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Meeting planners enlist in effort to stop human trafficking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2012 - St. Louis is on the front lines of a battle between two networks. Both use the internet, business contacts, interstate highways, airlines and hotels. One exploits young girls, selling them for sex. The other is trying to rescue them.

"The majority of the girls are 12 to 14 years old. They come from nice homes and nice areas in St. Louis," said Kimberly Ritter, senior account manager for Nix Conference & Meeting Management of St. Louis. "They don't just stay in St. Louis. It's a trafficking network. They're in St. Louis for three days, then home, then Kansas City or Minneapolis."

The trafficking network, for the most part, is operating under the radar of most companies in the tourism industry. Prostitution has moved out of so-called "red light districts" and onto the internet. Traffickers post photos of girls and women online, make contact with disposable cell phones and meet customers in hotels.

"It doesn't matter whether you're a 5-star hotel or a 1-star, it could happen," said Dominic Smart, general manager of Millennium Hotel St. Louis. Smart got involved with the anti-trafficking network last summer, when Millennium joined with the Sisters of St. Joseph and Nix to publicize awareness efforts of the U.S. branch of End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking.

Nix is leading the charge in the next battleground: getting meeting planners to agree to train their staff and spread the word among the hotels where they book meetings.

Wednesday is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and local companies and agencies are holding an event from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the Soulard Preservation Hall, 1921 South Ninth St.

As part of the event at Soulard, Nix executives will unveil and sign a meeting planner's code of conduct that the company developed in cooperation with ECPAT-USA. "Our goal is to create awareness in the industry," Ritter said. "We hope for a day when every hotel we visit in the United States will have commited to training their staff and signing the code of conduct. If everyone knows the red flags to look for, we can put a stop to these traffickers using these hotels."

Red Flags

Dedee Lhamon of the Covering House gave the Millennium staff this list of red flags to help them spot underage prostitutes:

  • Provides scripted answers or has inconsistencies in story
  • Rents a room with no luggage or an adult rents the room for the minor, pays, then leaves
  • Shows signs of abuse, such as bruising, or branding or tattoos, especially ones that reflect ownership or money
  • Comes on to several men
  • Appears helpless, shamed, nervous or disoriented, or malnourished
  • Fears, or is unable, to make eye contact
  • Has no spending money, identification or personal possessions
  • Wears clothes that say "Daddy's girl" or are inappropriate for weather
  • Is kept under surveillance
  • Has men coming in without luggage at odd hours and going to same room

Smart said every staff member in his hotel has been trained on what to look for and whom to call. "The staff said they couldn't believe this stuff happened here and they were happy to be made aware so they could play a small part."

Since last summer, Smart's hotel has not had any high-profile arrests or incidents, but a few calls have been made. "We're a better group of individuals for having the awareness and giving our associates the ability, the pro-active approach they can take. If they think something is a bit untoward, they can bring it to the attention of authorities and know it will be dealt with," he said.

Such training is empowering on many levels. "My housekeeping staff are mothers themselves," Smart said. "It's a very strong bond. If you saw that [evidence of trafficking] or realized that could happen to a child, you wouldn't want it to happen. I'm very glad we're taking a positive, pro-active approach."

In Millennium's case, the issue was brought to their attention by the Sisters of St. Joseph who held a national meeting here last summer. Nix's effort is aimed at expanding the network beyond one group or hotel to an entire industry. So far, it's been a tough sell.

"It's more like an unawareness that it's happening in their community," said Molly Hackett, one of the principals of Nix. Hotel executives are reluctant to draw attention to the topic, lest guests or corporate customers think it's a problem specific to the hotel or location, she said.

Ritter has been taking the issue to one hotel at a time. Before she approaches a hotel general manager, she goes online and finds sexual service ads with photos showing children in hotel rooms. In one case, she showed an executive a photo taken in the executive's Kansas City luxury hotel.

"She said many properties have those linens and curtains," Ritter said of the manager. "But this photo was taken with a window in the background. I told the gm, 'Look out the window, see the [Kansas City landmark].' She was surprised."

Katie Rhodes, executive director of Healing Action Network, which conducted some of the initial training for Millennium executives, also keeps track of the online sex sites. "By 10:45 a.m. Monday, I found 76 new postings for sexual services here in St. Louis."

Adds Rhodes, "There are hundreds of websites where you can purchase women and children in any given city." Some have a majority of legitimate commercial ads, but they are just "the tip of the iceberg," Rhodes said.

Rhodes is encouraged by Nix's effort to bring more meeting planners into the anti-trafficking network. "Most events [that meeting planners organize] happen in hotels. They bring people from other cities and stay in hotels. To use your company to say 'we won't book in hotels that are not helping to stop sex trafficking' is a fantastic contribution."

Nix, which is a small company with only seven employees, contacts about 700 hotels each year seeking venues for their customers. The company booked 21,600 overnight rooms last year. Larger companies offering meeting planning services can easily average more than a million room nights in a year.

Ritter says Nix executives are hoping to start a grassroots effort to "take this and run with it. We're hoping that all people will realize this is an issue, and once we've brought an awareness, that they will band together to create an awareness also."

Sarah Nungesser, president of the St. Louis chapter of Meeting Planners International, says her group supports the effort and wants more details. "We definitely support anything that diminishes human trafficking anywhere, ever," she said. The board of directors will be looking into Nix's proposals. "We don't ever want to be a part of the problem; we want to be part of the solution."

Virginia Gilbert is a freelance writer in St. Louis.