March 23, 2017
Every three years, the American Public Transportation Association holds an event it calls the APTA EXPO. For its 2026 EXPO, the trade group for the “bus, rapid transit and commuter rail systems industry” had put Dallas on its list of possible destinations, according to city officials, who estimated the event would generate more than $40 million in economic activity.
Then the “bathroom bill” began moving forward in the Texas Legislature. That prompted the association to warn the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau that it may be out of the running for an event nine years in the future.
“We are looking at several cities for our EXPO and Dallas is one city under consideration,” Lenay Gore, the association’s senior director of meetings and trade shows, told the Tribune. “If the law passes, we would not consider Texas for any future meetings.”
The group is just one of dozens of trade organizations, businesses and sports associations that have reached out to officials in Texas cities in recent months as the “bathroom bill” has drawn national attention. Tourism officials in the state’s four biggest cities – Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio – expect to lose at least $407 million in economic activity from missing out on potential upcoming events if the bill becomes law.
Beyond that, scores more event planners are likely to bypass Texas entirely in the future, they say.
“If this bill passes, by the time Texas feels any economic impact, it will be too late to react,” said Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston Convention Visitors Bureau. “You may not see a significant economic impact in 2017 or even 2018,” Waterman said. “But in 2019 you will see some and 2021, 2022 and 2023 could be potentially catastrophic.”
Senate Bill 6 — a legislative priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — would regulate bathroom use in public schools and government buildings on the basis of “biological sex,” prohibiting most transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The legislation would also nix local anti-discrimination laws meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Along with concerns about discrimination, the bill has also prompted concerns about its economic impact. North Carolina saw the cancellation of national events worth millions following its passage of a similar law. A recent survey of 212 meeting planners published in Meetings & Conventions magazine revealed that about half said that laws harming the rights of LGBTQ individuals would affect their site selection decisions.
Patrick has said the bill is addressing an important public safety issue.
“The bill is about public safety and the privacy of teenagers who don’t want to shower together in the tenth grade,” Patrick said.
He and other supporters have argued that predictions of a potential negative economic impact if the bill becomes law have been wildly exaggerated.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that the passage of Senate Bill 6 would have any economic impact in Texas,” Patrick said in February, after a PolitiFact Texas report identified flaws in an economic study used by the Texas Association of Business to raise concerns about the bill.
SB 6 passed the Senate last week but faces an uncertain future in the House. Gov. Greg Abbott has not yet taken a position on the bill but has said it addresses legitimate concerns.
The Tribune reached out to tourism officials in the state’s seven largest cities about the bill’s potential impact.
Dallas may be poised to take the hardest hit of the state’s largest cities, at least initially. Along with the American Public Transportation Association, three other groups have warned they may cancel upcoming events in the city over “bathroom bill” related-concerns, resulting in a $157 million loss to local coffers, according to city officials.
Phillip Jones, president of Visit Dallas, said another 20 organizations that might hold events in the city in the future have contacted local officials privately with concerns. All told, Dallas stands to lose at least another billion dollars in revenue from major events, especially if the city fails to secure an All-Star or Final Four game, he said.
Waterman said Houston hopes to build off the momentum of a “fairly epic year,” in which the city hosted a Final Four tournament, the Copa America soccer tournament and the Super Bowl.
“We feel SB 6 would deflate this momentum,” Waterman said.
So far, 14 groups have expressed concerns to Houston officials, he said. The city stands to lose $100 million if the bathroom bill passes, he said.
Waterman acknowledged that language in the current bill allows private entities to regulate bathrooms during events however they choose to do so, but said meeting planners would rather avoid the hassle.
“Most planners understand the concept, but the challenge is whether five or 50 or 500 attendees get wind of a potentially discriminatory bill, and then reach out to the meeting planner and say we don’t want to go to Texas,” he said.
Waterman also said these meeting planners would have to educate their attendees about the facts of the bill and “candidly, it’s work most planners don’t want to have to do.”
Tom Noonan, president of the Austin visitors bureau, worries about the impact the legislation would have on the city’s brand as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” He said officials with two of Austin’s most high-profile music events – South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits festival – have expressed concerns about artists saying they won’t come and perform in Texas in the future.
So far, over 140 members of the entertainment industry have vowed to not return to Texas if SB 6 passes, Noonan noted.
“At the end of the day, I think this is bad business for the state of Texas,” Noonan said. “It’s an answer looking for a problem.”
Other major Texas cities are also worried about the bathroom bill.
Robert Jameson, president of the Fort Worth visitors bureau, said he worries about the city’s 20 pending proposals for NCAA collegiate championship competitions from 2018-2021 if Abbott signs SB 6. Although the the college sports governing authority has not reached out to his office directly, Jameson noted that the NCAA moved several championship games out of North Carolina in response to a similar bill.
In Arlington, where both the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers play, officials with the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau are concerned how the bill’s passage could impact Arlington’s brand as a major sports city. Asked by the Tribune about whether the bureau was worried about the impact to the city if SB 6 becomes law, the bureau responded with an emailed statement that pointed to several major events the city has hosted in the past with national sports associations such as the NCAA and NFL that have been outspoken on their opposition to the bathroom bill.
Officials with El Paso and Corpus Christi did not respond to requests for comment.
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business, Austin City Limits Live and the Greater Houston Convention Visitors Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/23/dozens-national-meeting-planners-may-take-texas-their-list/.
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