BY PADRAIC GILLIGAN
Amongst the priorities for her year as president of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), Rhonda Brewer, vice-president of sales for Maritz Travel Company, listed shedding needed light on the crime of child sex trafficking, a practice, according to research, that grows significantly before and during large events.
SITE intends to use its truly global membership (there are members in a staggering 90 countries) to support ECPAT International, a global network of organizations working together to end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. SITE fully subscribes to Mark Twain’s famous statement about the transformational impact of travel: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Yet SITE acknowledges that there can be another side to international travel; a sinister, ugly underbelly that involves the sexual exploitation of children and their treatment as commodities to be traded across borders. Rhonda Brewer deserves huge kudos for leveraging her leadership at SITE to highlight this immensely important ethical issue. And, SITE’s management team should also be thanked for taking on what will be a long-term initiative that only begins with its 2015 goal of creating awareness and providing education on the issue. These actions are all the more impressive as the MICE industry hasn’t exactly distinguished itself for its pioneering pronouncements on ethical matters, preferring, most of the time, to behave like the proverbial ostrich with its head firmly in the sand.
Sochi: A Tipping Point?
The systematic, ongoing appalling treatment of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community by the Russian authorities and the subsequent general call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympic Games did lead to some MICE industry comment spearheaded, mainly by Martin Lewis of CAT Publications in the UK. On its online platform, MeetPie.com (“A Time for Ethics,” March 25, 2013) Lewis posed a series of searching questions arising out of key aspects of what we do as an industry—choice of destination, choice of suppliers, choice of clients, etc.
“Is this a tipping moment? Is this a time for us to take a more principled view of the world and stop choosing destinations where citizens are not free to choose their destiny? And should we stop handling clients whose activities do not stand close examination? Many companies are correctly asking suppliers to be transparent and reveal their CSR credentials before doing business with them. Isn’t it time our industry added ethics to the discussion and turned the spotlight on some of the clients as well as the supply chain?”
Lewis’s questions provoked quite a reaction with industry heavyweights including Motivcom’s Nigel Cooper and Spectra’s Paul Miller contributing thoughtful responses. The common thread across all responses being a strong intake of breath and the statement: “This is a very complex issue.”
But to say that ethics in the meetings industry is complex is like saying Bill Gates is rich. Like Gates’ billions which, each second, generate millions in interest, the nuanced subtleties of any ethical discussion expand and grow like rampant bindweed. Conversations about ethics in business are notoriously difficult to start due to our widely different departure points and our plethora of filters. They tend to end in anger, frustration or tears and so, many of us simply avoid going there much in the way we sidestep discussion about religion or politics. But do these inherent difficulties exonerate us from engaging in the discussion?
Conference & Incentive Travel magazine reproduced extracts from interviews with three agency leaders in the United Kingdom (UK) following the Sochi issue. All three dismissed the idea of a boycott (“Big debate: Industry figures dismiss Russia events boycott,” August 28, 2013). Interestingly, two of the three respondents dismissed the boycott because they believed it would be ineffective, a lone “sulking voice crying in the wilderness:
“If the UK Government was leading some kind of charge, then fine—but it isn’t and therefore a boycott would only ever be a personal view on behalf of an event agency or an event client.” – Simon Maier, TFI Group
“Unless you represent a sizeable portion of the buying population of a country or supplier, a boycott is no more than sulking; it doesn’t have any real impact. I wish the UK meetings market was a large enough customer of Russia to make a boycott significant to the suppliers over there, but sadly it is not.” – Chris Parnham, Absolute Corporate Events
These match one of Nigel Cooper’s comments at MeetPie to Lewis’s posting: “One agency, company, industry or even country acting alone does not have the ability to make a real impact.”
These are all practical, reasonable opinions which, I reckon, are pretty representative of where most of us might stand. We weigh the pros and cons of the case as we see it and then apply some typical “Art of War” principles—can we rely on the support of our allies to win this battle or will we be standing out there alone? Without the Government or the meetings industry weighing in, we could so easily end up isolated, losing the battle, and in the process, our credibility too. Far too complex. Better stay out of it…
It starts with me
But somehow this all calls to mind Martin Niemöller’s devastating statement on Nazi Germany:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me…”
SITE’s Rhonda Brewer has taken a brave and courageous step in grasping the ethics nettle and drawing our industry’s attention to an underlying aspect of MICE that is sinister and evil. Her initiative deserves our full attention and our unqualified support.
–Padraic Gilligan is managing partner at SoolNua, a marketing consultancy working with destinations and enterprises on strategies for MICE. www.padraicino.com