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When Politics Come Into Play

Come rain or shine, the show must go on in the exhibition industry. There are instances, however, when a perfect storm can wash out a tradeshow’s production. Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) did just that when it was first passed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence on March 26.

While intended to provide religious freedom for private Indiana businesses, the law, originally titled Indiana Senate Bill 101 (SB 101), carried the potential for discrimination against certain classes of customers based on those same spiritual beliefs, namely the LGBTQ community.

Photo credit: Nate Chute
Photo credit: Nate Chute

Causing an uproar both locally and nationally, a number of companies and individuals protested against the law by canceling or threatening to withdraw conventions, meetings and events scheduled to take place in the state. One particular tradeshow, Gen Con, considered the largest at Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, publically voiced its opposition to RFRA.

Adrian Swartout, CEO and owner of Gen Con, the largest tabletop-game convention in North America, which attracted 54,000 to its 2014 edition, penned a letter to the Indiana governor.

“For more than a decade, Indianapolis has provided tremendous hospitality and accommodation to our attendees, culminating in an estimated annual economic impact of more than $50 million [sic] to the city,” stated Swartout. “Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.”

In an open letter to Gen Con delegates, Swartout stated that the show would begin a five-year bidding process to consider other convention destinations following its contract with the city of Indianapolis, to end in 2020.

Backed by trade associations, Gen Con’s plea for an amendment to RFRA was supported by the Convention Industry Council (CIC), an organization that champions the economic and social value of the meetings and event profession.

Gen Con CEO considered moving show from Indiana Convention Center after 2020.
Gen Con CEO considered moving show from Indiana Convention Center after 2020.

Submitting its own letter to Governor Pence on March 26, CIC pointed out the negative effect the law could have against its memberships of more than 100,000 individuals and nearly 20,000 businesses.

“An unintended consequence of this law has been the reaction of many businesses who are considering not holding future meetings and events in Indiana,” wrote CIC CEO Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP. “Not only would this be harmful to economic well-being of the state, but it would injure the very people who are employed by the hospitality industry and who may be subject to discrimination due to this legislation.”

Also disapproving of RFRA was the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), an organization for show organizers and suppliers to the tradeshow industry. In its entreaty for reconsideration on March 31, IAEE Chairperson Megan Tanel as well as President and CEO David DuBois did not support the legislation nor “the boycotting of exhibitions, meetings and events as a weapon in this debate.”

“The direct spend of the exhibitions and events conducted in this country totals $69 billion. Exhibitions support thousands of jobs across our country, generate millions of dollars in incremental taxes (for and in both cities and states) and help to create educational opportunities for thousands on an annual basis,” the letter stated. “IAEE and our members cannot support any legislation or actions that could lead to discrimination at any level.”

In response to the massive backlash, legislative language was added to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on April 2 to protect customers from being refused services under its practice:

“Providers,” including individuals and businesses, cannot “refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”

Furthermore, the law cannot be used to “establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”

Satisfied with the amendment, Gen Con organizers endorsed conducting business in the state of Indiana once again, releasing a supplemental statement in support.

“Today, Indiana’s General Assembly overwhelmingly passed an amendment to RFRA, signed by the Governor, that will remove RFRA’s risk of discrimination or refusal of service statewide,” Gen Con organizers stated. “The amended law will reflect Indianapolis’ own longstanding human rights ordinance, which includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Weathering the storm proved fruitful for the show, reassured of its venue choice following the passing of the amendment to RFRA. Stating that it will hold its “inclusive” 2015 edition in Indianapolis as scheduled, Gen Con will likely set the tone for future tradeshows, meetings and events in the state of Indiana.

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