Protecting Our Children
In the United States, 200,000 children are at risk for exploitation every year. Child sex trafficking is a widespread occurrence, and many meeting planners don’t realize they can help stop it, says Molly Hackett, principal of Nix Conference and Meeting Management. She plans to change that.
Hackett visits about 50 hotels each year in the course of planning events for her clients. In 2008, one of her company’s clients, the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph, was looking for a location for its 2011 conference. The federation asked Hackett to inquire about policies on human trafficking during hotel site visits. Trafficked children are often taken to hotel rooms, and many properties have no victim protection system in place.
The nuns asked Hackett to find a hotel that agreed to sign the tourism code of conduct developed by End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, or ECPAT-USA, an organization that protects children from commercial sexual exploitation. Its business code of conduct helps travel and tour companies create programs and policies to identify victims and traffickers. Hackett used the ECPAT-USA business model to create the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct, which was signed into existence in January on National Human Trafficking Day. The Millennium Hotel in St. Louis, site of the Sisters of St. Joseph conference, was the first hotel to sign the ECPAT-USA Code of Conduct for hotels.
We talked to St. Louis-based Hackett to find out what impact meeting planners can have on stopping such a widespread problem.
Why is child sex trafficking so prevalent?
It all comes down to the basic economics of supply and demand. There’s a demand for it and somebody’s supplying it. The demand is for younger and younger girls—those in 7th grade represent the average age group.
Why did you decide to create the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct?
When we first started researching [the code of conduct], we called ECPAT-USA and asked if we could sign their tourism code of conduct. We walked through all the steps and went back to our board; we reviewed their model and decided that our goals didn’t exactly fit the ECPAT-USA code of conduct. They weren’t familiar with meeting planners, especially a third-party planner.
How can planners have an impact on child sex trafficking?
Meeting planners have a really unique position. When you are on-site and your group is there for a week, you are the source of income for that venue. Whenever we’ve gone to a venue, we request an audience with the management property team. We thought we had a position where we could spread the word about human trafficking in hotels in our daily business. We talk to hotels every day and this is something we can add to our RFPs and track that information. We can take that opportunity anytime we’re on-site to talk to the management team about the code of conduct and what it means. Meeting planners are able to, without any extraordinary effort, give voice to the cause.
How is the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct enforced?
All of our information refers [the hotel or property management] to ECPAT-USA; they are the ones who implement the code. We created a brochure that talks about the issue and encourages meeting and event planners to sign the code of conduct. When planners are in hotels, we will inform the general managers about the human trafficking issue and encourage them to sign the ECPAT-USA Code of Conduct.
What impact do you think your code of conduct will have?
In the short time since the code has been signed, we have been able to reach more people than we imagined. It wasn’t something people didn’t know about; it’s just that they didn’t know it was so prevalent or aware it was in their city. The best thing that could happen is for meeting planners looking at the code of conduct to realize that it’s not so far out of our natural business that it wouldn’t be eventually incorporated into the daily business.
How do you train meeting planners to include the code in their site visits?
It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this is happening. We did one training [session] and it became clear that people are struggling with [the idea of child exploitation] and the average age of the girls trafficked. We decided we needed more sessions for people to process it and then go back and do the training again.
What happens when a meeting planner agrees to your code of conduct?
Planners who adopt the Meeting Planner’s Code of Conduct agree to establish an internal social responsibility policy, implement an action plan with objectives and timeframes, and report back annually.