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by Matt Alderton and Leo Jakobson | July 02, 2015
At least 100,000 children are sexually exploited for commercial gain in the United States every year, and another 300,000 are at risk, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Because many of these children are victimized by pimps who conduct business in hotel rooms -- trafficked victims are bought and sold in hotel rooms and exploited in prostitution -- the anti-trafficking group ECPAT-USA yesterday launched a new public awareness campaign designed to educate hotels, travelers, and planners about sex trafficking.

The "#DoesYourHotelKnow?" campaign starts with the knowledge that, when asked, service providers and law enforcement agencies report that nearly every sex trafficking victim they've encountered has at some point been exploited in hotels. Its centerpiece is a 1-minute, 24-second public service announcement (PSA) narrated by a 13-year-old sex trafficking victim who describes the experience of being spotted by a hotel guest who could help her -- but doesn't.

"We looked at each other," the girl says. "I feel like he knew something was wrong or off or whatever, but he looked away. They always look away. It's weird, because there must be something they can do."

The video ends with the message, "Does your hotel know the signs of sex trafficking?" and directs viewers to visit ECPAT-USA's website, where the organization has published a voluntary code of conduct for travel and tourism businesses. Those who adopt the code promise to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against sex trafficking, to provide training that will help their employees recognize and report sex trafficking when they witness it, and to provide information to travelers to make them aware of the issue and how they can help.

"It's a despicable crime and all of us, as human beings, need to be aware of it and help bring it to an end," said David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel Company and Experient, which became an ECPAT-USA Code signatory three years ago. The Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) is also a signatory. 

"One of our travel partners, Sabre, invited us to an event where they were announcing their signature of the ECPAT Code. That's how we were introduced to the issue," recalled Peckinpaugh. "We really felt this was something we needed to get engaged in and to help bring awareness to the issue. Because like so many other companies and individuals and organizations, we had very low knowledge about this really tragic and despicable crime. We started researching the problem, and the first instance we came up with showed a girl being trafficked and you could see the St. Louis Arch [where Maritz Travel is headquartered] in the background of the picture. So it really hit home."

As it continued researching the issue, Maritz realized that sex trafficking is as much a domestic problem as it is an international one. "It's not just happening overseas, it's happening in every one of our communities, in everyone's backyard," Peckinpaugh continued. "We embarked on that journey and not long after signed on with the Code, and we've been speaking and building awareness ever since."

For planners who wish to join the ECPAT-USA cause, Peckinpaugh has two messages. "No. 1, awareness. We have a number of big industry and client events throughout the year. At every one of those events, we take at least 10-15 minutes to make sure we show a video and at least talk about the issue and how people can get involved," he concluded. "No. 2 is, then really make a decision, organization by organization, about what your level of commitment is. We've created an internal steering committee made up of employees across our company. We have developed language for both contracts with our suppliers as well as requests for proposals (RFPs) that bring this issue to light in all of our communications with our supplier community. Our efforts continue to grow. A number of us are out speaking and presenting to industry organizations to build awareness and let them know resources are available."

For more information, to watch the PSA, or to sign the ECPAT-USA Code of Conduct, visit www.ecpatusa.org/code.