How the Events Industry Is Responding to State Abortion Bans

Association leaders are collaborating to dissuade boycotts and present a unified approach to destination decisions.

Roe-v-Wade-abortion-events-industry-impact
Photograph by zimmytws for Adobe Stock

Meeting planners reacted strongly to the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer that overturned Roe v. Wade. More than 40 percent said that state abortion legislation would influence their site-selection decisions, according to a Northstar Meetings Group survey, and the vast majority of those planners indicated they would avoid meeting in states that banned abortion. Regardless of their own ideologies, many planners noted they must take such legislation into account based on the positions of their attendees and stakeholders.

Concerned about the economic blow to cities and hospitality suppliers, industry organizations addressed the issue quickly, offering alternatives to boycotts and collaborating to find practical solutions. Destinations International, in particular, has been on a mission to convince groups that travel boycotts simply don't work.

DI spoke out strongly against "the weaponization of travel" in 2019, when several states were in favor of "bathroom bills" and other laws limiting the rights of gay and transgender individuals. DI provided research-backed reasons not to use travel or meetings as a political threat. On the contrary, the organization suggests going to the very places that passed legislation they oppose and expressing their objections in person.

"Travel boycotts hurt our industry almost immediately," says Jack Johnson, DI's chief advocacy officer. "It will take months, if not years, before legislators who can make the change see the damage that's been done." DI can't deliver this message alone, Johnson stressed. "It's got to be a full-fledged push not only by us, but also the other associations, organizations and peer institutions out there."

For the American Society of Association Executives, the matter has required careful consideration and countless discussions with members and peers. Prior to the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, ASAE already was using contract language that allowed the group to cancel without penalty if a destination enacted legislation that would repeal existing legal protections or allow any form of discrimination.

Still, ASAE went ahead with its Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville from Aug. 20-23, despite the fact that Tennessee has one of the nation's strictest bans on abortion. During the show, leaders of ASAE and other industry entities, including DI, had "a productive discussion" about abortion legislation, and how to best support the industry and advise stakeholders with a unified voice, a spokesperson explained.

Those discussions have continued, with the objective of opposing discrimination while respecting a wide range of opinions and simultaneously protecting the interests of destinations and stakeholders. Recent research by the ASAE Foundation highlights the effects that have already been felt by the industry: Nearly 14 percent of associations have canceled and/or moved meetings or events as a result of political, cultural or social issues.

A week following the midterm elections, ASAE released a decision tool for making careful and informed choices when legislative concerns are at play. The association also clarified its latest position on the issue in a revised statement:

In principle and in practice, ASAE values and seeks diverse and inclusive participation within the field of association management. ASAE opposes all legislation that permits discrimination or seeks to limit existing protections for all. This position extends to state legislation that would preempt existing local non-discrimination ordinances and/or restrict equal access to public accommodations. In choosing destinations to host meetings or events, ASAE looks closely at whether there are municipal non-discrimination ordinances in place to ensure that ASAE attendees feel welcome and safe in a host city. ASAE also opposes legislation and/or policies that permit individuals and businesses to deny services to anyone based on religious or moral convictions. ASAE supports federal legislation to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

How to Make an Informed Site-Selection Decision

Lakisha Ann Woods ASAE Board Chair
Lakisha Ann Woods, CAE, ASAE Board Chair

ASAE’s new decision tool was developed for internal use, noted Lakisha Ann Woods, CAE, CEO of the American Institute of Architects and ASAE Board chairperson. However, because some 46,000 members look to the organization for guidance, "ASAE is sharing this framework with the broader association community for informational purposes," she said.
 
The decision tool, "Event Location: Questions for Consideration," provides a series of questions to consider and actions to take when a contentious legislative or policy issue has been flagged in a confirmed or potential host city for an upcoming ASAE event. (See related story, "Should You Cancel That Meeting? How to Make the Call.")
 
The document calls for decision-makers to take the following steps:

  • Gather information on specific legislation prior to action.
  • Consider legal and ethical questions and ramifications.
  • Conduct an equity analysis to see how constituents would be affected.
  • Review actions the association can take to address the issue of concern.
  • Stay informed on the issue and collaborate with the destination to address concerns.

"The takeaway for me in helping to develop this framework is that there are actually many actions an organization can take to affirm and live by its core values without canceling or moving an event," said Woods.
 
"Association leaders must abide by their organizational values," added ASAE president and CEO Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE, "but their partners in the destination management and hospitality communities are often willing and able collaborators to find a solution for associations struggling with how to respond to adverse political issues."

Michelle Mason ASAE
Michelle Mason, ASAE President and CEO

In the interest of speaking with one voice, ASAE hosted more than 40 association leaders for a meeting, titled "CEO Conversation on Meeting-Location Decisions," on Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C. The agenda included case studies of how different organizations have navigated site-selection decisions, as well as perspectives from DMO and hotel executives.

Destinations International is planning to release new research and an informative white paper in early 2023 that goes a few steps further. "We're going to lay out a strategy saying, 'We believe you should go forward with your meeting, and once you're in town these are the types of activities you should engage in,'" says Jack Johnson.

DI's new chairperson, Al Hutchinson, is helping to enlist the support of local legislators to pave the way for effective group activities. Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, has been connecting DI's leadership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Conference of State Legislators, and others to raise awareness of how boycotts directly damage local economies.

 

With destination-specific insight from local leaders, DI hopes to be able to tell groups going to any major city, "If you're really serious about effecting change, this is what you have to do — A, B and C," Johnson explains.

Planners Are Less Inclined to Boycott

Before the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, which ended the federal protection of abortion rights, 43 percent of planners said state legislation would influence where they hold meetings and events, according to a Northstar Meetings Group Flash Survey. Not only has that sentiment held steady among planners for their future site-selection decisions, but nearly 30 percent report state abortion laws have already influenced where they will meet, revealed a follow-up study, fielded from September 1 to September 12. 

Dobbs-graph-1

One important difference in planner sentiment from before the decision to now: Planners who said in September that state abortion laws will affect their site-selection decisions are more likely to "favor states that allow abortion, but it will not be the deciding factor." Four months previous, they were much more likely to completely shun states with abortion bans or restrictions.

Dobbs-graph-2


Taking the Legal Way Out

Those who back out of a meeting on the books will have to pay a cancellation fee or try to renegotiate, confirms Jonathan T. Howe Esq., founder of the Howe and Hutton law firm 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."

The wording of many anti-discrimination clauses, however, tends to leave too much room for interpretation, cautions Howe. The more specific the language, the more enforceable the clause, he advises. If abortion laws are a particular concern, the contract should cover it directly. (For more information, listen to the free webinar, "Ask the Attorney: Adding Service Clauses, Flexibility and More to Event Contracts.")

In May, Northstar's Flash Survey revealed a sense of urgency to add such language to meeting and event contracts. Twelve percent of planners surveyed reported their contracts already included anti-discrimination language, with more than 70 percent considering adding new cancellation language to future contracts. In September, just 5 percent of planners reported they include clauses that would let them cancel without penalty because of new legislation, while the number of planners considering adding such language has dropped to below 40 percent. The majority of respondents either do not or will not include such language in their contracts.

Dobbs-graph-3

Half of the Country Is Off Limits

Controversial legislation is happening nationwide. Where does a planner draw the line? "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," says DI's Johnson.

Indeed, options are shrinking fast for independent planner David Bruce. One major client holds an annual meeting of about 500 government employees, many of whom are based in California. That takes 22 states out of the running for the event because California won't reimburse travel to those destinations. "Every city I talk to is on the California 'no go' list," he says.

Bruce is referencing Assembly Bill 1887, a California law in effect since January 2017 that prohibits state employees from traveling to any state with laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Avoiding states with anti-abortion legislation — or any other hot-button issue — adds to the challenge, says Bruce. "We just can't afford as an industry to lock out that many states. I can't even consider some of the most beautiful hotels in the country… I'm relegated to staying north of the Mason Dixon Line."

A Hard Line Can Split an Audience in Half

For the majority of planners, regardless of their strong personal opinions, abortion rights have no bearing on their professional decisions. Both before and after the Dobbs Decision, 57 percent of survey respondents said such laws don't and won't affect site selection.

Mike May's clients, primarily large, middle-market Fortune 1000 companies, haven't even discussed this issue with respect to their events, he says. That's as it should be, believes May, who is president and CEO of Dallas-based Brightspot Incentives & Events. "Introducing personal politics into business decisions becomes problematic. Whichever way you go, you're going to alienate 50 percent of your audience."

A small group of 50 or so people might share the same opinions, but in a large national or global company, "people are going to be all over the map on how they feel about issues," May argues. Once you go down that path, "all kinds of things are triggered. Some of your customers are going to support you; some of your customers are not going to be your customers anymore." The same goes for sponsors, he cautions.

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

His 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," says Pilcher. "It's a lightning rod, a third rail."

Politics Already Drives Site Selection

Many groups already opt to meet in places where the political climate is agreeable to stakeholders and attendees, planners note.

"My opinions or my feelings on this are secondary to what my client wants or needs," says J. Jeffery Wherry, president of Wherry Associates, an Ohio-based association management firm. "My clients prefer to stay away from certain states now. We haven't had a meeting in California or New York for 20 years or so," specifically in reaction 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 adds. "They choose not to spend money in states that don't necessarily align with their ideology."

The same is true of organizations like the Society of Gynecologic Oncology, which has historically favored destinations that support reproductive health services as an individual choice. In 2019, the society cancelled a meeting in Birmingham, Ala., when that state passed a restrictive anti-abortion bill.

Demographics can be a factor in how attendees feel about this issue, notes Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Corporate Events and Leisure Services LLC. One of his clients is a group of cookie-makers, primarily women in their 20s. "They're pretty adamant about not wanting to do anything in states that have passed really restrictive anti-abortion legislation," says Vaughn. Another client, a female-dominated group with a somewhat older demographic, is less adamant. "Generally, they don't agree with that legislation, but not to the point that they would want to change a venue or just not go there," he says.

Large Events Face More Challenges

Among planner types, corporate planners are the most likely to be influenced by abortion laws, according to Northstar's survey. About half say such legislation is or will be a factor in their decisions. At least one-third of respondents in all other segments — including trade show organizers and SMERF markets — said abortion legislation is a site-selection factor.

Large national and international associations likely face the biggest hurdles. For one, they tend to book their citywide events years ahead. Backing out would typically mean taking a large financial hit — 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 their 10,000 attendees, according to Frank Gainer, AOTA's vice president of meetings and events. (View Northstar's 2022 Convention Cities Index for details on the top national and international destinations that can accommodate city-wide 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," says Gainer.

The same scenario is playing out for the National Council of Social Studies, whose annual conference is booked through 2028, says David Bailor, director of meetings and exhibitions. Next year's conference, expected to welcome 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; about 60 percent are female.

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

How Abortion Laws Might Impact Event Attendees

We should gradually get more clarity on the possible implications for meeting attendees in states with anti-abortion legislation, says industry consultant Joan Eisenstodt. Among questions that might be relevant to site selection: What happens if an attendee suffers a miscarriage during the meeting and seeks medical help? 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?"

As a precaution, one planner recently obtained an insurance rider that would cover the emergency evacuation of a pregnant meeting attendee to a "safe state" for medical treatment if required.

"I watch all this carefully," says Eisenstodt, "because my clients are watching, and it's my job to know."