What the Meetings and Events Industry Can Learn from RFRA

April 23, 2015

Recently, we saw the rise and fall of Indiana’s now infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). What began as a quiet, state-level policy soon erupted into the most hotly-contested debate in the United States.

RFRA initially specified that government could not "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow their religious beliefs, unless there was a compelling interest in imposing that burden or government could do so in the least restrictive way. For many, the legislation left too many possibilities for legalized discrimination against the LGBT community.

Guided by the belief that everyone should be able to conduct business free from discrimination, leaders across the country stepped up to champion an alternative way forward – demanding equal treatment for all, with no exception.

Calls to immediately suspend business travel, conferences and conventions placed pressure on Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana state legislature and threatened a heavy blow to their public support, political capital and economic growth. Critics of RFRA helped force a much needed policy change in a remarkably short time. Their work is to be applauded, although, it came at a price.

The services provided by the meetings and travel industry often go unnoticed, but as members of our industry know very well, the economic impact is unmistakable.  Indianapolis' tourism and convention business is estimated to have a $4.4 billion annual economic impact with some 75,000 jobs. Nationwide, the meetings and travel industry contributes more to national GDP than the air transportation, motion picture, sound recording, performing arts and spectator sport industries. Our industry creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars in revenue, supporting communities across the country.

Boycotts like the ones we saw in Indiana have unintended consequences for local communities, who count on in-person meetings, events, conferences and conventions to sustain themselves. Local businesses were not the targets in this case, but they were certainly caught in the cross hairs.

We are mindful of the local economic impact when a meeting is cancelled because we know that hosting an event, convention or trade show stimulates a region’s economy by bringing in new visitors, who stay in area hotels, eat in local restaurants, shop in neighborhood stores and bring new revenue to the destination.

Experiencing a destination first hand is the best marketing tool for a community. While at a meeting, attendees have the opportunity to explore a destination and those experiences often influence their decision to come back – whether for business or leisure travel.

With the potential for RFRA to emerge as an issue in more than a dozen other states, it may now be time to ask whether it is fair to leverage local businesses in order to win political battles.

As Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy pointed out in a statement opposing the initial act: “Indy is open for business to all. The passage of the state’s RFRA did not change who we are overnight, or the fact that our community values and appreciates all of our guests.”

The issue in this case was with politicians, not local businesses.

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Overview: The award-winning Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) goes the extra mile to make every day extraordinary by offering customer service excellence and industry-leading partnerships. From their dedicated in-house Rigging team to their robust Exhibitor Services, The Center of Hospitality brings your imagination to life by helping you host unforgettable meetings and events. With more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, world-class services and a dream destination, we are committed to making even the most ambitious conventions a reality. In October 2023, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve allocating Tourist Development Tax funding for the $560 million Phase 5A completion of the OCCC. The Convention Way Grand Concourse project will include enhancements to the North-South Building, featuring an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space, an 80,000- square-foot ballroom and new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. “We are thrilled to begin work on completing our North-South Building which will allow us to meet the growing needs of our clients,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “As an economic driver for the community, this project will provide the Center with connectivity and meeting space to host more events and continue to infuse the local economy with new money and expanding business opportunities.” Amenities: The Center of Hospitality goes above and beyond by offering world-class customer service and industry-leading partnerships. From the largest convention center Wi-Fi network to custom LAN/WAN design, the Center takes pride in enhancing exhibitor and customer experience.  The OCCC is the exclusive provider of electricity (24-hour power at no additional cost), aerial rigging and lighting, water, natural gas and propane, compressed air, and cable TV services. Convenience The Center is at the epicenter of the destination, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance. Pedestrian bridges connect both buildings to more than 5,200 rooms and is within a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport. The convenience of the location goes hand-in-hand with top notch service to help meet an event’s every need. Gold Key Members The OCCC’s Gold Key Members represent the best of the best when it comes to exceptional service and exclusive benefits for clients, exhibitors and guests. The Center’s Gold Key memberships with Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World greatly enhance meeting planner and attendee experiences offering world-renowned venues, immersive experiences and creative resources for their events. OCCC Events: This fiscal year, the OCCC is projected to host 168 events, 1.7 million attendees, and $2.9 billion in economic impact.  The Center’s top five events during their 2022-2023 fiscal year included:  AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships 2023 200,000 Attendees $257 Million in Economic Impact MEGACON 2023 160,000 Attendees $205 Million in Economic Impact Open Championship Series 2023 69,500 Attendees $89 Million in Economic Impact Sunshine Classic 2023 42,000 Attendees $54 Million in Economic Impact Premiere Orlando 2023 42,000 Attendees $108 Million in Economic Impact