“A trafficker kept me in a hotel room one time and he made me stare at a spot the whole time—and that is hard to do for two to three days on end. I accidentally looked up and he said, ‘If you look up again, I’ll cut your eyes out.’”
It’s a disturbing two sentences to read. And an even more disturbing image that comes to mind—and just seems to stay. But the most disturbing part is that it is a real account of one woman’s experience at the hands of a human trafficker. In reading Autumn Burris’ story, which she recalled to Senior Editor Gregg Wallis, who reports on the topic for our cover story, just know that the darkness that pervaded her younger life did not extinguish her spirit to survive, nor eclipse her drive to prevail, and she currently brings her strong voice to support, educate and advocate for those who have been exploited.
And for every word that was spoken to Hotel Business in reporting her story, there were so many left unspoken, haunting memories of a truly traumatic time. But there’s also hope. The optimism that with enough action—and reaction—to what is being described as a growing epidemic, human trafficking will, just like the dark period in Autumn’s life, also be a thing of the past. But, as those interviewed for our cover stress to the entire hospitality industry: It is also about being proactive. And this, in many cases, starts at the front lines of your hotels.
The subject of human trafficking is gaining wider exposure in recent years—and awareness is an important step in helping to identify these situations, report them and see justice brought to the perpetrators and healing restored to the victims. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, CBS’s 48 Hours devoted an entire segment to the topic called “Lived to Tell: Trafficked,” narrated by a young survivor, who told her compelling story with similar raw detail to Autumn’s. Furthermore, human trafficking is drawing increased interest from the FBI, as over the past decade, it’s been reported that nearly 50,000 cases have been brought to the attention of law-enforcement officials, making this multibillion-dollar industry—or what our President has called an “urgent humanitarian crisis”—a priority. And then, there was the recent spotlight on the topic, as The New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, was charged with soliciting prostitution at a Florida day spa where investigators believe some women may have been victims of human trafficking.
Human trafficking—and helping to put a stop to it—has become front and center for many of the associations in our industry, as they are encouraging information and messaging be taken to the properties, often where human trade is occurring. Right under our roofs. This mission is certainly one of the prime areas of focus for the AHLA, as explained to Hotel Business by President and CEO Chip Rogers in the first installment of our new video series, “On the Hill.” The series, moderated by Senior Editor CJ Arlotta, will debut this month, to coincide with this issue of Hotel Business, which is distributed at the AAHOA conference later this month. AAHOA is also dedicated to the mission of ending human trafficking, as emphasized by Vice Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala in our story.
As Rogers explains in the video interview, the AHLA has worked tirelessly on human trafficking and its alarming evolution, and offers tips to help hoteliers do their part to combat it. There are often signs—ones that can’t be ignored—that all members of your hotel staff should watch for. We’ve all had the experience of just thinking “something isn’t right” in a given situation and choosing to ignore the red flags, so to speak, for fear of making the wrong assessment and looking foolish. But to borrow a phrase that has become popular post 9/11, “If you see something, say something.” And there are certain things you/your property-level employees might see, as outlined in our accompanying charts, courtesy of BEST (Business Ending Slavery & Trafficking), that should be taken seriously. It’s a matter of training. Training hotel staffers to know common signs, to observe hotel activity, and to report anything suspicious.
Human trafficking can happen anywhere. Small towns and big cities. Roadside motels and upscale hotels. It’s ageless and sexless, though it’s often women and children who are violated. Make sure you’re informed. Make sure your managers, housekeepers, front-desk agents, are informed. Knowledge is power. And industry power is what is needed to strip the human traffickers of theirs and gift it to the victims.