At any given time, some 40-million humans are being exploited for profit by their fellow humans. Human trafficking is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry. This modern strain of human slavery is a massive business — estimated to generate US$150 billion in profits a year. And much of it is happening in the room upstairs.

“It’s sad to say but, when someone engages in a commercial sex act, it often occurs in a hotel,” says Michelle Guelbart, director of Private-Sector Engagement, ECPAT-USA, an anti-child-trafficking policy organization based in New York.

There are many reasons for this, but it’s due largely to the anonymity hotels provide. Traffickers can pay for their rooms with cash and sidestep detection by switching rooms and properties without a hitch. Hotel guests are inherently transient and so the fleeting presence of the bad guys blends imperceptibly with those of the good. “It’s a place anyone can go, no one will spot it and no one will report it,” Guelbart says.

Or so the perpetrators would have it.

In fact, hotel companies are paying fresh, vigorous attention to the subject of human trafficking and, in increasing numbers, acknowledging the role they play in its perpetration. In 2004, Radisson Hotel Group (then Carlson Hotels) was the first major hospitality company to sign on with “the Code” — a set of six guidelines ECPAT designed for companies to address the subject. Signatories commit to adopting a policy, training employees and spreading the message throughout their value chain. “It makes it so no one department is charged with this issue,” says Guelbart.

Since then, most of the major hotel companies, including Hilton, Accor and legacy Starwood brands, have introduced training. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and Hyatt Hotels Corporation have partnerships with Polaris, the non-profit NGO that works to combat human trafficking. Wyndham has also created a program inviting customers to donate unused Wyndham Rewards Points to Polaris so it can furnish victims and survivors with emergency shelter.

Most recently, Marriott International has taken up the challenge with a number of initiatives designed to combat human trafficking. Like Wyndham, it encourages reward members to donate points to organizations that support the cause. Marriott has also created a program with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery that extends hospitality-focused jobs to victims and survivors of human trafficking; teamed up with Polaris to create trafficking-awareness posters for public-facing areas; and uploaded a PSA on the subject (A Million Eyes) to YouTube. It’s also built Serve360, a sustainability and social-impact initiative that includes a mandate to train 100 per cent of its associates on how to recognize human trafficking.

It’s the training piece that’s at the heart of Marriott’s human-trafficking-reduction efforts, in the form of a massive mandatory program it developed for on-property staff, which launched across its global portfolio in 2017. In a barely precedented move, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson made a call for every Marriott associate worldwide — in not only managed but franchised properties as well— to be trained to identify human trafficking.

“Rather than be part of the problem, we decided to be part of the solution,” says Brian Cammack, regional vice-president of Human Resources for Marriott Hotels Canada. “We felt it was our responsibility to act, not only with our large network, but the entire hospitality/tourism industry.”

As of January 2019, 500,000 Marriott associates — 15,000 in Canada — have completed the human-trafficking-awareness training. And, distinctively, Marriott has extended the program to hoteliers beyond its portfolio — including to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which shared the program with the 25,000-plus hotels in its membership (80 per cent of the country’s franchised hotels).

“Even though we’re competitors, we’re certainly not competitors in this area,” says Cammack.

The program highlights three goals: awareness, education and a call to action. “A lot of our associates don’t realize what happens within our hotels and industry. They need to know the signs we should be watching for and, if they see something, we want them to speak up,” Cammack adds.

Among the signs most typically cited as indicative of sex trafficking — whose ranks make up about 27 million of the 40-million trafficking victims — are: minimal luggage and clothing, multiple men being escorted to a guestroom, individuals who can’t speak freely or seem disoriented, guests who insist on little or no housekeeping, room payment in cash, requests that a room overlook a parking lot and the presence of drugs and sex paraphernalia.

“Any one of these by themselves may not indicate an issue, but when we see a combination, we want our associates to alert management,” explains Cammack. The training has produced results, he says, including the release of several victims. “It’s alarming to know this was happening in our industry, but also very gratifying to know our associates were involved in helping these individuals.”

Technology is a valuable tool. For investigators looking to track down sex traffickers, online ads pushing sexual services are packed with clues in the visual details of hotel-room settings, the smallest of which could give away their location. But there are too many ads for law enforcement to scan. Enter the TraffickCam app, with which hotel guests snap photos of their rooms and upload them to a database so investigators can match locations to online images.

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), agrees technology is the industry’s saving grace. He’s gunning for a one-dashboard approach that lets all stakeholders share data points on culprits through e-mail sharing. Without such assiduous attention, Elenis believes, all will be lost. “The more sophisticated the attempts to thwart this activity get, the more sophisticated the bad guys get,” he notes.

Among the next steps, says Sandy Biback, founder of Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking, legislation needs to make hotel-staff training on human trafficking non-negotiable, online training has to be supplanted by flesh and blood to allow for the discussion time that “makes it human” and there needs to be a cultural shift inside the industry. Too often, she says, hotel owners turn a blind eye to the unsavoury stuff so as not to forfeit the proceeds from the room rental and employees succumb to traffickers’ bribes or fail to speak up against criminals — their minimum wages and job dependence closing their lips.

Still, says Guilbart, there’s reason to be encouraged by the current scene. At the brand level, most major hotels now have policies on human trafficking and are offering training. What’s next? The trickle-down to the franchise and property level. “This is very exciting. When that happens, they’ll be the biggest groundswell of engagement.”

Cammack agrees, noting that in just a short period, interest in the subject of human trafficking has surged — each jolt bringing with it the potential to save a life. “They’ve been playing in the darkness for so many years, but now, the more people who know, the more people who are educated and aware, the more eyes that are on possible situations, the greater the chances of helping some of these victims. And every single one counts.”

And, as Buback reminds attendees at each of her presentations: “If you see something, say something. You could be wrong. But you could be right and save a life.”

Written by Laura Pratt


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