A little while ago, I received an email from George Clooney. This was a bit surprising given that George and I are not close friends. The email was sent under the auspices of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association.
It was sent on April 5, but it referred to April 3, which marks the anniversary of the first cellphone call.
But April 3 is also a significant date in the travel industry, as Clooney points out. On that date, Brunei, the tiny oil-rich country of fewer than 500,000 citizens, achieved a kind of infamy, because on that date it began a policy supported by the Sultan of Brunei of stoning and whipping to death any of its citizens shown to be homosexual.
Now that is almost unfathomable in the 21st century, but what has this got to do with us? Well, actually there is a relationship to our industry, a rather close one, and I think it's likely that each of us is going to have to take a stand on this one way or the other.
The Sultan of Brunei is the fifth-richest man in the world, and as head of the Brunei Investment Agency, he has determined that to diversify from oil he would become a serious player in the luxury hotel sector. He has been concentrating on purchasing some of the most iconic properties in the U.S. and Europe.
Among the properties owned by the Sultan of Brunei are:
- The Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles
- The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles
- The Dorchester in London
- La Meurice in Paris
- The Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris
- The Hotel Eden in Rome
In his email, George has asked me to stop setting up groups at any of the sultan's hotels. He will not stay in any of those hotels himself, and he feels that if only my clients knew about this background, they would choose to avoid these "nice hotels" filled with "kind and helpful" staff.
This was tried a few years ago, and then it died down. The issue was dropped, and Clooney admits that since then, he has stayed at several of these properties because "I hadn't done my homework."
I had a feeling that this time things might be different. Elton John added his voice, as did Ellen DeGeneres.
And miraculously, before you even had a chance to read this, Brunei is pulling back. The sultan on May 6 announced a "moratorium" on the death penalty for cases involving homosexual activities and adultery.
In announcing the change, the sultan added: "Once these [misperceptions] have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident."
Brunei's new policy also prohibits sex between unmarried heterosexual couples, and the same stoning/whipping penalties apply. Women who give birth out of wedlock face the same punishment. But the just-announced moratorium will, I believe, put a halt to death by stoning for a number of offenses.
So what do we do with this information? And what policies should we adopt when arranging meetings and travel in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Mauritania, all among more than a dozen countries that now provide the death penalty for homosexuality?
I think that individual agencies making booking decisions based on who owns a specific hotel are headed down a rather slippery slope. But I do feel that I want to take the responsibility of informing my clients about each of these properties in terms of who owns them and the horrendous risks members of the LGBT community face in the home country of the hotel's owner.
Ultimately, the decision to support this new boycott is up to each client. It is not up to me.