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Home Planning Directory Immigration Laws Cause Convention Stir In Georgia & Alabama Special Report: By Marlane Bundock When Arizona enacted a new immigration law that allowed police officers to verify the im- migration status of suspected illegal immi- grants, dozens of conventions pulled out of the state. Now, to a lesser degree, a similar situation is happening in Georgia and Alabama. Earlier this year, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) canceled its contract with Atlanta for its 2013 national con- vention and the Association of Departments of Family Medicine (ADFM) recently decided to pull out of their contract with Mobile, Ala., as the host city for their 2013 winter meeting. Both conven- tions reported that they feared that some of their attendees would feel unwelcome due to the immigration laws of each state. The loss was a blow to both the Atlanta and Mobile Bay CVBs. Atlanta CVB President William Pate told ConventionSouth that the bureau was disappointed by AERA's decision. "We met with them and we thought we addressed their concerns, but they are the only convention that canceled, and it has been a year since the law passed." Pate also emphasized that last year, in response to the passing of Georgia's immigration law, the Atlanta CVB's execu- tive committee passed a resolution calling it "unwelcoming" and noted that it could "tarnish Atlanta's reputation as one of America's most welcoming cities." Even supporters of the law, like Georgia Rep. Matt Ramsey (R) of Peachtree City, Ga., are quick to note that the only intention is to "burden those that are in this country illegally." He continued, "We welcome all businesses, conventions and tourists to come to our great state." Pate also emphasized that Atlanta continues to become a bigger and better pathway for international travelers to enter the South as this spring Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport opens a larger international terminal with 40 gates and 80 non-stop, international flights. "Atlanta sees 800,000 international convention visitors a year," Pate said, "and we expect that to grow even more with the new terminal." Despite the decision of AERA and ADFM, groups are moving forward with their contracts in Georgia and Alabama. Michael Blum, executive director of the Marine Corps League, said his organization will hold their national convention in Mobile in August and doesn't have any plans to back out. "Let me be clear," he said, "we do not weigh in on local issues and a city's local politics does not interfere with our decision to meet there. I've been down to Mobile to tour the area and am very impressed with the city, especially the support from CVB, hotels and the convention center." And organizers of the Southern Legislative Conference haven't backed out of Mobile either. According to their website, the "beautiful, coastal Mobile" will be the host city for their 67th Annual Meeting in 2013. Groups will be nothing but welcomed when they meet in Alabama, said Steve Solberg, CEO of PCH Hotels and Resorts. PCH manages eight luxury Marriott and Renaissance hotels across the state, includ- ing the two properties where ADFM had originally contracted room blocks. Solberg said ADFM's decision was an "unfortunate situation" and to his knowledge, was "the first incident where a concern over the law has come up" by a convention. He continued to say that many of PCH property guests are international travelers and "never has a guest been threatened by the law." Rather, he said that groups "won't find better affordability for the value we offer." To note, Marine Corps League is meeting at PCH's two hotels in Mobile and the group room rate at both hotels is $107, and includes free parking and wireless Internet in guest rooms. ■ 4 Things To Consider If Youʼre Concerned About The Law Travel officials in Georgia and Alabama suggested planners review these suggestions if their group is concerned with holding a meeting in their state: 1. Know the facts. Discuss the details of the immigration laws and how it impacts travelers with the CVB and/or hotel representatives as well as local and state officials. ConventionSouth asked Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a proponent of the stateʼs im- migration law, if meeting attendees should be con- cerned about "being targeted by the law." He assuredly said, "Nobody from any background should be concerned about visiting Alabama if they are here legally. Weʼre a hospitable and tourism- friendly state, and we welcome businesses and 10 ConventionSouth MARCH 2012 people of all backgrounds to visit Alabama. Any concerns that visitors will be targeted are simply unfounded." 2. Factor the loss. Along with cancelation fees associated with signed meetings contracts, the loss of business may have harmful effects on the hospi- tality workforce. William Pate of the Atlanta CVB said, "We remind meeting planners that Atlanta has a diverse workforce and some of the very folks that they want to support as a result of the law would be harmed the most. Visitors to Atlanta encounter a diverse group of people as we are really a melting pot in this part of the country—itʼs all part of the Atlanta experience." 3. Get the inside scoop. "Now, a year into the law, we are in the position where groups can draw on the experiences of other customers who can share that it was a non issue during their meeting. Weʼve had no problems with attendees in the city." 4. Think about the big picture. "With other states passing similar legislation," Pate said, "this is really a national issue. The Supreme Court is taking up the Arizona legislation, and much of the lawʼs future hinges on that decision. Many of our meeting planners are booking for 2018, 2019 and 2020 at this time, and the law will have long been addressed in the federal courts by that time." ■ www.con v entionsouth.com Planner Resources Meeting Site Showcase