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Hotels' Push To Counter Sex Trafficking Wins Mixed Reviews

By Valentina Pasquali · 2022-11-18 20:58:59 -0500 ·

In the decade that Bekah Charleston was captive to the sex trade, primarily in the 2000s, she never encountered a hotel or motel employee willing to help.

As the number of criminal and civil suits aimed at hotels for facilitating sex trafficking grows, the hospitality industry is taking a more proactive approach to identifying and responding to the crime. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

She found hoteliers around Harry Hines Boulevard, a known prostitution track in Dallas, especially keen to turn a blind eye to the activities of her traffickers.

"I would be there and there would be a parking lot full of men, waiting to purchase myself and the other victims," Charleston recalled recently. "We would walk across to the hotel's front office every five to 10 minutes with a new man, but renting another room by the hour. Obviously those motels were extremely complicit."

The industry, however, has "come a long way" since then and has learned a great deal about how to recognize and respond to commercial sexual exploitation, as well as support victims, she noted.

Whether that learning carries real, practical meaning, and whether it is possible, or even desirable, for hotels to take a proactive role in countering sex trafficking are issues that continue to divide experts.

"From our experience, we have not witnessed meaningful compliance efforts made by local owners in the past several years," said Randolph Janis, a partner with Douglas & London PC who has represented several sex trafficking victims. "Some franchisors have made superficial efforts to market themselves as being compliant."

Follow Up and Escalate

In December 2020, Charleston became the first sex trafficking survivor to receive a presidential pardon, a decade after she served time in federal prison for tax evasion linked to the activities of her trafficker.

Now, she is part of growing efforts by victims, the organizations that support them, other experts, and the hospitality industry itself to help curb the scourge of women and men coerced, tricked or forced into selling their bodies for the benefit of their traffickers.

According to some industry professionals, that push has hotels and motels reaching deeper and further than many other industries amid a growing wave of criminal and civil suits aimed at their alleged facilitation of the crime.

"The idea that someone would seek to twist or exploit a place that's supposed to be of refuge and happiness and connection for people who are traveling … that's a challenge on multiple levels to the folks working at those hospitality brands," said Robert Beiser, director of the sex trafficking initiative at nonprofit group Polaris. "Those companies have been willing to step forward and be public about their efforts in a way that many industries have not."

The Washington, D.C.-based organization in July 2018 analyzed the information it received through its National Human Trafficking Hotline as well as surveys and focus groups with victims to gauge various industries' "intersections" with the crime.

The study found that in the decade since the hotline's inception in December 2007, callers reported nearly 3,600 cases of sex or labor trafficking linked to a hotel or motel. In addition, 75% of survey respondents said they had encountered the hospitality industry while being trafficked.

"[Sex traffickers] see hospitality properties as a place where they can exploit victims with anonymity and impunity, due to the circumstances of a private space with an expectation of low interaction with either staff or anyone who might know them," Beiser said.

The report laid out traffickers' various uses of hotels, including as a location where their victims are forced to receive multiple individuals or, to the contrary, where a victim is sent to a room to meet someone.

In providing training to the hospitality industry, Polaris staff typically details possible scenarios of trafficking garnered from victims' experiences and pinpoints surprising facts, such as that victims do not need to be immigrants in the country illegally but could be locals from an average background, like Charleston, and that they might display ostensibly normal interactions with their traffickers.

"We strive to elevate survivor experiences so that people in the hospitality industry can relate to what … an intervention by a staff member might feel like and lead to," Beiser said. "Because misconceptions about what will be an effective response can create additional challenges for a person who's already experiencing exploitation, such as they can be criminalized … or barred from being able to use a hotel when they need it for safety."

The goal is to have staff follow up and escalate any suspicion according to their company's unique protocols and the specific circumstances at play — whether they involve a minor, for instance, or perhaps a victim that's not ready to be identified — while offering the victim the same "proactive engagement, kindness, hospitality" and "information gathering" that is expected when providing the "best-possible guest experience," Beiser added.

Walk the Halls

In recent years, certain jurisdictions, including the states of Connecticut and Florida, and the cities of Houston and Baltimore, have also mandated that hoteliers train employees to recognize possible instances of human trafficking.

In July, New York Attorney General Letitia James distributed placards bearing human trafficking hotline numbers and other information to hotels as a reminder of their duty to affix them in a manner that would make them visible to potential victims.

"Part of what we do is make sure our clients are aware of these sorts of things, that they are training their staff ... and we have our clients document, because they need to show that they're complying with their obligations in this regard," said Bryan Mohler of Pryor Cashman LLP's real estate, hotel and hospitality, and litigation groups.

"The reason that this litigation is going to continue even if hotel managers are being more proactive is that there's a 10-year statute of limitations under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, so you have a long lookback here," Mohler added. "You want your employees to be trained well, document the training they're receiving and the monitoring they're doing, you know, like walk the halls and make sure there's nothing suspicious going on, and note that in some sort of systematic way."

The charitable arm of the American Hotel & Lodging Association said in July 2021 that more than half a million industry professionals had received training to recognize signs of potential human trafficking through programs developed and made available for free by the association and Marriott since early 2020. An AHLA spokesperson did not elaborate further for this story.

The Asian American Hotel Owners Association notes on its website it has instructed nearly 7,000 professionals to identify indicia of trafficking while aiming to expand the training to 100% of members and their employees. A spokesperson for the group declined to comment.

Watch Out for Clues

These days, Megan Lundstrom travels frequently for her speaking engagements around the country, but her hotel routines look nothing like they did a decade ago, when she was still captive to the sex trade industry.

In those harrowing years, she would typically show up at the counter of a hotel in the Denver tech center — an office hub south of downtown — around mid-morning, without a reservation, seeking a last-minute, early check-in on a driver's license with an address not 15 minutes away.

She would then renew her stay daily, for two or three days, check out late, in the early evening, only to repeat the cycle again a week later.

Those were just some of the red flags Lundstrom thinks should have enabled the hotels she patronized to realize something rotten was going on.

"In the Denver tech center, there isn't a convention center or any other reason that people would be coming and going all day, so the fact that there was so much foot traffic just coming to one room … there are so many things that could have been noticed," said Lundstrom, now the chief executive of Colorado-based assistance organization Avery Center.

Lundstrom also talked about her experience being trafficked in hotels across North Dakota during the state's oil and gas boom, noting that the gender ratio alone should have raised some eyebrows, as "it was like 30 men to every one woman."

"I traveled with other victims that were under the control of the same trafficker, and that's weird: A bunch of 20-year-old girls are up in the oil fields and they're trying to get same-day check-in at a hotel that costs $300 a night," Lundstrom told Law360. "Nothing in that is normal."

Lundstrom is also among a growing number of survivors who have filed suits against hotels and motels for allegedly facilitating their exploitation under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its 2008 enhancement, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Her March 2021 action in Colorado federal court against Choice Hotel International, including their Quality Inn Denver Tech Center and Thornton Sleep Inn franchises, was dismissed with prejudice the following November, when U.S. District Judge Philip A. Brimmer found that Lundstrom failed to convincingly claim the hotels or their parent company knew of her specific abuse, and that she also largely failed to meet the TVPRA's 10-year statute of limitations.

In April, Lundstrom sued Choice Hotels International, Intercontinental Hotels Group and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts in North Dakota federal court for allegedly turning a blind eye when she was exploited in various of the company's hotels in Williston, Minot and Dickinson, and economically benefiting from it. That case is pending.

A spokesperson for Intercontinental Hotels Group declined to comment on ongoing litigation but noted the company "condemns" all types of trafficking and "is committed" to partnering with individual hotel owners across the country, including by providing "mandatory human trafficking prevention training" for all its branded hotels.

Choice Hotels and Wyndham Hotels did not return requests for comment.

Pressure from the mounting lawsuits, and concerns over related reputational, compliance and legal costs, mixed with a genuine desire to take action, have been instrumental in prompting the industry to embrace a host of initiatives, according to industry insiders.

In July, the AHLA Foundation also announced it had raised $1 million from the Hyatt Hotels Foundation, G6 Hospitality and Extended Stay America to establish a fund to support local organizations in providing victims of human trafficking with financial and professional aid.

Major hotel brands, beginning with Wyndham Hotel Group as early as 2008, have also directly donated or coordinated the donations by customers of unused points to Polaris to cover the cost of rooms used as emergency shelters for victims.

While budget motels get a particularly bad reputation for their role in allegedly facilitating sex trafficking, no hospitality firm is truly free of touchpoints with sex trafficking, regardless of category or location, said Joseph Scaramucci, a detective with the McLennan County Sheriff's Office in Texas who is assigned as a task force officer with Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Affluent customers that can afford to pay $500 an hour for sex are likely to demand suite accommodations, he noted.

In fact, Scaramucci added, G6 Hospitality, a Blackstone-owned company that controls and franchises some 1,400 Motel 6 and Studio 6 properties across the country, runs one of the best anti-human trafficking efforts in the country.

"I have had hotels where people at the counter refused to give any information or confirm anything and that makes it difficult," Scaramucci said. "That's where I think Motel 6 is much different than the others because we have that chokepoint to be able to call and say, hey, I need this information."

A Mixed Bag

Questions, however, remain over just how effective, feasible and helpful this new era in anti-trafficking is.

First and foremost, it's unclear how evenly distributed and genuine these efforts are across geographies and hotel categories.

"I have had hotels specifically ask me to come do presentations for them and have their staff understand the trafficking problem, so they are doing better with that," said Heidi Chance, a detective who recently retired from the anti-trafficking unit of Phoenix's police department. "But there's definitely hotels, particularly those that are close to known areas for prostitution, and those hotels are not really cooperative."

Increased closeness between hotels and law enforcement agencies separately has some advocates concerned.

Some grassroots organizations have warned against conflating voluntary prostitution and sex trafficking — a distinction that does not apply to minors. They worry that the criminalization of consensual adult sex workers' immediate "johns" may distract from the investigation and prosecution of actual traffickers, unfairly expose victims to legal or immigration proceedings, and suddenly deprive them of even their minimal resources.

The "impact of increasing criminalization and policing often increases the risk of violence and exploitation for those in the sex trade, including trafficking victims," reads a 2018 document by Freedom Network USA, which describes itself on its website as the nation's largest anti-trafficking coalition. "Increased policing increases a police presence for everyone and means more scrutiny on any interaction that look[sic] like prostitution."

Any hotel staff's actual ability to proactively identify instances of human trafficking is limited by the lack of clear, bright lines between normal, if odd, costumer conduct and criminal behavior, according to Scaramucci.

"People like to say … 'if she comes in and he's paying' or 'if she's avoiding eye contact' — It's all garbage," he said. "I think there's really only two red flags: one would be for housekeeping, if they're finding multiple condoms in the room, there's no reason to have 20 used condoms in a room. The other would be just the flow of males going to and from one particular hotel."

In Part 1 of this series, Law360 looked at how hotel owners and operators are impacted by accusations of involvement in the sex trade — from unwitting accomplice to turning a blind eye to active complicity.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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