It is a problem no one wants to admit exists across America. But from seedy motels to luxury resorts it does: prostitution, and human sex trafficking. Some call it modern-day slavery. And an effort born in St. Louis will help shed light on the industry's dirty little secret.
"I worked 20 years in the hotel industry and I had no idea this was happening," said Kimberly Ritter, a meeting planner with Nix Conference and Meeting Managers, based in St. Louis.
What happened Wednesday night in Soulard mean the secret is out.
"It means that people are paying attention," said Katie Rhoades, who was a victim of the sex trade industry when she was a teenage girl. "Back when I got out ten years ago, we were nothing more than prostitutes. The word exploitation wasn`t used. There wasn't this idea that we were victims of human trafficking."
Rhoades ran away from home and at the age of 18, she became a stripper. Eventually, a pimp turned her into a prostitute. She escaped from that life by calling an adult friend and asking for help getting off drugs. She hid her past as a prostitute for a while. 'There was a since of shame,' she said. She spent years trying to heal herself, eventually going back to school. In December she graduated with a master`s degree in social work. She now works as an advocate.
Rhoades watched with pride as Nix did something no other meeting planners in the United States have ever done. They signed a Meeting Planners` Code of Conduct, which they helped draw up with ECPAT-USA, a non-governmental agency that works to end child sex trafficking. ECPAT stands for End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking.
"As meeting planners, we represent not just one person sleeping in a hotel one night, we represent 21 thousand room nights in a year, so when we walk in a hotel, we have a voice," explained Ritter. "We want to talk to general managers and we want have to recognize that there is an issue. And we want them to help us put a stop to it."
Nix pledges to quiz every hotel they do business with about their human trafficking policy, encouraging them to train employees on how to spot victims and more importantly to save them.
"The hotels involved were anything from roadside motels to five star luxury hotels," said Rhoades.
Michelle Guelbart of ECPAT-USA said hotel staff members are on the front lines of the fight against the human sex trade.
"They might see it and feel uncomfortable, but they don`t know what to do," she said. After training, "They can see that this is a victim, she`s being exploited, then identify her and to call the proper authorities to rescue her."
In July, Nix was instrumental in getting the St. Louis Millennium hotel to sign ECPAT's Code of Conduct for hotels. The reason is the Sisters of St. Joseph. The nuns were planning a conference for the summer, and using Nix as their meeting managers. They were determined to find a hotel with a strict policy against human sex trafficking. Ritter approached the Millennium, which agreed to sign the ECPAT Code of Conduct. Employers received ECPAT training on what to look for, and have since reported questionable activity to police.
The Code of Conduct was not applicable to meeting planners, so Nix went to work with ECPAT to draw one up. They hope other meeting planners agree to sign on soon.