On April 3, a new law goes into effect in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Brunei on the coast of Borneo. The oil-rich sultanate is instituting the penalty of death by stoning for anyone convicted of homosexuality, previously a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
A number of famous people, including the actor George Clooney and musician Elton John, are calling for a boycott of Dorchester Collection hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which in turn is owned by the Sultan of Brunei.
In an op-ed in Deadline calling for the boycott, Clooney said, “Every single time we stay at, or take meetings at, or dine at, any of these nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery.”
When the change in the law was first announced, the Motion Picture Retirement Home canceled a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but few people were aware that nine of the most prized hotels in the world are owned by Brunei—and even Clooney admits to having stayed in a few before realizing it. The nine five-star hotels in the collection are The Dorchester, 45 Park Lane, and Coworth Park in the United Kingdom; the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in the United States; the Plaza Athénée and Hotel Meurice in France; and the Principe di Savoia and Hotel Eden in Italy.
For meeting planners who booked guest rooms or event space at these properties before the recent publicity of the boycott, it might be too late to rebook elsewhere. This was the case when the American Association of Law Libraries announced that it would not hold conferences in Texas after the introduction of legislation that it considered to be discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. Link
For meeting planners who find themselves in this situation, here is some advice from Kelsey Dixon of marketing company davies + dixon, which she gave in a presentation at MeetingsNet’s Risk 360 conference.
1. Own the Issue Dixon says that at a 24,000-person conference in a city that had recently passed a controversial “bathroom bill” banning transgendered people from using the bathroom of their choice, the organizers posted signs saying, “Please use any bathroom you are comfortable with.” This indicated that the organizers were aware of the new policy and disagreed with it.
2. Draft Responses Write social media posts ahead of time explaining the choice of venue or destination and how the event will be handled the next time.
3. Communicate If attendees are upset, organize a letter-writing campaign to the venue owners or local legislators so that they will hear from their own customers.
4. Plan a Supportive Activity In a case like this, plan a fundraising or other corporate social responsibility event to support an LGBTQ organization.
5. Respond Creatively Dixon says that at an event for vegans, one client inadvertently served milk fat. Some attendees were so upset that they asked for a ticket refund. Instead of giving refunds to the attendees or offering future discounts, the client donated the price of the tickets to a local animal shelter. The attendees appreciated the gesture and the organizers were able to take a practical step instead of simply saying sorry.
Even if your attendees are not currently paying attention to a particular controversy, it’s worth remembering that a sudden newsworthy event can make a boycott or other politically-motivated activity mainstream. After a school shooting in 2017, many hospitality businesses quickly dropped discounts and loyalty incentives for members of the National Rifle Association to avoid a boycott from consumers protesting the NRA’s resistance to gun-safety laws.