion laws."
 
Intentions vary by planner type, as detailed in the chart below. Nearly half of corporate planners and a third of trade show organizers said the laws would have an impact on their destination decisions. At least one-third of respondents in every market segment said their organizations would be influenced by abortion laws at the state level — representing significant economic value across all planner types.
 
The findings are reflective of opinions in the general population: 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in all or most cases, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey.

Can Events Be Cancelled for Political Reasons?

Those who choose to back out of a meeting on the books will have to pay a cancellation fee or try to renegotiate, according to Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., founder of Howe and Hutton in Chicago. "But if you have what I call a 'political correctness clause' in your contract, and it specifically mentions abortion-related legislation, you're in good shape."
 
Complicating matters, new abortion legislation is facing legal challenges in many states. Courts in five states — Louisiana, Utah, Texas, Kentucky and Florida — have temporarily blocked the implementation of trigger laws that would have made abortion illegal immediately after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Trigger laws also are being challenged in Arizona, Idaho and Mississippi.
 
"If you're a meeting planner, what do you do in that particular type of situation?" asks Howe. Courts will likely be deluged with lawsuits relating to abortion legislation over the next several months, he says, causing uncertainty in the marketplace. "Can a political correctness clause be invoked if the law has not gone into effect but might?" Howe asks. "That leaves us in quicksand, again, much like we had with Covid, when decisions had to be based on what was in effect at the time of the meeting."
 
To avoid that scenario, Howe suggests, contract clauses should specify a time frame, such as 90 days out, when the group can cancel or reschedule based on intended legislation, even though it might not be enforced at the time your meeting is held.

Roe v Wade by planner type

LavaCon, the annual conference on content strategy and digital publishing, will take New Orleans out of its three-city rotation if Louisiana enacts its proposed anti-abortion legislation, said executive director Jack Molisani. "Get that bill killed, or you risk losing billions in future conference and convention business," he told his contact at New Orleans & Company, the city’s marketing organization. 

While there is now a temporary stay on Louisiana's proposed trigger bill, Molisani noted that his future business in the state is dependent on the steps taken by the state legislature or its judicial system once the stay is lifted. New Orleans isn't scheduled in LavaCon's rotation until 2025. "I don't have a signed contract with a venue yet, so there is time to see how this plays out before I have to make a decision," he said.

Well before the Supreme Court ruling, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists scrapped a plan to hold its 2023 annual meeting in New Orleans, stating that it cannot convene in a place where its members might face punishment for providing or even discussing abortion care. A statement to members explained: "ACOG will be relocating next year's Annual Clinical & Scientific Meeting from New Orleans, Louisiana, to a state whose legislative climate is consistent with our values. Holding the nation's largest gathering of obstetrician-gynecologists in a location where the provision of evidence-based care is banned or subject to criminal or other penalties is directly at odds with our mission and values."

Likewise, several large association clients of Talley Management Group are now “engaging in the discussion” of whether to move their conferences, said company president and CEO Gregg Talley. “I’m seeing a lot of chat on this in industry forums,” he added. “It’s coming, for sure.”

The Trouble With Boycotting Destinations

Our industry has been here before, noted Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer for Destinations International. Representing the interests of destination marketing organizations, DI spoke out strongly against “the weaponization of travel” in 2019, when several states were in favor of “bathroom bills” and other legislation limiting the rights of gay and transgender individuals. DI provided research-backed reasons to not use travel or meetings as a political threat, as well as a toolkit for planners and another for member DMOs on how to deal with such situations in other ways.

That remains DI’s firm stance on boycotts. “I still don't think they're effective,” said Johnson in mid-May. “For a boycott to work, it's got to be narrowly tailored to directly affect the individual or organization that actually can change it. Travel boycotts don't do that; they hurt our industry almost immediately. It will take months, if not years, before legislators who can make the change see the damage that's been done.”

“I don't think boycotts really change anything,” agreed Chicke Fitzgerald, CEO of Solutionz, a meetings tech provider and a longtime strategic consultant to the industry. “I think it's a shame that this has to be a big issue, because what happens in the State House is not the venue’s fault. That's where it gets really silly. Our industry has been hurt so badly in the last two years. Why wouldn't we just want to open the doors to everyone and not narrow our audience? I think that that's the smart thing to do.”

Controversial legislation is happening nationwide, Johnson added. “There's so much activity on so many issues right now, it's hard to pick a state that's potentially not a target for boycotts or bans.”

Still, many believe the economic blow from lost meetings business will send a strong message to legislators that discriminatory practices will have harsh negative consequences, ultimately leading to a reversal of the stance that’s keeping businesses at bay. Destinations International’s research found that the effects of travel boycotts and bans vary by destination and length but add up to billions. Nevertheless, DI argues “the most effective way to influence change is by going to a destination and supporting and empowering the people who live there.”

What Does Abortion Have to Do With Meetings?

Whether or not they are conscious of their role in driving economic value in support of social or political issues, most planners (57 percent) do not expect Roe v. Wade to impact their site-selection decisions.

“When did our industry become interested in the politics of the venue or the city where they're having an event?” asked Chicke Fitzgerald. “I think that's short-sighted. Why in the world would you ever decide to cut your audience in half, which is essentially what will happen if I say, ‘I'm gonna make a big issue out of Roe v. Wade.’”

“I keep politics and all political issues out of my event entirely,” said Jeffry Pilcher, president and CEO of The Financial Brand. “Money drives our decisions, not the political issue du jour.”

Pilcher's event, The Financial Brand Forum, draws 2,500 to 3,000 attendees from the banking industry. “Unless you run a political event and/or have an audience that is decidedly skewed 85 percent or more toward one side or the other, what could possibly be the upside? How can I make more money running a for-profit conference by ‘taking a stand’ on an issue like abortion/Roe vs. Wade? It doesn't matter what my political feelings are about an issue like this,” said Pilcher. “It's a lightning rod, a third rail.”

Weighing the Decision to Boycott a State

Northstar’s Flash Survey indicates that for many, the lighting rod has been ignited by speculation about state abortion laws. The motivation to move meetings, in most cases, is driven by clients and would-be participants, not the political or personal motivation of meeting planners themselves. In fact, many groups already opt to meet in places where the political climate is agreeable to stakeholders and attendees.

“My opinions or my feelings on this are secondary to what my client wants or needs,” said J. Jeffery Wherry, president of Wherry Associates, an Ohio-based association management firm. “My clients prefer to stay away from certain states now,” he noted. We haven’t had a meeting in California or New York for 20 years or so,” specifically due to the liberal policies of those destinations.

Most of Wherry’s clients are business owners, primarily in manufacturing, “who generally don't have a very high opinion of government as it is, let alone any interest in legislation or regulations,” he added. “They choose not to spend money in states that don’t necessarily align with their ideology.”

The Society of Gynecologic Oncology is among many organizations that are closely monitoring the evolution of abortion legislation, said Robyn Kurth, director of marketing, communications and membership. "Our senior leadership is taking all of this into consideration when exploring where conferences will be held in the future," she added. In 2019, the society cancelled a meeting in Birmingham, Ala., when that state passed restrictive anti-abortion laws.

A number of medical and other professional associations are now facing pressure from members to follow suit, either directly or via impassioned pleas on social media. Economists have implored the American Economic Association to relocate their annual conference scheduled for January 2023 in New Orleans, as well the 2024 event slated for San Antonio.

A Challenge for Large Association Meetings

Large national and international associations tend to book their citywide events years ahead. Backing out would generally mean a financial blow, along with the challenge of finding another city that can accommodate thousands.

That’s a serious concern for the American Occupational Therapy Association, which, like many associations, needs to move its annual event around the country. Sites are selected five years out, and only 30 facilities in the country are large enough to accommodate the 10,000 attendees, according to Frank Gainer, AOTA’s vice president of meetings and events.
 
Eliminating any states that restrict or ban abortion would significantly reduce the group’s options, says Gainer. However, members of AOTA, 88 percent of whom are female, "are becoming more politically sensitive, and issues such as this affect whether or not they will attend our in-person events," said Gainer. "We have not had a discussion about how this will change our decision-making going forward. I imagine we will have it in the next couple of weeks."

The same scenario is playing out for the National Council of Social Studies, which has its annual conference booked through 2028, said David Bailor, director of meetings and exhibitions. Next year’s conference, expected to have up to 4,000 attendees, will be held in Nashville — and that will upset a significant number of NCSS’s leaders and members, most of whom are classroom teachers and about 60 percent are female.

"They might not have a true understanding of why we have signed contracts already for several years," noted Bailor. "Nor do we have any language in the contracts that would allow us to get out based on a political development.”

Bailor has been fielding backlash about the Tennessee meeting since last fall, when the state banned classroom educators from teaching critical race theory. A subset of members on the college and university level have talked about boycotting the 2023 event, and even splitting off from the association to hold a meeting of their own.

Reserving the Right to Cancel a Conference

Several years ago, concerned about bringing his left-leaning group to the traditionally conservative state of Texas, LavaCon’s Molisani added his version of what attorney Howe referred to as a "political correctness clause" to his contract, in advance of the group’s 2019 event in Austin. "It said that if the state of Texas even attempts to pass anything remotely discriminatory against anyone, I can cancel the contract without penalty," Molisani explained. "And when they tried passing their equivalent of the bathroom bill in 2019, I invoked the clause."

Molisani wasn't the only show director who threatened to pull business in 2019, and the CVB sought support from the Texas Association of Hoteliers and other key stakeholders, who lobbied Congress. Ultimately, the bill was killed in committee. But when Texas more recently passed restrictive voting laws, then an abortion bill before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Molisani again threatened to pull his show. "This time, they said, 'You know what? Sixteen other states are doing the same thing. We’re not going to fight this one.' It passed, I cancelled, and I moved my 2023 conference without penalty to California," he said.

Molisani understands the argument against boycotts, and he realizes that moving the event could do harm to innocent bystanders: "My concern is, how many housekeepers did I just put out of work? How many servers? And are they actually going to hold their representation accountable? I don't know."

On the other hand, among his left-leaning and female-dominated audience, one commented "no women will go to a conference in Texas," he said. "So, I've got a business decision behind some of these moral decisions as well."

Many hotels and venues will have seen the kind of nondiscrimination clause Molisani is using. In fact, 12 percent of respondents to Northstar’s Flash Survey said their current contracts already allow for cancellation if new legislation in the event’s jurisdiction could impact participation or runs counter to the mission or beliefs of the organization.

What's more, the survey revealed that soon such language could be typical. Another 72 percent of planners are considering adding similar clauses to their contracts going forward. Just 16 percent do not have nor are they planning to address legislative concerns in their meeting and event contracts. (See pie chart below.)

Roe v Wade Legal Rememdies Chart

A Lawyer’s Opinion on Antidiscrimination Clauses

Molisani’s clause he used for LavaCon 2019 in Austin read: Considering past activities in North Carolina, Indiana, etc., Group reserves the right to cancel this contract without liability should the City of Austin or the State of Texas pass any laws or attempt to pass any laws that are discriminatory against any of Group attendees’ race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, or any other such personal attribute.

He has used similar language for subsequent meetings, and — to his own surprise — hotels have accepted it word-for-word. That also surprises attorney Jonathan Howe. "A broad-based political-correctness type of provision is too subjective," he cautioned, and the definition of discrimination can be debated.

"If you say you can cancel based on any law that discriminates against any class of people anywhere at any time, how do we make that determination?" asked Howe. Some would argue that permitting abortion discriminates against the unborn fetus, while others would say anti-abortion laws discriminate against women. To avoid any ambiguity regarding abortion rights, a clause could allow the group to cancel if legislation is passed that imposes any limitations on the ability of women to obtain an abortion.

Regarding other issues of concern, the clause could specify, for example, the right to cancel if a law infringes upon LGBTQ+ rights or bans interracial marriage, Howe advised.

Helping Associations Make a Difficult Decision

For LavaCon’s Molisani, the site-selection decisions are entirely his call: “I own the business. I own the conference. I’m the sole decision-maker. So, it's easier for me to go ‘Nope. Not going there.’ I get to vote with my dollars. I get to choose where I take my conference.”

For association executives, the process is more complex. "This is obviously a tricky landscape for associations to navigate," noted a spokesperson for the American Society of Association Executives. ASAE members are helping the association draft a decision tree, he said, which will be made available to assist boards in addressing legislation that counters their organizations’ values. That tool is now being vetted by some key volunteer groups. "We know there is no silver bullet for making these types of difficult decisions, especially as major conferences are often booked years in advance."

For its own meetings, ASAE’s values as an organization factor heavily into the site-selection process, and contracts include an antidiscrimination clause The clause reads:
 
It shall be considered an incident of force majeure, and thus relieve ASAE of any obligation to Hotel under this Agreement, including but not limited to waiver of any cancellation or attrition penalties, and ASAE will receive in full a refund of any amounts paid to Hotel pursuant to this Agreement, if, at any time between the effective date of this Agreement and the beginning dates of ASAE’s event, ASAE provides written notice to Hotel of cancellation of this Agreement based upon any state or local government arm, including a legislature, board or agency in the jurisdiction of the Hotel, having enacted legislation or regulation that has the effect of: 1) repealing existing legal protections or prohibiting the passage of legal protections for Subject Individuals; 2) allowing discrimination against Subject Individuals in employment, housing, or public accommodations or services; or 3) prohibiting Subject Individuals from accessing facilities (including, but not limited to, restrooms), where “Subject Individuals” are those identified in the legislation or regulation based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity, family responsibility, political affiliation, or disability.

Here again, attorney Jonathan Howe suggests using more specific language. “Existing legal protection is a bit hard to define,” he said. “A repeal of Roe would return the decision on abortion to the states, so the question then is what does the state have on the books at that moment?” Again, discrimination can be debated here, said Howe, while the issue is really about who can decide what is allowed.

“Yes, an argument can be made for discrimination,” Howe acknowledged, “but it is a stretch and certainly would result in litigation or arbitration. The best bet still is to be specific.”

How Abortion Laws Might Impact Meeting Attendees

Now that the Supreme Courty has overturned Roe v. Wade, we should gradually get more clarity on the possible implications for meeting attendees, noted industry consultant Joan Eisenstodt. Decision-makers need to understand and weigh the potential consequences of legislation on meeting participants.

Among questions that might be relevant to site selection: What happens if an attendee suffers a miscarriage during the meeting and seeks medical help in an anti-abortion state? Could an attendee from an anti-abortion state be arrested for seeking information — or even an abortion — in a state that allows it?

A planner at a women’s apparel business, who requested anonymity, shared this concern: “What happens if someone is raped and impregnated during my meeting? Which state’s laws would govern her choices?”

If the trigger laws go as far as expected, said Eisenstodt, even discussing abortion during a meeting could be considered criminal activity. “I watch all this carefully,” she added, “because my clients are watching, and it's my job to know.”

Planners Should Stay Informed and Think Ahead

Given today's decision, more divisive legislation could follow, noted Eisenstodt. “This is the beginning," she said. "It is likely that [now that Roe has fallen], so will other rights to privacy.”

“I think it’s too early to predict,” said Garland Preddy, director of education and training for the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. "Emotions are running high and it might be wise to wait before taking action," she added. “Decision-makers may have a difference of opinion when it comes to actual decisions on site selection.”