Marriott CEO: Human trafficking is a huge problem for hotels — here's what we're doing about it

·4 min read

As travel demand continues to surge, Marriott International (MAR) is spearheading a movement to address one of the biggest social issues in the hotel industry.

"Human trafficking is a scourge on humanity, and unfortunately, a lot of it happens using hotels as an environment," Marriott International President and CEO Anthony Capuano told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). "So several years ago, we developed an intense training program for our associates."

Initially introduced in 2016, the hotel chain's human trafficking awareness program trains employees on how to identify potential signs of human trafficking, monitor situations, and act or report on them while providing aid to victims.

The program aims to have all on-property staff fulfill these training requirements by 2025 across the hotel chain's 8,200 locations in 138 countries worldwide.

People are seen in the reception of a hotel in Valparaiso, Chile on November 1, 2019. (REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido)
People are seen in the reception of a hotel in Valparaiso, Chile on November 1, 2019. (REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido)

Over a million Marriott associates have already completed over 570,000 hours of this specialized risk prevention training. Additionally, over 800,000 workers at rival hotel chains such as Hilton (HLT) and Hyatt Hotels (H) have also participated in the training program, according to Capuano.

"We've got lots of work to do," the CEO stated. "But I can give you dozens of instances where our smart, focused associates have used what they learned in that training and actually thwarted human trafficking activity in progress."

How Marriott is tackling human trafficking

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit and profit from individuals. It can take the form of forced labor, sexual exploitation, drug smuggling, or even debt bondage.

Activist organizations such as the Polaris Project estimated that there were at least 27.6 million people trafficked against their will in 2021. Alarmingly, incidents of human trafficking rose by 12% between 2016 and 2021, the report found.

State Department officials cited the Russia-Ukraine War and natural disasters tied to climate change as potential catalysts for increased trafficking activity. Although any person or group can fall victim to traffickers, homeless, LGBTQ+, and migrant youth have been found to be the most vulnerable demographics susceptible to human trafficking.

The criminal activity, which generates as much as $150 billion in illegal profits per year, has been a particular issue for the hospitality industry.

While proactive in the fight against human rights abuses, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Wyndham (WH) were among 12 hotel chains named in a flurry of 2019 lawsuits from trafficking victims that alleged violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in connection to the businesses' incidental profits derived from the criminal activity.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR HILTON - Gabriel Warren, Senior Manager Global Intelligence, reinforces prevention of human trafficking during this special training for hotels' staff and management in advance of South Florida's upcoming Super Bowl events on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020 in Miami. (James McEntee/AP Images for Hilton)
Gabriel Warren reinforces prevention of human trafficking during this special training for hotels' staff and management in advance of South Florida's upcoming Super Bowl events on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Miami. (James McEntee/AP Images for Hilton)

In response, Marriott has built on to its original trafficking intervention program by getting input from real-life trafficking survivors and partnering with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) and ECPAT-USA, an anti-trafficking organization, to make the training available to Marriott's competitors.

At the same time, Capuano acknowledged that the program has faced a number of challenges.

For one, human trafficking situations were exacerbated by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic as more hotel chains took on contactless approaches for guest check-ins.

Moreover, it can be challenging for employees to know when to escalate concerns, particularly since associates are also trained to accommodate guest experiences.

Traffickers tend to operate by isolating their victims, forbidding them to leave their room, go out in public, or speak to anyone else without their company — building a sense of co-dependency through fear.

Victims may commonly act afraid of other people even when in need of help, most noticeably showing visible signs of physical or sexual abuse, or exhibiting symptoms of health issues attributed to malnourishment or drug use.

"We're in the hospitality business, so we're not accustomed — our associates — to questioning our guests, interrogating our guests, if you will," Capuano said. "And so a lot of the training is around if you see something that causes you concern, how do you elevate it within the management ranks in the hotel?"

The latest edition of Marriott's trafficking prevention program is just one facet of its long-running ESG initiatives, which include other goals tied to net-zero emission, gender pay equity, humanitarian aid, and hospitality leadership training for Black students.

"It's a big focus for the company, [and] it's a personal passion for me and my family," Capuano disclosed, adding that although the number of employees that have gone through the program is "really gratifying," the company is "not self-satisfied."

Luke is a producer for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @theLukeCM.

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