Sharing a venue with a polarizing group or a rival corporation can cause all sorts of issues. But how can planners avoid it?
An industry devoted to convening like-minded individuals would seem to be little affected by the country’s much commented-upon polarization. However, recent events indicate that planners need to know who their attendees might be rubbing elbows with while on-site.
When a watchdog-designated hate group booked the Raleigh Convention Center, it highlighted the need for — and challenges of — creating a welcoming space for attendees in a polarized cultural and political environment.
A Major Incident
According to local news reports, the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, N.C., accepted a booking — perhaps inadvertently — from the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), a nonprofit group characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a hate group.
The watchdog group said the ISUPK is part of the Radical Hebrew Israelites, a fringe religious movement that promotes extremist views. “These groups are verbally aggressive and express extremely hateful views,” the SPLC warned, adding that the group is “anti-Semitic, anti-white, anti-LGBTQ, xenophobic, and misogynistic.”
The controversial group booked a Passover event for 500 members through a third party, identified in a statement by the city, which manages the convention center, as TGF Solutions. In response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for the city referred to a statement issued to local media, stating that staff wasn’t made aware that the prospective attendees were members of the extremist group.
“At no point before, during or after the booking process did TGF indicate that it was acting on behalf of another organization nor was there any documentation presented which would have suggested that there was any relationship between TGF and the group in question,” it said. The spokeswoman did not answer whether such non-divulgence was a breach of regulations or whether other groups were in-house at the time.
“Having a meeting alongside or nearby another group that might be a hate group, obviously, that’s a concern,” said Evan Carroll, CEO of Attended Meetings, a meeting- and event-planning firm in Raleigh, N.C. “Being based here in downtown Raleigh, having these kinds of groups at our convention center is also a concern. It’s not anything a meeting planner wants.”
Unfortunately a Common Issue
Industry experts say conflicts like this are fairly common, although most are less high-profile. Companies and professional trade groups have never wanted to share space with rival corporations or organizations with competing missions, said Steven M. Rudner, managing partner at Rudner Law Offices, a law firm representing hotel companies. “We’ve been dealing with these issues for at least 25 years,” he said.
Meetings professionals acknowledge, though, that Americans today seem more sharply divided on a wide range of political, religious, and cultural issues, and the prospect of attendees facing extremist rhetoric worries them.
Meeting alongside a group with values in opposition to theirs could make an event uncomfortable — if not untenable — for attendees, said Deborah Breiter, professor emeritus of events at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management.
“There’s been a concern for the safety and comfort of the attendees for a long time, but perhaps now it’s heightened because we’ve seen so many things that are blatantly more political,” she said.
How can meeting organizers avoid being under the same roof with another group that doesn’t align with — or is antithetical to — their organization’s mission or beliefs? Industry legal experts recommend a few proactive steps that can help prevent this scenario.
Just putting language in the contract saying you don’t want “competitors” or groups with “extreme” views isn’t specific enough, said James M. Goldberg, partner at the law firm of Goldberg & Associates. “The venues that will entertain some restrictions on who else to book generally want some precise definition of who the group does not want in the venue at the same time,” he said.
A planner can add a clause stipulating that their contracted venue won’t concurrently host an organization labeled a hate group by a watchdog organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center or Anti-Defamation League. But, in reality, venues — especially publicly-funded ones — might also want to avoid the public relations backlash that conducting business with one of these groups could trigger.
But most of the time, who or what should be on the no-go list isn’t clear-cut. For instance, an oil and gas trade group and a nonprofit promoting environmental activism might each have valid reasons for holding an event — but they most likely would not want to do so under the same roof.
So it’s important to be extremely specific, Rudner said. “For a hotel to honor, conceptually, what a group is looking for, the hotel would have to have a list of organizations — that’s potentially manageable, but if a group hypothetically were to say, ‘We can’t have a politically opposing group,’ you certainly can’t always tell by the name of the group,” he pointed out.
Failing to do so leaves you with a gray area — and that, in turn, can lead to potential conflict. “The biggest problem we really run into is when we don’t have a list of names, but we have a group of categories or a philosophy… then we wind up having a debate,” Rudner said.
Focus on the Contract
Good, proactive negotiation is a planner’s best defense. “This comes down to contracting,” Breiter said. This might mean adding language requiring the venue to provide a list of groups with concurrent bookings, including groups booked through intermediaries.
Since many events, especially conventions and annual meetings of large trade groups, book years in advance, it can be challenging to list all of the groups that could potentially run afoul of yours. One workaround is putting language in the contract for a check-in with the venue, Breiter suggested.
“You can always review the contract and say, ‘A year out, we want to look at the landscape again and see if there are new actors out there,’” she said.
The other critical piece is timing: Raising concerns about competing or opposing groups before signing the contract is important. “A hotel is generally willing to cooperate with this concept, assuming the group is requesting it before the contract is signed and the group is taking up a significant slice of the hotel,” Rudner said.
Use Your Clout
As a practical matter, planners of larger events are likely to have more leeway getting venues to agree to contract language that limits concurrent bookings. “Your ability to secure some concessions might depend on the size of your business,” Goldberg said. “If I’m citywide that’s coming to a city, I may have more leverage to get what I want in that regard than a smaller group.”
A smaller venue might be more willing to work with you if you’re a smaller group. If the group’s budget permits it, a buyout is the most effective way to ensure attendees can avoid sharing space with another group whose mission or values might clash with theirs. “We’ve had active conversations with clients about adding additional space to prevent another group from being co-located in the same building,” Carroll said.
“The best way to avoid it from the group side is site selection,” said Lisa Sommer Devlin, an attorney with Devlin Law Firm, representing hotels in contract negotiations. “Pick a hotel where you’re the biggest group in the house.” Or, better yet, the only group in the house.
Carroll said planners need to ask venues not only about co-located groups but what groups will be coming and going since it’s possible that attendees could come in contact in common areas or be staying at the same hotels. “I think the larger concern for a meeting planner is to ask questions like, can you give us a sense of who’s coming before us, who’s coming after us? That’s a point of due diligence when you’re booking,” he said.
Venue sales staff might be reluctant to disclose that information or be bound by confidentiality clauses, which makes finding this information more challenging, Carroll said, recalling one event for which his client was worried about a rival holding an event intended to compete with theirs. “It certainly was an uphill battle,” he said. “We had to tread lightly.”
Carroll said he started by generally inquiring if there were any bookings for an event matching the size and duration of the potential competitor event. Acknowledging the discomfort in the situation also helped, he said. “It’s helpful from a trust-building perspective to say, ‘I know you don’t have to answer this, but my client is asking.’” He added that the host city’s convention and visitors bureau could also assist planners in navigating these kinds of situations. “This is where the CVBs help because they also have a depth of relationship” with local venues.
But planners have to be willing and able to ask these kinds of questions, Carroll said. “In our increasingly polarized climate, being able to ask these questions in a professional and tactful way will be more important for meeting planners in the future.”