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Columbia Missourian

Hotel workers enlisted in human trafficking fight

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER/The Associated Press
May 1, 2013 | 7:47 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — From five-star boutique properties to low-rent rooms for rent along the interstate, hotel workers are trained to not pry into their guests' private lives.

But with growing concern over forced prostitution and other forms of human trafficking, the hospitality industry is starting to demand that its employees get a bit nosier.

"There's anonymity," said Amanda Evans, a front desk manager at the Budget Host Inn. "You can be there and not even be noticed."

Burns was among a group of local hotel managers, housekeepers, front desk clerks and maintenance workers who gathered Tuesday afternoon for a training session sponsored by the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. Workshop organizers said that hospitality workers are particularly valuable in recognizing possible warning signs of abuse, whether the victims are teenage sex slaves or immigrant housekeepers turning over the wages to a labor boss.

There's also a bottom-line consideration, acknowledged Susan Bell, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites near MU and president of the Columbia Hospitality Association, which hosted the event.

"In our industry, if a community doesn't feel safe, we're not going to draw visitors," she said.

The Columbia session is part of a broader nationwide effort to combat human trafficking in the travel and tourism industry. In September 2012, Texas-based Sabre Holding, which owns Travelocity, unveiled a training program called Passport to Freedom. Companies such as Delta Air Lines, Hilton and Wyndham Worldwide are among the hundreds to have signed a voluntary code of conduct to deter child prostitution.

State lawmakers are also cracking down.

In Jefferson City, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon endorsed a 2011 law that extends the maximum sentence for trafficking-related offenses from 15 to 20 years. On April 22, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a similar bill into law. The new law adds the new crime of commercial sexual exploitation of a child to state statutes, classifying the violation as a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

The Columbia workshop gave an overview of such efforts but also taught participants to keep a closer watch on their own guests.

Coalition trainer Deb Hume, an MU public health professor, outlined some of the potential warning signs: guests without luggage; cash transactions; third-party reservations; repeated refusals of requests to clean rooms; frequent visitors; and more obvious signs, such as teens wearing overly suggestive clothing and young guests accompanied by older companions who don't appear to be family members.

Hume acknowledged that some of the behaviors deemed potentially suspicious could instead be benign, while some workshop participants noted the fine line between vigilance and excessive oversight. In the end, Hume's advice boiled down to a simple message.

"Trust your instincts," she said.