Should You Stay or Should You Go?
Associations contract with host cities and conference venues years in advance, but the political winds blow on their own timeline. In a year marked by adoption of controversial legislation in a handful of states, associations have been challenged to consider whether these laws align with their values. And that has forced hard choices about where and how members gather. Here’s how two groups responded.
On April 27, American Counseling Association CEO Richard Yep, FASAE, CAE, received the bad news: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam had signed a bill that allowed therapists to reject LGBT and other clients on the basis of “sincerely held principles.” For Yep, this was a direct challenge to the nondiscrimination clause in ACA’s code of ethics. And because the association’s annual conference was headed to Nashville in 2017, ACA had an opportunity to make a statement by moving the meeting elsewhere.
But was that the right statement? And would the board agree to it?
Yep had informed his 30-person board that trouble was brewing as the bill headed to passage in the state legislature. But despite a lobbying push and public support by groups such as NAACP and ASAE, it was clear the bill would head to Haslam’s desk. ACA would have to make a decision about Nashville: stay or go?
On a conference call a week after the bill became law, ACA’s board president asked each board member to express gut feelings—nothing more. Don’t think about the expense of leaving Nashville, she said. Don’t think about member reactions. What do you think ACA should do?
“I have to tell you,” Yep says, “the vote was not unanimous.”
Divisive issues, by definition, don’t produce unanimity. But in recent years, controversial state laws in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arizona have prompted association meeting planners to think more closely about their decision-making and planning processes. Whether you decide to pull a meeting from a state—as ACA ultimately did—or stand pat, tactics for such everyday matters as member communication and contract negotiations are more essential than ever.Richard Yep, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the American Counseling Association. (Brad Howell)
Joan L. Eisenstodt, a longtime association meetings consultant and president of Eisenstodt Associates, says associations still don’t plan ahead as well as they should for situations where states enact laws that challenge the organization’s values.
“There’s not that deep a conversation across departments about what this means to how we operate,” she says. “I’ve seen so many meeting RFPs go out that don’t delve deeply into some of the issues that people need to deal with.”
One challenge is that while legislative activity can be difficult to predict even weeks or months ahead of time, associations typically select sites for large meetings years in advance. It’s one thing when a measure is already on the books: An association can decline to book meetings in a state where legislation conflicts with its values, as when Arizona passed a strict immigration bill in 2010. That’s the route the American Public Transportation Association took, in fact. But APTA was less than two months away from its four-day Bus & Paratransit Conference in Charlotte when the North Carolina legislature passed HB2, the so-called bathroom bill that eliminated a host of municipal antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people.
APTA decided to stay. Lenay Gore, APTA’s senior director for meetings and tradeshows, says staying put was the right decision: It gave the association the opportunity to add more sessions on diversity and inclusion and to broadcast its support for D+I. “Transportation moves everyone, so our message was that we’re an inclusive organization and industry,” she says. “That was a big decision because we felt Charlotte did try to do the right thing.”
ACA’s board addressed similar feelings during that first board conference call about the Nashville meeting. Those opposed to relocating the conference, Yep says, didn’t agree with the law. “It was because they felt we might be abandoning our members who live in Tennessee,” he says.
So Yep’s goal, both with the board and ACA membership, was to promote its commitment to the state despite the law. Once the decision to relocate was made, it used its social media channels and website to push that message out. And the overall mood about the outcome is positive.
“I will tell you that the board feels really good about their decision,” he says. “ACA has 20 different divisions you can join, and the divisions have chimed in, saying, ‘Great move. It’s what we should’ve done.’”
An association is unlikely to pull out of a meeting over a political controversy without taking a financial hit. But it can gain more leverage with a hotel or other conference venue by working its concerns into a contract.
“In any hotel contract negotiation, you’re always in the best position if early in the negotiations you come to them and you say, ‘These are our deal breakers,’” says Lisa M. Hix, partner with the law firm Venable LLP. “‘We need a provision which states that the reputation and brand of this particular facility will be consistent with, or at least not in conflict with, our overall mission.’ My experience has been hotels have been very willing to negotiate that type of provision because they similarly want to be seen as a venue which is welcome to multiple types of associations.”
Eisenstodt recommends that associations identify their chief concerns on this front and build them into RFPs—not just for hotels and conference centers, but for all companies involved in the meeting. “Do you care if they have a D+I policy? You put it in your RFP,” she says. “Then it is very tough [for the venue or vendor] to negotiate a clause about getting out of a contract without paying damages if something happens that is opposed to what you do.”
She also suggests that meeting planners stay on top of the news in the state where the association will be, even years out. “Set alerts for issues that are of concern to your association, such as ‘religious freedom laws,’” she says.
APTA is now doing that, Gore says, continuing to work closely with its policy department and diversity council to monitor laws and regulations relating to equality issues. Its legal team drafts language for future contracts, giving the organization the power to back out if the law changes in a way that contradicts APTA’s values. But she says a certain amount of unpredictability has to be, well, predicted.
“Like many organizations, we are booked in locations for future years, and we will need to keep an eye on all these areas to monitor legislation that goes against our core values as an organization and industry,” she says.
The Upside of Moving
ACA ultimately decided to move its meeting to San Francisco, and Yep is cautiously optimistic that the association made the right move. Cautious because it’s asking a lot of ACA members, who are mostly based in the South and East Coast, to come to a meeting in an expensive West Coast city. And cautious because if the association faces this situation again, he wants to make sure the board can approach it with a strategic focus.
But a relocated meeting is also an opportunity to shake the dust off some old habits, Yep says. For example, the San Francisco space will be smaller, so multiple member groups that are used to gathering separately during the conference will now have to work together.
“We’ve been starting to float out the phrase ‘one community,’” he says. “What we want them to know is, while you have distinct areas of expertise, you’re all under the same tent. We’re coming together in San Francisco to demonstrate that.”