What Really Happens When Groups Take a Stand and Cancel Meetings

By Matt Swenson, August 11, 2014

When the Sultan of Brunei implemented the controversial Sharia Law, celebrities began a push to boycott Dorchester Properties, a global line of luxury hotels owned by Brunei Investment Agency. None of Dorchester’s locations have been harder hit than Beverly Hills Hotel, which has reportedly seen at least 20 events cancelled there and lost millions since the controversy erupted in April.

What is Sharia Law? Sharia is a strict moral code associated primarily with Islam. It allows for gays and women who have undergone abortions to be stoned to death. In May, Brunei became the first east or far-eastern Asian country to implement the law.

But pulling out of a conference scheduled years in advance because it’s become the center of a social firestorm is complicated and not always feasible for associations and other groups. “It’s not an easy decision at all, not when a lot of money you depend on comes from a convention,” says Suzette Eaddy, CMP, vice president of conferences, meetings and events for National Minority Supplier Development Council. In 2010, the nonprofit group moved its annual conference out of Arizona to protest the state’s tough immigration laws.

With gay rights and other divisive issues like immigration remaining in the news, and with social media making it easier to speak out, the Beverly Hills brouhaha almost certainly won’t be the last time groups must weigh the costs of taking a stand. It doesn’t look like planners’ jobs are about to get any easier.

Coming or Going?

This fundamental question drives a series of events for any organization facing a dilemma like NMSDC did in 2010. Ultimately, the association’s membership, furious over Gov. Jan Brewer’s crackdown on immigrants, voiced enough opposition to sway the board of directors. “We had a reputation to maintain,” Eaddy explains. “We felt that if we went to Arizona, our credibility would be lost.” NMSDC was able to afford any financial losses from the move, a luxury fledgling organizations or ones without sizeable infrastructure don’t have.

Government groups and associations may make the same decision as NMSDC but for a different reason. It’s often in their charter to remain nonpartisan, as was the case with the League of California Cities when it stopped doing business with a California property after its owner came out against gay marriage during the height of the Proposition 8 debate. “We wanted to stay out of it,” recalls Tracy Petrillo, a longtime planner who was the organization’s director of education and conferences at the time.

Familiar Territory

Just because NMSDC pulled out of Arizona five months before its annual convention doesn’t mean a backup plan was in place. “No, no, no. That’s too much work,” Eaddy says. “You always expect the best.” Eaddy says the group builds in language to get out of contracts, but it risked a major financial hit. The damage was alleviated when Miami—which previously hosted the group—was tapped as the replacement.

Who’s cancelled? At least 20 groups, including The OutGiving Conference and Feminist Majority Foundation, cancelled events at Beverly Hills Hotel. Additionally, a 2015 pre-Oscars party is moving out of the property. The property, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the boycott’s impact.

Eaddy already had a working relationship with vendors and did not need to make an additional site visit. As a bonus, she secured last-minute deals at area hotels looking to fill rooms that October. The event drew 6,228 attendees in 2010, significantly higher than the 5,541 attendees as the 2009 conference in New Orleans. In a twist, Eaddy is currently looking for a replacement for Miami Beach Convention Center, which was slated to host the 2017 conference but won’t be able to because of a planned renovation. Fortunately, she has more time to plan this time around. Expect the association to select a site it’s been to previously.

Talk It Out

Petrillo, now the chief learning officer of Educause, says some groups may embrace the controversy and stick with plans. More typically, though, financial or logistical concerns are too much to make a late change. If that’s case, Petrillo says it’s important to be honest about the situation. Groups can diffuse criticism by saying, “We understand, we hear the complaints, but we are not able to pay out just because a particular group doesn’t want us going to a venue,” she says.

Organizations can also use a controversy as an opportunity to discuss different point of views, adds Petrillo. She recommends adding a session to a meeting to tackle the issue head on. “Everyone can have their own views, so we as planners should to be prepared to have appropriate venues to discuss those views,” she says.

In the end, though, most properties have a history that would cause groups to pause, notes CBS News Travel editor Peter Greenberg. “If you want to actually dig deep at who owns any of the hotels out there, you wouldn’t stay anywhere,” he says. “If you want to take a political stand, start building your own condo.”

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