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Overcoming Planner Objections to Discriminatory Laws

Discriminatory Laws

You work in hospitality sales in Houston, and you read with increasing trepidation about a “bathroom bill” making its way through the Texas state legislature, which would require people to use the bathroom reflecting the gender on their birth certificate. Or maybe you’re in another state that might be leaning the same direction. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the term “bathroom bill” as a generic name for any state or local legislation that is perceived as discriminatory.)

If the backlash over last year’s similar bill in North Carolina is any indication, you start worrying about the business you might lose when some of your clients invariably decide to pull their meetings out of your state. You begin going through the list of clients already on the books or in your pipeline, and mentally estimate the hit you might take to your numbers.

And it kills you. It’s one thing to lose a booking because you don’t have the rooms or space available, or can’t meet the pricing of a less expensive city or competitor. That comes with the territory. But this…this is crazy. How are you supposed to do your job when the state legislature is tying one hand behind your back with bills like this?

Understanding The Laws

The anti-LGBTQ legislation actually falls into two very distinct categories.

Religious Freedom Laws
These typically enable businesses and professionals to refuse to serve patients or customers if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Though this could really encompass anything (you could theoretically refuse to serve a patron who doesn’t worship the Sabbath), it’s usually code for allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers based on religious grounds. This was started by the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was passed almost unanimously by Congress and signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law only applied to the federal government and, as a result, 21 states have since passed their own RFRAs. Examples include Indiana’s 2015 RFRA, which enabled businesses to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers on religious grounds, and Tennessee’s 2016 bill allowing psychologists and other mental health professionals to refuse to treat patients based on their religious or personal beliefs. Though there had been restrictive state laws in the past, the 2015 Indiana bill drew widespread criticism, particularly from the meeting and event industry, which threatened boycotts of the state, and was shortly thereafter softened by an amendment that provided LGBTQ protections.

See related article: The Looming Threats Facing the Event Industry

Restrictive Bathroom Laws
These laws are driven by privacy and safety concerns, rather than religious ones, and typically require people to use the public bathrooms that correspond to their birth gender. Proponents argue that such laws would prevent a man from, hypothetically, putting on women’s clothing and using a women’s room with the intention of watching or molesting women or young girls.

Critics argue that there hasn’t been a single documented case of this, and that, in fact, forcing a man who identifies and dresses as a woman to use a men’s room would only increase abuse and attacks on transgender individuals. Examples include North Carolina’s 2016 Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, the most offensive portions of which were recently repealed, and the Texas Privacy Bill, which passed the state Senate but stalled in the House. (For a full list of states’ bathroom bills, check https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bathroom_bill.)

ARGUMENTS AGAINST CANCELLING (OR NOT BOOKING) AN EVENT IN A STATE WITH A DISCRIMINATORY LAW

Selling around a potential client’s objection over your state’s bathroom or religious freedom bill is not easy. A handful of tactics have been floating around, some better than others. For the many people working in the hospitality industry in such a state, here are some of the arguments I’ve seen, and my evaluations of their efficacy.

You’d be hurting innocent housekeepers and waiters and other hardworking hospitality employees and businesses who had nothing to do with the law.

Grade: D. While it’s easy to feel sympathy for hospitality workers in this context, this point is only true if you flat out cancel your event. If instead you move it elsewhere, the argument falls apart, as you’d still be providing work to housekeepers and waiters, just a different set of them in a different state. 

Don’t ‘weaponize’ meetings. Once you start using events to make political statements you’re getting on a slippery slope. Where does it end?

Grade: C. This argument has several challenges. (1) When you apply it to an extreme and obviously egregious example. If, prior to the 1965 Civil Rights Act, you opted to move an event out of a state that had horrible discriminatory abuses of African Americans, nobody would have said you were wrong to “weaponize” your meeting. (2) It ignores the fact that most corporations and associations have very clear organizational core values prominently displayed on their websites, often tied to their corporate social responsibility policies, many of which would be compromised by these bathroom bills.

The bill might be repealed by the time of your meeting. Look, North Carolina and Indiana both modified their bills fairly quickly. Plus, who knows what’s cooking in other states? The one you move your meeting to may pass a restrictive bill of their own between now and your meeting.“

Grade: B-. While this has legitimate merit, the problem is that it’s only BECAUSE of the slew of cancelled meetings and public outcry that legislators are willing to soften or repeal these bills in the first place. Unless the state feels the economic pain from their law, they may not change it.

Why this issue and not others? Yes, you’re right to consider anti-LGBTQ laws in deciding where to hold your event, but why stop there? For example, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. New Mexico has the highest child poverty rate. Rhode Island has the fewest number of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health facilities per 10,000 veterans. Wyoming has the most discrimination cases filed per 100,000 residents and is ranked the least tolerant state in the country according to a broad index.

Grade: A. This can be an extremely effective argument, yet one we tend to rarely hear. This reasoning doesn’t try to dissuade the planner from their thinking, but rather embraces it, and encourages them to broaden and amplify it even further. It can effectively take the heat experienced by the state with the offending law and spread the spotlight onto how other states have policies or records that are offensive to various constituencies in their own rights.

Look at how pro-LGBTQ our city is. Wherever you go, you’re picking a city, not a state. That’s where your attendees will be spending their time and money. And major cities like ours have far more progressive policies than the states they reside in. Regardless of whether Texas passes that law, Austin scores a perfect 100 on Human Rights Campaign’s most recent Municipal Equality Index (MEI), which specifically focuses on how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of the LGBTQ community there.”

Grade: A-/B+. This argument “moves the goalposts” and narrows the client’s focus from the state to your specific city. Despite Indiana’s 2015 law, for example, Indianapolis scored 87 on the MEI, only two points below New Orleans, and way better than Miami’s 49. The only drawback to this argument is that local lawmakers often need to feel the economic consequences of their laws before they’re pressured to change them.

Besides focusing on the state, make sure you’re also checking out the hotel’s ownership and the management company’s record. Marriott has extremely progressive and pro-LGBTQ policies on diversity and inclusion. The same cannot be said of everyone in the hospitality industry.

Grade: A-. Pulling the curtain back and letting people know the questionable ethics of some of your competitors’ owners can put your state’s bathroom bill in a whole new context. Clients often don’t realize that Marriott and Hilton don’t actually own most of the hotels that bear their names, and raising awareness of this can help diffuse some of the pressure your state may be getting.

Advocacy

The various tactics outlined above are all reactive, meaning they provide ways of dealing with client objections once a restrictive law has ALREADY been passed or put in motion. The better solution, however, is for hospitality professionals to be far more vocal and active on their local and state levels when it comes to potential legislation that will impact their businesses. No matter your personal views, nobody in hotel or destination sales and marketing thinks laws like this are good for business. You need to speak up, get to know your state senators and assemblymen, get organized and put the kibosh on these laws before they get out of committee. Remind your representatives how many people your sector employs, how much tax revenue it generates and how much of both will be lost if certain laws are enacted.

Conclusion

Hotels are often among the largest employers in many areas. Invite your state senator to visit your property and have a town hall with your employees present. Let those employees know that a pending bill could cost business and jobs, and urge them to contact their representatives, too. There are many curve balls that can’t be anticipated: natural disasters, acts of terrorism, etc. Fortunately, laws like this are not one of them. They take a lot of time to gather steam and work their way through the system, which means there’s no excuse not to proactively take a stand against those that are bad for your business.


About the Author

Howard Givner
Howard Givner

Howard Givner is managing director and head of Americas for Grass Roots Meetings & Events, providing strategic meetings management services to Fortune 100 clients. He has served on the board of the MPI Greater New York Chapter and frequently teaches and speaks at industry conferences on sales and business development, negotiations, innovation and entrepreneurship.