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by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations MCI

On Boycotting

PAGI Sool EllaSince August there has been a sustained campaign calling on sponsor corporations of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, like Coca Cola and McDonald’s, to boycott the games in protest at the host country’s appalling treatment of the LGBT community. The meetings industry press has picked up on this and generated some discussion, both in print and on-line, around the role and responsibility of meetings industry professionals in the great ethics debate, Sochi being one striking example of how the two collide. Site, too, is focusing on the topic, dedicating an entire breakout session to it next week in Orlando, during the International Conference. I’ll be debating the issue there with one of the most consistent proponents of the ethics issue, Martin Lewis of CAT Publications, in the chair.

The Questions

Lewis’s blog on MeetPie (“A Time for Ethics”, 25 March 2013) concludes with a series of 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?

His 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, however, was “this is a very complex issue”.

The Complexities

But to say that ethics in the meetings industry is complex is like saying Bill Gates is rich such is the inherent litotes. Moreover, Gates’ billions are, each second, generating millions in interest just as the nuanced subtleties of any ethical discussion expand and grow like rampant bindweed. Discussions 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 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?

Reasonable Responses

Conference & Incentive Travel Magazine reproduced extracts from interviews with three agency leaders in the UK following the Sochi issue and all three dismissed the idea of a boycott (“Big debate: Industry figures dismiss Russia events boycott” 28 Aug 2013). Interestingly, two of the 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)

“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 a Lewis’s posting:

“One agency, company, industry or even country acting alone does not have the ability to make a real impact” (Nigel Cooper, Motivcom)

These are all practical, reasonable opinions which, I reckon, are pretty representative of where most of us might stand. We weight up 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 be standing out there alone? Without the UK Government or the UK meetings market 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 Niemoller’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 …

I look forward to a lively discussion on this huge topic in Orlando!

Padraic Gilligan works for MCI and, with Patrick Delaney, is responsible for Ovation Global DMC, MCI’s destination services division



One thought on “Ethics in the Meetings Industry – let the debate begin

  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Complex, yes. And many discussions need to be on so complex an issue as ethics. I am you introduced this. It complements nicely my current blog – and I will cross-post yours to mine.

    As background: I am a recent past chair of the Ethics Committee for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) after serving for 4 years on that Committee. I have served on and chaired diversity and ethics committees for other organizations including MPI and PCMA. I have challenged these same organizations for violating their own codes of conduct, and in MPI’s case, for violating their own code and their signature on the UN Global Compact ( by taking a meeting to Dubai where it was documented that workers were being used as slave labor, and MPI chose not to speak out. I suggested that the entire staff and Board involved in the decision and attending the meeting were in violation of the Code and should lose their memberships. I was told that they were in line because they had in fact done something while there. No documentation was ever provided and in conversations, I was told nothing was done. I challenged the MPI Board’s trip to China, putting both the Board in health’s harm’s way and not speaking out about the human rights violations there.

    Perhaps because I grew up around Survivors, because my parents and I were involved in the US Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, and I in many demonstrations for rights for many peoples, your quoting of Martin Niemoller means so much as does this blog. If people wait for others to act, nothing happens.

    Regarding the proposed boycott of the Sochi Olympics: I am in favor of it and have posted that elsewhere in discussions among international hospitality and meetings colleagues. I am also in favor of action in Sochi v. a boycott. There is much that can be done by one person, one team, one sponsor. Wearing rainbow flags as pins, speaking out, saying the companies are there to support the teams of their countries while saying out loud that they support the rights of each human being to live an open life and to have the rights of all is another.

    And on the other hand, I know that supporting the oppressed people of any country means we are supporting those who need to earn a living. Ah .. thus my own difficulty!

    It is no different for me living in the US where workers in hotels are earning minimum wage and are treated poorly; where the industry depends on immigrant labor and stays silent on the issues of immigrant rights.

    Ethics and behaving ethically is complex. If we do not discuss it, we change nothing. In our industry, where business is done with a wink and nod and lots of justification, it is no wonder those who have thus far spoken out are “pooh-poohing” actions. If it perhaps will impact their pockets being filled is another reason they and others may not speak up and out.

    Ask, plesae, Padraic, each person in the audience to consider what they would do if their rights were being abused – if they would support an event in a country or in a hotel or in a place that could imprison them for speaking out. My guess is that in that audience there will be those who could be and if not them, family members or friends. Ask then if they would want someone to act.

    I anxiously await hearing what the discussion is. I hope it will not be the end. Ethics must be discussed at every industry gathering every time there is one. Otherwise, we never feel, think or change.

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