Trade Show Industry Rebukes Indiana’s Passing of Religious Freedom Restoration Act

March 31, 2015

Not only has the American Society of Association Executives and the International Association of Exhibitions and Events expressed concern about the recent passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, but also Visit Indy, which represents the city of Indianapolis, is worried about the act’s possible impact.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person's ability to practice his or her religion, but opponents say it opens the door to possible discrimination.

“Since February, we have opposed Indiana’s RFRA bill, a bill similar to 19 other states that have adopted the legislation,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy.

He added, “From the beginning, we were quick to warn the bill could cause a misperception of Indy being unwelcoming.  Coming off record-setting tourism results in 2014, we were concerned planners might not see Indy as hospitable anymore. “

Those warnings already may have caused at least one major event, Gen Con, a trade show for the gaming community, to reconsider holding its annual event in Indianapolis that draws 50,000 attendees each July.

In a letter to its attendees after several of them expressed concern about RFRA passing, the show’s manager, Adrian Swartout, said, “Governor Pence has stated that he believes the outcry against this law is based upon a misunderstanding. We respectfully disagree with this position. A significant portion of Gen Con attendees identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and we are reading that some members of our community feel unsafe traveling to Indiana, subsequent to the passage of the RFRA law. We understand this sentiment, and will act to support safety.”

She added that they have asked Gov. Pence to support an amendment to RFRA that includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gen Con has a contract in Indianapolis until 2020, but Swartout  said in the letter that they would be “halting our plans to expand Gen Con into Lucas Oil Stadium, and plans for further expansion into other hotel convention spaces” until they have assurances that there will be no discrimination of any of its attendees.

The American Society of Association Executives also sent a letter to Gov. Pence and to the majority and minority leaders of Indiana’s House and Senate asking them to adopt corrective language to RFRA.

“ASAE is committed to diversity and inclusion practices within the association industry. Laws that permit discrimination are not only regressive, they put our members at risk of being denied service anywhere from restaurants to meetings and convention facilities. This sends a harmful message that fairness, equality, and the principles of our Constitution are secondary to personal prejudice. I strongly encourage Governor Pence and Indiana policymakers to amend this legislation to include civil rights protections into the bill.”

The International Association of Exhibitions and Events also expressed its concern with RFRA in a letter sent to Gov. Pence.

“It has already become very apparent that many businesses, meetings, conventions and exhibitions have either already done so, or are considering, boycotting Indiana for current and future engagements. Such boycotts negatively impact Indiana employees who work in the hospitality, exhibitions and events industry,” said IAEE Chair Megan Tanel.

She added, “The “Hoosier State” has a decades-long reputation for delivering world-class hospitality and service to ALL visitors and attendees. IAEE and our members cannot support any legislation or actions that could lead to discrimination at any level. Nor can we support the boycotting of exhibitions, meetings and events as a weapon in this debate.”

In closing, Gahl said, “We are confident the 75,000 people who depend on tourism for a paycheck will continue to display the ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ we are known for worldwide.  No piece of paper can take away what is at the core of an Indy resident, a genuine desire to welcome. ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ is alive and well in Indy.” 

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.