by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 31, 2018

Cheryl-Anne Sturkenstop human trafficking logoJanuary has been National Human Trafficking Awareness month, and momentum for this critical cause continues to build in the hospitality industry. This week, Marriott International became the latest hotel company to join the fight, when it signed onto a new partnership with ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), the country's leading policy organization against child trafficking. While it is not the first hotel company to put its corporate muscle behind the cause – Choice Hotels, Hilton, Hyatt, Sonesta and Wyndham are all members -- it is the largest, with over 6,500 hotels around the globe.

"Everyone has a role in fighting human trafficking and preventing child sexual exploitation," said David Rodriguez, executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for Marriott at the signing, which took place at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center with senators Bob Corker (R-TN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) on hand to witness the event.

Marriott's endorsing of the ECPAT-USA six-point code, however, was actually just the latest notch in Marriott's long collaboration with the human-rights organization. It first partnered with ECPAT-USA in 2011 to co-develop an employee training program aimed at helping the chain's thousands of associates to recognize the signs of human trafficking in its hotels. In January 2017, the mandatory program was rolled out across all of the company's properties in 127 countries and territories, and the company said that to date it has trained more than 225,000 people "who wear the Marriott badge." And, by signing the code, Marriott is officially establishing ECPAT-USA as a strategic partner in raising awareness of trafficking across its 30 hotel brands.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 40.3 million people currently are living in trafficking or exploitative situations, and that one in four of those victims are children. Ahead of the upcoming Super Bowl weekend festivities and championship game in Minneapolis, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Minnesota Lodging Association announced they had teamed up with local hotels in the North Star State to remain vigilant. Why now, during this event?

According to AH&LA, many human-rights organizations believe that human trafficking increases in connection with high-density events, such as the NFL championship. Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Lodging Association, which represents over 2,000 businesses, said his members have been preparing for the big game from a standpoint of human trafficking for months. "Hosting the NFL championship has raised the immediate urgency of the issue at a time when our members are also working to be fabulous hosts to a throng of great visitors," he said.

"The hospitality industry has a critical role in disrupting the human trafficking networks that operate in communities across the United States," said Bradley Myles, chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based Polaris, which developed an online training program, "Your Role in Preventing Human Trafficking," along with ECPAT-USA for AH&LA members. Since its founding in 2007, Polaris has identified and responded to 31,000 cases of human trafficking.

"The only way to effectively turn the tide against traffickers is through coordinated and concerted efforts between nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and businesses whose facilities or services could be utilized by traffickers perpetrating crimes," said Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement for ECPAT-USA.

Human trafficking does not exactly rush to the forefront when we contemplate all the moving parts of meetings and events. It should, though, because hotels, from the bare-bones budget property to the swankiest luxury retreat, are a key component of this underground industry. Planners, add this to your next RFP, and ask your next potential hotel partner, "Have you signed the code?"