Lessons from Arizona: Meetings and Controversial Legislation

While Arizona’s governor vetoed the controversial bill that would have allowed businesses to use religious beliefs to refuse service to people earlier this week, the uproar around the measure provides plenty for associations to think about as they pick locations and plan for their upcoming meetings.

Late last week the Arizona Legislature passed SB 1062 [PDF], a controversial bill that would have allowed business owners to use their religious beliefs as a basis for refusing service to gays and others without fear of lawsuits. On Monday, it was sent to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk. Late Wednesday, she announced she had vetoed the bill, a welcome outcome for many businesses, including Apple and Delta Airlines, that had spoken out against the measure.

There’s so much competition for tourism dollars that anything controversial that we are doing plays a negative role in the ability to attract visitors.

“When the legislature passes bills like this, it creates a reputation that Arizona is judgmental and unwelcoming,” stated a letter that more than 80 businesses sent to Brewer on Monday. “This will haunt our business community for decades to come.”

Arizona’s hospitality-, convention-, and tourism-related groups shared the same sentiment and worked hard to illustrate the potential impact on their respective industries. “About 200,000 jobs in this state are directly tied to tourism, and what that equates to … is $19.3 billion annually in spending, and, if [that] still doesn’t resonate with you, the trickle-down effect is about $2.6 billion just in tax revenue,” Kristen Jarnagin, senior vice president of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association (ALTA), told Glendale’s news radio station, KTAR.

Particularly worrisome to Arizona tourism officials was the potential loss of revenue surrounding the 2015 Super Bowl, scheduled to take place at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium. Officials were concerned that the National Football League would pull the event from Arizona, as it did in 1993 when it moved the game to California after Arizona voters refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid state holiday in 1990.

While the immediate threat has been avoided thanks to the governor’s veto, ALTA and the Arizona Business Travel Association still fear the loss of conventions and events. Their fears are not unfounded: Since the state passed its anti-immigration law in 2010, Arizona’s convention business has faced a bookings slump, which the tourism and convention industry attributes to the controversial policy.

Following that law’s passage, associations like NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education had to decide whether to cancel their meetings booked years before. In the end, NASPA decided to keep its 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix and speak out on the issue onsite, but others, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called for a boycott of the state.

It looked like history might be repeating itself this month. Jarnagin said ALTA  received hundreds of emails and messages from people saying they would stay away from Arizona because of SB 1062. “There’s so much competition for tourism dollars that anything controversial that we are doing plays a negative role in the ability to attract visitors,” she said.

In fact, one association announced it would move its meeting out of Arizona. On Wednesday, before Brewer’s veto and with a unanimous vote by its board of governors, the Hispanic National Bar Association pulled its 2015 Annual Convention from Phoenix.

“HNBA views this as a civil rights issue. As a national association of lawyers committed to promoting the ideals of equal protection, equal opportunity, tolerance, and inclusiveness, it is imperative that we speak up and take immediate action in the presence of injustice,” said HNBA National President Miguel Alexander Pozo in a statement. “As the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said more than 50 years ago, writing from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Unfortunately, the issue goes beyond Arizona. A number of other states—Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio, to name a few—are considering similar legislation.

This is a tricky issue for meeting planners and associations, as conventions and events, particularly large ones, are booked years in advance. Any association considering whether to pull a meeting from a scheduled location faces high cancellation fees if the meeting is pulled or, if it stays put, the potential for attendees to boycott the event in protest.

Some associations, like NASPA, have decided to keep the meeting in its planned location, incorporating current news and controversial public policy issues into the meeting agenda and using it as learning and conversation tool for attendees. Others, like HNBA, have said the fact that the state would even consider such a bill was reason enough for it to find a different location for its meeting.

How has your association handled any controversy it has faced with an already chosen meetings destination? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who vetoed a controversial "religious beliefs" bill this week. (photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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