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“Sweet Home Alabama?”

By Padraic Gilligan, Managing Director, Ovation Global DMC and Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI

The much reported story of the German corporate executive who was arrested and jailed in Alabama for not having the required documentation on his person raises some interesting issues for corporate meeting planners and destination marketers. It appears the unnamed 46-year-old Mercedes employee was only able to present a German identity card when pulled over by Tuscaloosa police. He was subsequently arrested and charged with not having proper identification as required by Alabama’s new immigration law. When a colleague retrieved his passport, visa and driver’s licence from his hotel room and presented them to the police he was released without charge.

It seems, however, that the international syndicates omitted an important detail from the story: the Merc executive was pulled over because there were no licence plates on his car, a clear breach of the law in any country and one about which an automobile executive should have been particularly aware, irrespective of his country of origin. But should he have known about the need to carry full identification as per the State Law in Alabama? I believe this, and any other specific requirement of Alabama law, should have been pointed out to him very clearly by the local Mercedes affiliate so as to avoid any equivocation or expectation that what goes in Achen might go in Alabama too.

A key premise for all international travel is for the traveller to adapt himself to the local customs and traditions and to abide by the local laws and regulations however different these may be from his country of origin. This is part of the magic and mystery of travel – as a guest in another country you put aside your own behaviours and embrace the behaviours of the host country. It’s what makes travel such a personally enriching activity – you wear somebody else’s shoes and maybe look at the world through their eyes.

Thus within the context of corporate policy and corporate meeting planning I believe the onus is on the corporation to be up-to-date and informed regarding everything that might impact a foreign employee of that corporation. A corporate meeting planner staging an event in Alabama must inform all participants in advance of the need to carry official, locally recognised identification at all times, in line with the recently passed Immigration law. End of Story.

Or is it?

Clearly it’s not the end of the story if the furore in the local, national and international press is anything to go by. In this context it’s a PR nightmare for destination marketers who spend long hours and state dollars trying to attract high spending visitors. It’s perhaps a bigger nightmare for whatever agency was responsible for attracting Mercedes-Benz to Tuscaloosa in 1993 where the plant now provides more than 22,000 jobs and is Alabama’s largest exporter, sending a staggering $1 billion (€743 million) in exports throughout the world.

Many of the comments on the digital sites refer to the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. You pass a law because there is need to impose heavy controls on illegal immigrants but you end up with a major PR blunder that insults your best employer. Did it need to turn out that way? Clearly not. If you apply the basic duck test – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it’s a duck – then this particular individual wasn’t an illegal immigrant. As one commentator wryly and ironically stated “What? A German driving an expensive Mercedes? Of course it is highly probable that he is an illegal immigrant.” Had the law enforcers offered to drive the executive to his hotel and to inspect his papers there they would have reinforced the “Sweet Home Alabama” message and been feted as heroes.

Destination marketers invest huge time, creative effort and real dollars to build a coherent destination brand message. The State of Alabama operates an impressive web portal to attract visitors to the State and even offers matching grants to enterprises promoting and advertising the recreational, historical or travel attractions and/or related events within the State of Alabama. The 8 or so Convention and Visitor Bureaux for the larger conurbations such as Montgomery, Birmingham, Huntsville etc all extol the “classic southern charm and hospitality”. All of this, however, can evaporate in an instant when a random news story piques the interest of the media and spreads with lightning speed all over the internet.

I asked a good friend, a corporate meeting planner and Alabama resident, for his views on the topic. He believes the immigration law, which gave rise to the arrest of the German executive, is necessary due to the “increased burden on state social programmes, and the drastic increase in crime” resulting from illegal migration. He points to the arrest of the German as “the worst case scenario as far as the new law is concerned”. He also makes the point that it’s easy to cast judgment from locations without a large immigration problem and concludes “If there is a solution that solves this equation while in no way infringing on one’s individual rights, I have yet to hear it.”

Looks like the  debate, initiated years ago, when Alabama boys and orthographically challenged Lynyrd Syknyrd penned “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is destined to continue.

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One thought on “Sweet Home Alabama?

  1. The ‘Meet The Fockers’ arrest scent came to mind when reading this article – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMX_DNeziH0 @padraicino

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