When a majority draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court was leaked in May, hinting that Roe vs. Wade would be overturned in the summer, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) decided to pull their annual Clinical and Scientific Meeting out of New Orleans.
Louisiana at the time was one of 13 states that had a trigger law in place that would outlaw abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, and ACOG, which hosts the largest gathering of obstetricians and gynecologists, cited that it could not convene in a destination that was out of step with its values.
“We made this decision consistent with our long-standing values and in response to the introduction of legislation in Louisiana criminalizing the practice of evidence-based medicine,” said Rachel Kingery, senior media relations manager for ACOG, in a statement to Meetings Today. “Holding the nation’s largest gathering of obstetrician-gynecologists in a location where the provision of evidence-based care is banned and/or subject to criminal or other penalties is directly at odds with our mission and values.”
ACOG’s annual meeting attracted more than 4,000 attendees to San Diego in 2022, and likely pulls comparable attendance numbers from New Orleans in 2023.
“ACOG requires the ability to present, discuss and educate on the full range of reproductive health care at our Clinical and Scientific Meeting in a setting that is safe and in a place where our members will be free from personal attack or civil or criminal prosecution,” she added. “We will continue supporting the safety of our members and opposing legislative interference in the practice of evidence-based medicine.”
Ultimately, Roe vs. Wade was in fact overturned on June 24, following the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, causing a string of meeting cancellations for reasons similar to ACOG’s. The decision has had a ripple effect through the meetings industry, causing more organizations to weigh whether they bring their future meetings to destinations in which abortion rights are under fire.
It all brings back to the fore the specter of “destination boycotts,” where meetings and events move their business out of destinations with the ultimate goal of affecting legislative change, or only bring business to destinations that align with their values.
As this strategy makes headlines in the meetings and events industry again, it may leave meeting professionals wondering: Do destination boycotts work? What legal challenges will my group face as a consequence? And, what alternatives are there to destination boycotts if my group can’t afford to cancel?
To help meeting and event professionals navigate the murky waters of destination boycotts, we take a deep dive into the subject, including some advice for how to approach the conversation with your organization and event partners.
Destination boycotts aren’t a new idea. The utilization of destination boycotts made headlines in 2016 when North Carolina passed House Bill 2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” which required that people at a government-run facility must use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. The controversial legislation received harsh criticism from LGBTQ groups, and major events scheduled in the state threatened to pull their events as a result.
The bill was soon repealed after the NCAA got involved, removing seven championship events, including their March Madness events, proving that destination boycotts can work in affecting legislative change.
With the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24 of this year, destination boycotts came into the meeting sphere again. In addition to ACOG, for example, a professional medical and research ethics organization, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, cancelled its planned convention in Salt Lake City scheduled for this November in response to the Utah’s trigger law that bans most abortions and its recent passage of legislation that bans transgender youth athletes from competing on girls teams.
For ACOG, relocation was the only option for their attendees to feel comfortable. While the group declined to share contract specifics about the challenges of cancelling their business with the convention center and various hotels, it felt confident their decision was the right one for its attendees.
“Any challenges in relocating the conference were less important to us than the ability to conduct our annual Clinical and Scientific Meeting in a setting where our members can freely discuss the full scientific scope of providing reproductive health care without threat of harm,” Kingery said.
Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Dallas, said that his team has experienced a number of cancellations in the wake of the SCOTUS decision as well. The decisions bring frustration to CVBs like Visit Dallas, which represent more-progressive cities in conservative states like Texas.
“We are not a reflection of our entire state’s populace, and it’s very frustrating to us that we are getting punished for something we didn’t do,” he said. Davis also mentioned the CVB fights against misperceptions that Dallas isn’t welcoming to diverse communities like LGBTQ groups or minority groups, for example, which can also affect groups’ decisions to meet or not meet in a destination.
Fighting back against these perceptions and acting as an ally and educator to planners with concerns about their city is one way Visit Dallas is working through these challenges.
“We were the first DMO to have a chief diversity officer, and that was created 10 years ago,” he noted as an example of a talking point with groups that have concerns about Dallas, “and also have the sixth-largest LGBTQ community in the U.S.”
[From Destinations International: A Toolkit for Dealing With a Travel Ban or Boycott Around Your Event]
While there are examples of destination boycotts creating legislative change, such as the House Bill 2 example in North Carolina, there are others who would argue that it’s an exceptional case.
“To us, [destination boycotts] are counterproductive. We also think they’re ineffective,” said Jack Johnson, chief
advocacy officer for Destinations International. “Destination boycotts are not actually targeting the people who can actually make the change. That’s the legislators; it’s elected officials, the governors or councilmen, or whatever it is. And they don’t know that you’re not there.”
Davis agreed, and said that while destination boycotts are usually well-intentioned, they often do more harm than good, in his opinion. Those in the hospitality industry—hotels, venues, restaurants, etc.—are many times most affected by the lost business.
“I’d like to caution people about pulling out of cities like us. These kinds of laws are getting passed all over the U.S., and it’s going to do nothing to help the people they are trying to protect,” he said, instead encouraging meeting planners to have an open conversation with their CVB partners before deciding to cancel a meeting. “If you have a concern, then we as a DMO can set you up with the right people to speak to and have a conversation about your concerns. That’s what we can offer as a city—to help you have that dialogue with our elected officials.”
“At the heart of things, it goes against what meetings are all about, which is to bring people together and have that exchange and to learn from each other,” Johnson offered, prompting concerned groups to go beyond the convention centers and hotel walls and get out and involved in the community.
For groups that have already contracted their meeting in a city that no longer aligns with their group’s mission and values, choosing to cancel can open up a host of legal challenges.
“In the vast the majority of meeting contracts, there is no right to pull out of a venue contract because of a change in law that offends the principles of the organization or its members,” explained meetings industry attorney Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., principal of Grimes Law Offices. “And, it’s not a force majeure. So, if you’re going to pull out, you’re probably going to pay cancellation damages, unless you reach some settlement with the venues you’re under contract with.”
If the groups you are working with have expressed concerns about certain destinations and their legislation relating to abortion, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, among others, Grimes says it’s important to have open conversations.
“I think it’s incumbent on organizations to think about whether there are destinations that they find to be concerning in terms of their legislation,” Grimes advised. “What I’m seeing is some organizations are just staying away from those states [that concern them]. Whether a boycott is a good idea, that’s not the lawyer’s decision, respectfully. I understand the argument that the CVBs make that you shouldn’t hurt our hotels because of government issues, but the reality is that organizations can choose who they want to support.
“The other way to handle that is to have a contract provision for new laws that are enacted after you’ve contracted with a destination so that you can pull out if it offends a group’s principles,” Grimes added. “It’s indefinite to say, ‘If something comes up that offends our company’s principles,’ but it is possible to create that, but difficult to get the destination to agree to that.”
Those open conversations with CVBs and venue partners at the beginning of the booking process are important to have, too.
“If you have a concern, then we as a DMO can set you up with the right people to speak to and have a conversation about your concerns,” Davis said. “And that’s precisely what we’ve been doing.”
Davis noted that Visit Dallas can connect groups to local elected officials, and that Dallas also has Black, Latino and LGBTQ chambers, and has previously connected groups with certain concerns to members of those chambers to have an open dialogue.
Another thing to be aware of, Grimes cautioned, is that some governments prohibit their employees from traveling to certain states, and groups should explore this before booking in a destination. California does that in particular with its AB 1887 legislation, which prohibits a state agency, department, board or commission from requiring any state employees, officers or members to travel to a state that, after June 26, 2015, has enacted a law that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“If a lot of your attendees are government employees, that could be a force majeure. But that’s not the usual situation,” Grimes added.
Cancellation damages can often be steep, and some groups may not be able to afford to cancel the meeting, despite the concerns of the organization, its members and/or attendees of the meeting—not to mention the logistical headaches of rebooking in a new destination.
There are still options on the ground to support your cause that, Johnson argues, are more engaging options to affect real change on the issue you care about.
Johnson referenced actions that Destinations International took in 2019 when their annual convention took place in St. Louis.
“At the time, Missouri was debating a bill on restricting reproductive rights,” he said. “We had people reach out to us that said, ‘I’m not comfortable coming to Missouri and supporting that. But we want to come to the convention. We’re torn.’”
Johnson said that the Destinations International team urged those attendees to still come to the convention. “[We said] ‘You will learn more from being here, you’ll interact with your peers, all the reasons that are really good about a meeting. But let us put you in contact with the local chapter of Planned Parenthood.’”
Johnson also recommended that groups put together a bank of information for attendees, listing local businesses like restaurants, shops, etc., that support abortion rights, for example, so that visitors can help fundraise or give their money to local business that are aligned with their values.
“Most of these boycotts, while totally well-intentioned, are rarely called for by the locals,” Johnson said. “How can you activate? How can you make it known you’re there to engage with the locals?”
Other alternatives Johnson offered include fundraising for local groups supporting the issue you care about, meeting with local elected officials and letting them know your concerns, or even taking out a full-page ad in a local publication stating your concerns. Johnson cited a medical group did just that, stating its concerns about reproductive rights in the destination in which it was meeting.
“It can be as modest as a T-shirt campaign,” he said. “Sell the T-shirts, and that money goes to support a local organization.”
In this vein, meetings industry veterans Beth Surmont and Elena Gerstmann recently launched their pilot of SocialOffset, which allows attendees and organizations to donate to charities that counter the legislation and policies in question in the destinations they are gathering in. It’s yet another example of working to make changes on the ground.
The most important takeaway for meeting professionals grappling with the issue of destination boycotts? Stay in communication with all of the stakeholders. Know the values and needs of the group you are representing, know the legal challenges that your group will face if you cancel a meeting and have an open dialogue with the host city to see how your group can have an impact on the ground if cancellation isn’t an option.
Because ACOG’s mission and values around reproductive healthcare is well defined, and it is in-step with the feelings of its members, it felt confident in its decision to remove its meeting from New Orleans rather than explore alternative options in the city.
“Our members are appreciative that ACOG is demonstrating our values so concretely. Our members in Louisiana understand that we made this decision as part of our commitment to them and their patients,” Kingery said.
The mission and values of other groups and associations may not make the decision as easy as it was for ACOG—all the more reason to constantly monitor the pulse of members and attendees.
“I see this issue becoming more frequent,” Grimes said of destination boycotts, given the high tensions in the country right now around politics and social issues.
He recommends that as your group plans for future meetings, you should discuss these things up front with your group, and during the RFP process with a destination.
“When they start planning the meeting, decide where it is they will be comfortable, to pay particular attention if a certain state is of concern,” he said. “Stay away from them. Once you sign the contract, it is going to be difficult to cancel without paying damages.”
And if you decide to move forward with meetings in destinations that might give your attendees some pause, Johnson suggests recalling why face-to-face interactions and travel is so important.
“This is just getting to the heart of why we all believe in travel. Travel opens you up to new experiences; it’s really the only time that people are open to change,” he said. “If I sum it all up in one message, it’s basically: You shouldn’t avoid these destinations, you should go there and engage in activity that empowers the locals who are fighting the battle.”