Controversial state legislation around LGBT issues is driving mounting opposition from industry groups and posing new challenges for meeting professionals. By Regina McGee

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A coalition of Texas convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and industry associations kicked off its “Texas Welcomes All” campaign in January in Austin with a press conference on the steps of the Capitol building. The coalition is voicing opposition to Texas Senate Bill 6, proposed legislation that would regulate which restrooms transgender people can use in publicly funded schools and government buildings.

“This bill really hurts the brand of Texas. It creates the perception that we don’t welcome people from all walks of life and all backgrounds and that we’re not an open, inclusive society. That’s not who we are as Texans. That’s not the message we want to deliver,” said Phillip Jones, CEO of the Dallas CVB, at the press conference.

The coalition consists of several Texas CVBs, including those representing Arlington, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Irving and San Antonio, as well as leaders from the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the International Association ofExhibitions and Events (IAEE), and TechNet.

“Restroom laws are one of the top policy deterrents for planning conventions, conferences and meetings,” said Deborah Sexton, PCMA president and CEO. “Our industry holds 1.83 million meetings annually and brings in $28 billion in U.S. federal, state and local taxes annually, with more than $280 billion in annual U.S. direct spending spurred by our sector. Should Senate Bill 6 be signed into law, you ensure Texas’ future percentage of these taxes and spending will exponentially be reduced.”

Senate Bill 6 requires transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates. The bill also prohibits local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Private entities that lease public facilities, such as convention centers or stadiums, are permitted to adopt whatever bathroom-usage policy they wish for their events at these facilities. Texas businesses are also free to designate whatever bathroom policies they wish.

Proponents say the legislation, also known as the Texas Privacy Act, is based on privacy concerns about men entering women’s restrooms and locker rooms. Opponents say it only discriminates against transgender people and that there is little evidence that nondiscrimination policies allow sexual predators to freely enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms.

Economic Impact

The Texas Association of Business — a top business lobby group — has warned that the legislation could cost the state between $964 million and $8.5 billion in economic blowback and more than 100,000 jobs.

The group points to the ongoing economic consequences suffered by North Carolina, which last March passed a similar “bathroom bill.” That law has resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in cancelled concerts, conventions and sporting events, as well as businesses scrapping expansion plans. Charlotte, the state’s largest city, lost nearly $100 million when the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game to New Orleans, city officials estimated.

The Texas and North Carolina bathroom bills were not the first state legislation perceived as discriminatory against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community to trigger widespread pushback. Convention groups, industry organizations and major corporations spoke up in unprecedented numbers in 2015 in opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics said the law would open the door legally for discrimination against LGBT people. Some groups threatened to cancel their Indiana events, but the law was repealed shortly after being passed.

Moreover, as lawmakers in Virginia and Kentucky have this year filed bills to regulate which restrooms transgender people may use in public facilities, and as other states are considering legislation similar to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Texas Senate Bill 6 likely will not be the last piece of legislation to stir opposition from industry associations, meeting organizers and corporations.

Issues of Diversity and Inclusion

Particularly for groups who focus on diversity and inclusion, legislation that poses a threat to the accommodation of members at conventions is a growing concern. These groups include ASAE, which last summer at its annual meetingadopted a sweeping platform to promote diversity and inclusion among associations. ASAE also adopted a new event contract clause that evokes a force-majeure right to cancel an event if state or local laws are passed that would, in effect, discriminate against ASAE members.

“This is a business decision. It’s about assuring the public accommodation of all our members,” said John Graham, ASAE’s CEO and president. The contract for ASAE’s 2020 annual meeting, to be held in Dallas, includes the new contract provision. “This [provision] is also meant to support the hospitality industry in its pushback against discriminatory laws, to spell out the economic consequences.”

Another group that finds itself embroiled in inclusivity issues sparked by controversial state legislation is the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). ACPA’s annual meeting is scheduled for Houston in March 2018. The annual meeting typically draws 3,200 attendees, including 1,600 graduate students.

“This issue [regulating which bathrooms transgender people can use] cuts to the heart of who we are as an inclusive organization,” said Cindi Love, ACPA’s executive director. She stressed that Houston officials — from the CVB and convention center to the mayor’s office, the police force and all the association’s hotel partners — are working tirelessly to assure that transgender ACPA members will be seamlessly accommodated and are “safe and welcome” when stepping outside contracted facilities.

She noted that some states, including California, have passed laws that prohibit state employees from attending conferences in states with legislation that discriminates against LGBT people. How this will affect registration for the March 2018 meeting is one of many factors being evaluated by ACPA leadership, which is weighing a decision whether or not to move the 2018 meeting. A decision will need to be made by early March of this year in order to prevent full penalty fees (in the event of cancelling the meeting later in the year), which would be “in excess of $600,000 — about 30 percent of our operating budget,” Love said. (No decision had been made at press time.)

Like ASAE, ACPA has developed new contract language that would evoke a force-majeure right to cancel a meeting should the destination pass discriminatory legislation. The clause has been incorporated into the contract for the association’s 2021 annual meeting, its first upcoming meeting for which the association does not already have a contract. Moreover, according to Love, similar contract language is being considered by members of the Student Affairs in Higher Education Consortium (SAHEC), an umbrella group of associations that includes ACPA. (See “Advance Planning is Key to Objectionable Laws,” page 8, for legal columnist Barbara Dunn O’Neal’s perspective on contract language around this issue.)

“In the past, our primary considerations have been, and remain, inclusivity and equity in accommodations, accessibility, affordability and a positive member experience for all attendees,” said Love. “Now we must plan far in advance to reject locations with state and local discrimination laws that hurt our members.”

Deborah Borak, CDS, CMM, SMMC, vice president/team director, ConferenceDirect, is working with ACPA on its 2021 and 2022 annual meetings. “For an increasing number of clients, site selection is not just about rates, dates and space,” Borak said. “Our due diligence has expanded exponentially and now requires knowing about current and proposed local ordinances and laws that may impact attendance at our clients’ meetings. Our clients rely on us to understand their unique needs and to work hand-in-hand with them to navigate these challenging decisions.” 

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