Sexual harassment in the events industry – Case study the Presidents Club Dinner

Events industry is not only about beautiful venues, exciting destinations and smiling people. Unfortunately there is also a dark side to it, one that we almost never talk about between peers and in the press. But times are changing, and people are more open to talk about taboo topics, like sexual harassment in a professional setting. The change that brought the society to acknowledge and terminate sexual harassment in the workplace is the #MeToo movement. It went viral back in October 2017 following sexual abuse allegations against the American film producer Harvey Weinstein. The “Weinstein effect” was triggered as a result of the viral campaign and called for dismissals of men who hold positions of power in the society and workplace for sexual abuse allegations.

On 23rd January Financial Times broke a story about sexual harassment at the Presidents Club fundraiser dinner. Financial Times sent two journalists undercover to work as hostesses at the Presidents Club Dinner that took place at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The journalists broke the story of sexist environment and abuse towards the hostesses. It made headlines on social media and international press, but in the events industry, media and event associations were slow to respond to the story.

But the story on Financial Times wasn’t the first sexual harassment scandal in the events industry, another public report included the TED Conference published last year. Following Presidents Club Dinner event, the Guardian also sent an undercover journalist to a different event, the annual ICE Totally Gaming event at the ExCeL London who reported about pole dancers and a Playboy-themed show.

On the positive side, sporting events including Formula 1 announced that they will have grid kids to replace grid girls, and darts events will no longer have walk-on girls.

It’s important to have this discussion and make employees, suppliers, attendees, venues and all stakeholders aware that sexual harassment can happen at their event. It’s important to be able to recognise it and stop immediately.

Following the publication of this article, I hosted the Event Planners Talk Twitter chat (#eventprofstalk) to analyse the case study and offer some solutions how to deal with such situation. This article summarises the discussion, if you want to see the individual tweets and chat participants you can find the Twitter conversation on storify.

Are men only events still relevant today?

There is no strait answer to this, mainly because there are women only events, women only agencies, women only everything. In that case gender ‘per se’ wasn’t the problem with this event, it was the fact the behaviour was not only accepted but encouraged for 30 odd years!!

Women-only activities might have developed as a result of a majority of male-dominated activities and the need to be part of a “safe” environment. As a result, women only events are due to the nature of under representation and acknowledgement. This increases a “them” and “us” culture. Looking at why men/women can’t mix in a “safe” environment in the first place is key.

In today’s business environment events should promote diversity, not only with their guest list but also speakers, keynotes etc. There shouldn’t be a situation where men only events are the norm. However, some traditional men-only events (stag dos, football matches, etc.) are a result of tradition.

Conclusion and food for thought: Women only events are often seen as empowering and forward thinking. Men only events are often seen as sexist and old fashioned. Should everyone be tarred by the same brush?

Were there any warning signs that this Gala Dinner fundraiser will turn out to be of this nature? Were there any hints that the fundraiser will encourage or inspire unsolicited behaviour towards the hostesses?

This is an event that has been running for decades. There’s no better evidence than the experience from previous years. So happens that this is the first time a female reporter manages to get in and tell the whole story.

The hostesses were hired by a hostess agency Artista and already at the interview stage were told that it’s a men only event and guests might be “annoying”. The hostesses were also told to wear black outfits with matching underwear and high heels. Furthermore, they were asked to keep their phones away.

Auction prizes hinted towards the direction and nature of the event. The hostesses were even told to sign a non-disclosure agreement upon arrival to the venue. The hostesses weren’t given time to read it properly and take a copy, and being asked in presence of other hostesses it puts a pressure to sign even without reading.

And if that is not enough there was a waring on the official event brochure indicating that attendees or staff shouldn’t be sexually harassed.

Why do you think the activities were unreported in the previous years and why are they reported now?

Culture has changed. In the past, women (and some men) would’ve feared to report events like this. Perhaps too many men in the top. People are losing that fear and society demands respect and transparency. Other recent stories of public female figures and the awareness it has generates online and via social media showcased that this is not a normal behaviour and should be reported.

Now is the time to speak out. This topic has never been more prevalent in the media. Now is the time when concerns will be taken seriously and problems will be heard. Because the subject is being addresses in other industries it is perhaps a safer time to be discussing it and ensuring it is brought to the forefront and taken seriously.

What could the venue have done to prevent this behaviour from happening? What a venue can do when it becomes aware of what’s happening at the event?

All venues should follow and publish a code of conduct, which outlines the type of behaviours expected from guests. All events should adhere to this compliance or face cancellation, eviction or a fine.

It’s normally a venues job to do everything they can to keep the client happy, HOWEVER, that should never be at the expense or the safety of any member of staff or guest. Morals before money should go without saying.

But there was more staff on site, including caterers for example, but as waiting staff some might not feel it’s their place to report. People more senior have okayed the event and they’re there to do their job and leave. It’s a shame but quite likely. The venue should have sent a guard discretely and asked the attendee/s to leave the event, as a first step, if the behaviour continued stop the event.

Any venue should require info about a potential event in detail: a background of the event, whose attending, guest lists, info where the previous event took place. The venue should provide the clients’ info on their rules and regulations.

How the founder of the hostess agency should have managed the situation?

When need to deal with such a situation, the owner or manager on site should encourage their staff to record unsolicited behaviour, gather evidence, recall all staff if situation escalates, report to the authorities and issue a fair press release.

The owner should have said a polite ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ to the Presidents Club business as soon as they got the client ‘brief.’ Morality before money comes back into mind again here. In fact, the owner told during the interview stage that the men might be “annoying”, explicitly knowing how the evening will unfold and not taking care of her staff. The agency should definitely have known that something was not right simply by the “uniforms” that the hostesses were requested to wear.

If that’s not enough, the agency owner should have looked in the mirror and asked herself, “would I send my daughter there” and “what exactly am I willing to do for money” then politely said no.

Where could the hostesses seek immediate help?

When situations like these arises, hostesses should seek an immediate help through the organisers, the venue, the police or even social media. You’d like to think duty management would be first port of call and service would be immediately stopped following any reports. But, on this occasion, three out of the options were not an option because hostesses’ phones were locked and out of reach. If nothing works, hostesses can also leave the event and seek external help.

This topic and case study was further discussed at the Event Huddle in London and you can watch the recording below.

 Photo: Sandeep Rai Photography

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