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The citizens of Houston overwhelmingly voted against the passing of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) by a 69-31 percent margin on Tuesday, ensuring that Houston businesses can continue to legally discriminate against members of the LGBT community.
According to The Human Rights Campaign, there are 225 U.S. cities and counties that prohibit discrimination, including on the basis of gender identity. In Texas, only Dallas and Austin have full equal rights ordinances on the books.
The vote this week in Houston borders on the surreal because the anti-HERO proponents hinged their advocacy on scare tactics highlighting transgender people using bathrooms aligned with their identity, and men dressed as women sneaking into women’s bathrooms. The opponents of the ordinance knew they couldn’t fight the bill on a stance against gay rights, so they honed in especially on the transgender/bathroom issue to tap into some people’s darkest fears (see video below).
Adding to the bizarre nature of the vote, Houston is the largest city in the U.S. with an openly gay mayor. That would suggest there’s a significant population of progressive people living in Houston.
In which case, it also suggests that there was a lack of collaboration between Mayor Annise Parker, the city council, the Visit Houston tourism bureau, and local business stakeholders to mount an effective campaign to combat the zealous opposition. That’s the mystery to all of this. How could a gay mayor and a tourism bureau, which knows explicitly the harm that anti-gay sentiment can cause a destination, not convince the voters to approve an anti-discrimination ordinance?
There was either a complete breakdown in communication between the mayor and the bureau, or there’s just a whole lot of backwards Houstonians.
In the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, voiced his concerns about how the vote against equality will impact corporate America’s perception of Houston and its willingness to host conventions in the city.
“We can’t go on as a city without a non-discrimination ordinance forever,” he said. “It’s a differentiator, and one we do not have today.”
The Human Rights Campaign reports that 89% of Fortune 500 companies have policies prohibiting discrimination. Companies including Apple and GE, and White House government officials including President Obama, vocally supported the ordinance before the vote this week.
So do the vote results impact the perception of Houston in the minds of convention planners and Millennial attendees who tend to be more socially inclusive than older generations?
Ric Campo, chairman of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee for Super Bowl 51 in 2017, told The New York Times: “I don’t think it’s the straw that creates the imbalance where you don’t get a Super Bowl or lose a Super Bowl. But it’s definitely part of the equation when people make decisions.”
Visit Dallas: ‘Houston, You Have A Problem’
The problem with the failure in Houston to embrace the 21st century is that it also casts a negative halo across the rest of Texas and potentially impacts how other convention cities are perceived. That was only exacerbated this week by the Republican Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Texas publicly supporting the results of the vote.
Visit Dallas, on the other hand, is on a mission to distance itself from Houston’s version of Texan hospitality as far as possible.
Part of that strategy includes ramping up the promotion of its existing Visit LGBT Dallas social media campaign, “All Love is Big Love,” based on the bureau’s “Big Things Happen Here” marketing push.
We spoke with Phillip Jones, president and CEO of Visit Dallas, to get his take on how the Houston weirdness could impact how large corporations view Dallas as a host city for conventions.
Skift: Do you think the vote in Houston could potentially deter meeting owners and planners from sourcing convention venues in other parts of the state?
Phillip Jones: Our new slogan is, “Dallas: Aren’t You Glad We’re Not Houston.” I’m joking, but yes, potentially it’s going to have a negative impact on the whole state of Texas in cities that host major conventions. So now we have to do a very effective job of getting the message out that, unfortunately, the vote that happened in Houston has no impact on Dallas and certainly many other major cities in Texas. We have our own equal rights ordinance and we have strong supporters and proponents of equality and tolerance in Dallas, so that’s a very important message we need to get out to our planners around the country.
Skift: If I’m a meeting planner, with all things being equal otherwise between Dallas and Houston for a national convention, this is absolutely a deal breaker for me. Does this resonate even more negatively with Millennials?
Jones: I think it does. Particularly with Millennials coming into key roles as meeting and event planners, they look at things a lot differently than their parents or grandparents did. Equality and tolerance are important to them, in general. If you are presented with a choice between Houston and Dallas, I do think in many cases this will be a factor in the decision making process. Fortunately for Dallas, I think we come out very well in terms of inclusiveness from a policy perspective and from a practical perspective. From a messaging perspective for Houston, it puts them in a tough spot.
Skift: This is a much different scenario than in Indiana earlier this year with the attempted passage of the goofy Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was defeated because Visit Indy, municipal leaders, and the local business communities across the state were able to campaign successfully against it. But in Houston, this is a done deal, right? The people have spoken.
Jones: This is a done deal. The public voted and it was overwhelmingly negative.
Skift: Do all of your competitors for large conventions have equal rights ordinances?
Jones: Yes, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and all of the other major cities we compete with have an equality ordinance on the books. It is an issue for a lot of people.
Skift: Will this spur you to develop more promotions around the spirit of inclusiveness in Dallas?
Jones: We’ve been doing it for over ten years, but we will certainly continue to do so, and probably enhance our messaging around the situation so people are clear that what happened in Houston has no impact on Dallas. We’re two completely separate cities in different parts of the state with completely different policies in place. We don’t want people lumping us together and confuse what happened in Houston as something that could potentially be the situation in Dallas. Because it’s night and day between the two cities.
We already launched our “All Love is Big Love” campaign but you should see more enhanced social media outreach around that messaging in the next week and the months to come, and really as long as it takes to get that message out.
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