When to Move the Annual Meeting

As discriminatory state laws proliferate, higher ed associations need policies to guide decisions on whether to relocate the annual meeting, Erin Hennessy writes.

September 22, 2022
An abortion rights activist, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow, stands dejectedly in the Indiana State House, leaning against a column, holding (but not holding up) a protest sign that reads, in part, Bodily Autonomy Is a Human Right.
An abortion-rights activist at the Indiana State House after the Indiana Senate voted in August to ban nearly all abortions.
(Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As bills hostile to LGBTQ communities, people of color and women continue to proliferate, associations will increasingly face challenges as they navigate the legislative landscape. The uptick in these discriminatory laws at the state level flies in the face of the values and missions of many higher education organizations. Deciding where to host an annual national conference—and if or when to relocate—has become a much weightier and costlier decision, and one that is going to continue to surface for associations.

This is not a new issue for higher education groups. NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education grappled with moving its 98th annual conference out of Indianapolis after Indiana’s passage of the discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 but ultimately honored the contract after an amendment from the state and the passage of a citywide ordinance prohibiting discrimination. In 2016, the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulled championship games from North Carolina in protest of the discriminatory transgender bathroom law HB2, which was eventually repealed. (In the wake of Indiana’s passage of legislation eliminating abortion access in the state, the NCAA has remained silent as of this writing on whether or not it will relocate its headquarters out of Indiana—a larger and perhaps more complicated conversation than this one related to meeting locations.) More recently, the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International pulled its 2022 conference and expo from Florida following passage of legislation that explicitly targets and discriminates against transgender youth.

How much to directly call out specific states or legislation in these locations poses numerous challenges, particularly for national organizations. Much of the legislation around LGBTQ issues and the recent legislative push targeting abortion access are happening in Southern and Midwestern states, but associations are still serving members in those states. In withholding or moving meetings, there is the risk of imposing additional travel challenges and costs for members in the South and Midwest. It’s also reasonable that these members want their associations to come to their states to stand up for values that organizations and members hold and consider other ways to protest, push back or dissent. Simply pulling out can feel like an organization is walking away from confronting the issues at stake.

But it can be hard for values-driven associations to shoulder the financial and moral burden of supporting those state economies with discriminatory legislation. Consider California’s Prohibition on State-Funded and State-Sponsored Travel to States with Discriminatory Laws, which does not allow state employees to use public funds to travel to certain locations (currently 22 states) precisely because of their laws. Associations must balance how to serve members who might be in Louisiana or Texas or Florida and those from California, a state so big that decisions on where to host may wall off a huge swath of members who cannot attend because of state restrictions.

Adding to the difficulty is the timeline and its associated costs; these conferences and annual meetings are usually booked multiple years out and can have large economic impacts on the host cities. A state that isn’t currently contemplating legislation that conflicts with an association’s values, vision and mission statement upon securing a location could have a very different environment three years later. It is an enormous financial move to make a change in location, particularly if contracts have already been signed with hotels and other vendors.

It is critical for associations to have site-selection policies in place that provide guidance for the organization when they are considering locations for future meetings. Most associations at this point likely have policies to draw on, but now is a time to revisit language to ensure decisions can be made within and backstopped by the parameters of the site selection policy. The language of such policies should not be so specific nor so vague that it would prohibit changes from being made if that ultimately is the best move for an organization. When possible, contracts should include language that allows for cancellation based on the passage of discriminatory legislation between the signing date and planned meeting date.

When an organization does have policies in place and decides to relocate an event, executing the change and communicating about the pivot poses additional challenges. These steps should begin as early as possible and preferably should involve a board vote to support the decision. Communications should be transparent and provide consideration for attendees, particularly when a decision to relocate is made close to a meeting date, through extended registration deadlines, registration discounts or a virtual option. But importantly, communicating why the conference location is being changed is always easier if there has been consistent communication regarding what an organization’s mission, vision and values are.

For some organizations—especially those tied to human rights, social service and education—mission, vision and values are top of mind and actively taken into account with site-selection policy language. Considering the members these organizations serve and whom those members in turn serve, it’s not surprising that these types of organizations are very comfortable talking about values as they relate to their work and are quick to flag violations of those values.

For organizations that have not yet gotten there, now is clearly the time to start having these conversations. But it’s important that these conversations and decisions are not based solely on the thoughts or preferences of organizational leadership; rather, there needs to be grounding in a larger conversation with membership about what the organization stands for. It’s an opportunity to reach out to members or those who attend their meetings to gauge what are pressing issues for them and to the audiences they serve.

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Being prepared for continuing shifts in the legislative landscape around human rights and getting these policies and procedures in place is a smart move for any organization so that they can start to have these conversations before there are potentially millions of dollars on the line.

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Erin Hennessy is executive vice president of TVP Communications, a national communications agency solely focused on higher education.

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