The US State Department estimates that a staggering 24.9 million people are currently trafficked across the globe, both for labor and sex. To understand the role event professionals have in fighting human trafficking, it's important to recognize how events exacerbate demand.
Hotel chains have come under fire in recent years for being a complicit backdrop for human trafficking. Several industry giants, including Marriott, are responding with employee awareness training programs and other initiatives to help spot and report potential trafficking cases.
But how does this impact events?
Many claim that events are responsible for surges in human trafficking activity. The Super Bowl has been flagged by some as one of the biggest acute market drivers, warranting dedicated measures to contravene traffickers. This year, that resulted in three arrests in Miami leading up to the game (as compared to 60 last year in Atlanta).
If large events have the potential to stimulate human trafficking, event professionals have a responsibility to raise awareness and mitigate it. But what role can event planners play?
Events Increase Demand
While the Super Bowl is frequently criticized as a driver for human trafficking, a study from Carnegie Mellon’s Auton Lab in 2016 revealed that the problem is much more pervasive in events as a whole.
Large industry conferences and trade shows in the U.S. also lead to more trafficking activity. Indeed, it’s fair to say that any event resulting in a population increase can cause a flux in human trafficking — including trade shows and conferences.
In the case of sex trafficking in particular, the target market is predominantly businessmen with disposable incomes. Events bring them to host destinations in droves, where they typically are put in hotels — many of which are then converted to sites for sex work and sex trafficking.
We spoke to PK Keiran, co-founder of 5 Points of Light, for insights on how this is impacting events and why meeting professionals should care about it.
Raising awareness of human trafficking comes down to reputation management for both you and your clients. Much like other broad social concerns like sustainability and inclusivity, those early to join the fight will receive recognition and set a standard, leaving those late to get on board at a disadvantage.
Regional Dynamics Affect the Level and Type of Risk
Because any event has the potential to create a surge in demand, it’s crucial for planners to understand the issue’s complex landscape. This means looking at regional dynamics when selecting event destinations.
Keiran points to Seattle as a recent example of a city taking a proactive stance against trafficking. In January 2020, the Port of Seattle announced its partnership with Business Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) to implement an employee training program aimed at preventing trafficking.
Event planners can use trafficking awareness as part of the decision-making process when choosing event destinations, both domestically and abroad. Convention and visitors’ bureaus are a great starting point as they can give you an idea of a locale’s preparedness to combat trafficking and connect you with local resources and partners on the ground.
Keiran also recommends looking at geographic trafficking trails and area-specific reports to get an idea of prevalence in certain destinations. Because large events typically take place in high-traffic locations, planners at least need to be aware of any unique issues that might require additional staff training or support from local organizations.
Exploitation Beyond Sex Work
Women and children remain the traditional targets of human trafficking, particularly in the context of sex trafficking. But there’s another side of the equation that can impact the events industry: labor trafficking.
Michelle Guelbart, a speaker and anti-human trafficking advocate, warns that forced labor is more prevalent when quick hiring needs arise.
Immigrants are the most vulnerable populations and are present in events-related services including F&B, set-up and construction. In these scenarios, men also become victims working under threat of having their documentation held in inhumane conditions and may never get paid, or get paid a fraction of what was offered.
Event huge sporting events under global scrutiny like the Olympics are not immune to human trafficking as host destinations rush to complete ambitious construction projects.
Event planners can address these concerns through their RFP requirements or by asking questions about hiring practices and worker conditions in their procurement processes.
It’s crucial to vet venues and other event suppliers to make sure workers are hired at market value and have autonomy over their employment.
Taking Up Arms
Event trade associations are becoming involved. Last year, both PCMA and MPI signed ECPAT-USA’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (a.k.a. ‘The Code’).
ECPAT-USA even offers a CMP-certified course so planners can simultaneously earn CMP and continuing education credits while undergoing training to prevent and respond to commercial sexual exploitation.
Whether you focus on domestic or international events, there are several steps you can take as well to raise awareness and stand against both labor and sex-related human trafficking.
Vet Your Supply Chain
As you begin to nail down the details of your event, be vigilant with the selection of your vendors and suppliers. If possible, you can include hotel-mandated human trafficking awareness training as an RFP requirement. Another option is to state this type of training as a selection preference even if you don’t want to make it a firm policy. That will ensure that venues see the prevention of trafficking as a competitive lever when vying for your business.
If the venue representative doesn’t seem to know much about the intersection between the hospitality industry and human trafficking, offer resources where they can learn more. You can have this conversation during the initial site visit.
In fact, a study from the University of Washington found that trained hotel employees are more likely to report potential trafficking activity to their managers, so planners should ask about training policies for other vendors, such as event staffing agencies who may be hiring people to provide pick-ups at the airport.
Use a CSR Mission to Enhance the Attendee Experience
Raising awareness about human trafficking shouldn’t detract from your attendees’ event experience; on the contrary, as attendees look for meaningful experiences, incorporating a corporate social responsibility (CSR) theme can give them a deeper sense of purpose in attending your event.
Reach out to the destination city’s CVB to identify reputable organizations that offer support to victims of trafficking or domestic violence (since the two are often interrelated). After you identify the cause and the support your event can offer, relay that message to attendees.
Make an Explicit Commitment
Regardless of the size of your organization, you can publicly state your zero-tolerance policy of human trafficking. There are several ways you can do this.
The first is through an online CSR statement, which is common practice among large companies. If your company is smaller, consider incorporating anti-trafficking language into a broader statement.
Another option is to sign ECPAT-USA’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, which includes six criteria for preventing sexual exploitation in tourism destinations.
Event planners may not be on the front lines of human trafficking, but there’s more of an intersection than you’d likely expect at first glance. By committing to quality vetting processes for suppliers and continually educating yourself and your team on the true scope of trafficking, you’ll become part of a local solution to the worldwide problem of modern-day slavery.