Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Tale of Three Letters


On Monday, March 23, 2015 Gen Con got a bit political. The Indiana State General Assembly had passed SB 101, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to anyone based on religious grounds, and it was anticipated that Governor Pence would sign it. That Monday found Adrian Swartout, CEO and owner of Gen Con, publishing a letter that the company had sent to Governor Pence. In the letter Swartout wrote:
". . . For more than a decade, Indianapolis has provided tremendous hospitality and accommodation to our attendees, culminating in an estimated annual economic impact of more than $50 million dollars to the city. Gen Con and its attendees look forward to receiving the same warm Hoosier hospitality throughout the term of our contract.

Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years . . ." (3/23/2015 Gen Con Letter on SB 101)
For many this was seen as Gen Con taking a stand on behalf of their diverse attendees. And while Swartout didn't outright say that if Governor Pence signed SB 101 that the convention would be out it was implied. On Twitter my feed lit up with people celebrating this brave stand that Gen Con was taking. Then the bill was signed into law and a second letter was sent, this time just to us. What was in store for the future of the convention?
". . . We have a contract with the city of Indianapolis through 2020. Gen Con is an economically impactful event for locally owned businesses in the Indy community which for more than a decade have embraced us as guests. Due to specific dialogue with long-term partners in Indy, we believe that Gen Con attendees not only will receive the same great service and hospitality in 2015, but an even warmer response from the city. For as long as we stay in Indianapolis, we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with this community, expand our efforts to bring more diversity to Gen Con, and welcome all . . .

"What does the future hold for Gen Con 2021 and beyond? Planning and bidding for our convention is a long-term process that begins five years prior to contract-term commencement. Discussions, whether to remain in Indy or move elsewhere, have begun . . ." (3/26/2015 Gen Con Letter to Community)
Where was Swartout's righteous indignation? Where was the declaration that Gen Con would definitely be pulling out of Indianapolis since SB 101 had been signed? That they'll be damned if they're going to do business in a state that now allows businesses to openly discriminate against anyone based on religious grounds?

What had originally seemed like a bold stand for Gen Con turned out to be nothing more than a political flag waved in the winds of popular opinion. Some people argued that Gen Con had a contract - they couldn't break it. Except Gen Con is a corporation and corporations break contracts all the time when things become intolerable; and there was that implied threat that this convention with a $50 million impact on the city of Indianapolis would not accept the SB 101's signing into law.

Four days would pass before we would see another letter from Swartout. During that time my Twitter and Google+ feeds were flooded with outrage from Gen Con attendees of old, of today, and of hopeful tomorrows. I can only imagine what Swartout's inbox and social media were like. 
". . . Thank you for your continued communications with Gen Con extending your support for our efforts to fight against discrimination. The passage of Indiana SB 101 into the Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) law has ignited tremendous passion among attendees as well as across the country. We at Gen Con LLC fully expected that the well-informed and opinionated community that comprises Gen Con would be outspoken, and we are pleased to be able to help in amplifying this signal. This morning Indiana Governor Mike Pence took time to call and discuss Indiana's recently passed RFRA law.

"Governor Pence has stated that he believes the outcry against this law is based upon a misunderstanding. We respectfully disagree with this position. A significant portion of Gen Con attendees identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and we are reading that some members of our community feel unsafe traveling to Indiana, subsequent to the passage of the RFRA law. We understand this sentiment, and will act to support safety.

"Gen Con 2015 will be held, as planned, at the Indiana Convention Center July 30 through August 2. Gen Con staff are working in partnership with the City of Indianapolis, local businesses, Visit Indy, and other grassroots organizations to ensure fair and safe treatment during this year's show . . .

"We believe that freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right. Until Gen Con has received legally sound assurances that Indiana will support these rights, we are halting our plans to expand Gen Con into Lucas Oil Stadium, and plans for further expansion into other hotel convention spaces . . ." (3/30/2015 Gen Con Letter to Community)
Gen Con did not stand up to fight discrimination before this letter. Instead they sent a letter telling Governor Pence saying that they might, possibly, move the convention in five years. When the bill was signed they said, "We're talking about where to host the convention in 2021! It might be in Indianapolis, then again, maybe not! Who knows? Not us!"

Now they have actually done something. They've halted a major expansion of the convention that would have brought more attendees to the show, more money into the city and state, and more money into Gen Con's own coffers. But is it really anything substantial? They haven't actually done anything that negatively impacts the city or state as they implied they would in that first letter. Is this just more political grandstanding or is this really Gen Con doing the "right thing?" 

You tell me.

24 comments:

  1. We'll see motion if they experience a substantial downturn in attendance at the next event or two. They have a new five year contract, but I'll bet if the state's law impacts the business significantly then they would be able to call on a get-out-of-jail free clause (and if they don't have one in the contract then shame on them).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If they don't have ways out of their contract then they're run by fools. To sign a five year contract without one would be madness.

      Delete
    2. I actually sympathize with the GenCon planners. They may be able to break the contract, but that would be a nuclear option and likely cost the convention significant lawyer's fees even to break and risk additional litigation from the city.

      Unfortunately, it's not cut and dried... and even though the Indiana law is a bad one, Indianapolis itself has local laws that put LGBT persons into the protected classes with regards to discrimination (I should note that these protections are local and not state-wide, but for the purposes of GenCon, the LGBT community is still protected class even with the RFRA law).

      So, yes, GenCon originally threatened to move the convention, but that process is neither short, easy nor inexpensive, so their best option is to hope that their pressure (as well as the pressure from other groups) will lead to the law's repeal rather than make any sudden moves to break a contract which could lead to tremendous expenses.

      Delete
    3. I have no sympathy for them. They put themselves into this situation by implicitly threatening to take their $50 million impact and going elsewhere with it if the law were signed.

      Delete
    4. I don't know, I think you're being a bit harsh here, Charles. As he stated in the letter, it's a 5-year process to change venues. What Gen Con did with the first letter was flex some muscle in the hopes that the legislature would back down from the bill. That's why it never stated that they WILL pull out. It was using economic pressure to make a political statement. A potentially powerful one, albeit futile in the face of the Right Wing monsters that run the government.

      As it stands now, the card has been played, and Indiana now has five years to decide whether the law is worth it. Especially considering that Gen Con isn't the only business making the threat. Others are too, and still others are making good on the threat due to having a level of freedom and flexibility that Gen Con just doesn't. So, in the end, it was a bold move, and a strong one. Just because they can't make the move next year doesn't make it any less of a strong stand.

      Delete
    5. Tom there's a lesson I learned nearly twenty years ago: Don't threaten anything - even implicitly - unless you're willing to follow through. The minute that you do and fail to follow through you lose all negotiating power and show yourself to be powerless. Their first letter did nothing but show them to be weak, waffling things incapable of making good on any negative negotiating tactic that they take in the coming years.

      They didn't have to come out and say anything before SB 101 was signed. They could have waited and then reacted with the second letter and have significantly improved their public relations without showing their own weakness.

      Delete
    6. Charles, I have to disagree with your interpretation of the threat.

      The original letter actually says "will factor on our decision making in future years."
      http://files.gencon.com/Gen_Con_Statement_Regarding_SB101.pdf

      In the follow-up letter, they state "Discussions as to whether to remain in Indy or move elsewhere have begun."
      http://files.gencon.com/Letter_to_Attendees.pdf

      In other words, they are doing exactly what they stated in the original letter. It's the community that interpreted their letter to mean "We will leave next year." They never stated that. They were very careful NOT to state that in the original letter.

      Now, if your complaint is that the original letter was too weakly worded and doesn't really consist of a threat (since it's a somewhat empty five-year away threat given the current contract), then I would agree with you.

      But it was the gaming community that assumed the threat would be executed by breaking the current contract when GenCon made no such statement.

      Delete
    7. Don't you use your logic here!

      Delete
  2. No matter what GenCon was not going to bee able to find new space for 2015. But it might have been able to put something together for 2016 if it really cared. There are a lot of logistics involved not just for the con but also the vendors and attendees. I'm disappointed that the letter turned out to be so toothless but I'm not surprised either. And who knows what the political climate will be like there in a couple of years. With companies leaving it could soften our get even worse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wonder why Blogger doubles some people's comments and not others?

      Delete
  3. No matter what GenCon was not going to bee able to find new space for 2015. But it might have been able to put something together for 2016 if it really cared. There are a lot of logistics involved not just for the con but also the vendors and attendees. I'm disappointed that the letter turned out to be so toothless but I'm not surprised either. And who knows what the political climate will be like there in a couple of years. With companies leaving it could soften our get even worse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're absolutely right about 2015 and 16.

      "With companies leaving it could soften or get even worse."

      One of the analyses of the law that I was reading while I was writing this mentioned that the law is so vague that you can essentially refuse service to anyone on grounds of religious belief. It's a hornets nest of a law that opens up the floodgates for bigots to discriminate against people based on their sexuality, gender, their clothing choices, and their religion (or lack thereof). I don't think that they actually thought this through before they decided to write it and pass it because it doesn't just target the gays. If it doesn't get overturned / significantly modified / or repealed in the next few years I would be absolutely amazed.

      Delete
  4. You do realize the country as a whole and 19 other states have similar laws? None of which, including as far as I can tell Indiana's, allow discrimination against anyone. Rather the laws enable defendants in court to raise a defense based on their personal religious beliefs when accused of violating a law. The original impetuous for the laws was a court case which ruled that Native Americans could use peyote in religious ceremonies, despite peyote being an illegal substance under federal law. The actual effect of this law approaches nil, just because a defendant raises a religious object does not bind the court. Instead the court must determine if there is a compelling state interest that overrides the individual's religious beliefs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rod, I don't like any of those laws but this article isn't about the law so much as it's about Gen Con's reaction and posturing.

      Delete
  5. This was a state-level reaffirmation of a 1993 federal law passed to let Indians smoke peyote without harassment from authorities. GenCon hates native americans. GenCon plans to discriminate against peyote users and native american religions. Leave your peyote at home, folks, there are Nazis about!

    Seriously, though, unless someone is afraid that they won't be able to browbeat a muslim caterer into serving pulled pork in the hospitality room, I don't think this law is going to have any effect whatsoever on GenCon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then Gen Con should have shut up and not implied that if it were signed they would be gone. If you threaten to do something, follow through. Don't turn around and then glibly try and sound like you're doing nothing was you fighting the good fight.

      Delete
    2. Yeah. My big problem with this is basically Gen Con was trying to use the whole thing to score progressive brownie points while not actually standing on any particular principles. Making real principled stands don't usually win you any brownie points and people who try to score brownie points don't tend to have many worthwhile principles. Basically, they made themselves look like wishy-washy duplicitous idiots.

      Delete
    3. And actually, joking about halaal/kosher foods aside, unless there is significant clarification issued, the biggest obvious effect of this kind of law is that Sikhs will not be prohibited from carrying their ceremonial daggers with them while on public property (maybe privately owned business property as well). Which, I don't know, might violate GenCon's live-steel policies.

      Delete
  6. Bear in mind that the current law under discussion has _absolutely nothing to do_ with discriminating against homosexuals. Nothing. Nada. The truth that nobody seems to be discussing is that it was ALREADY legal to discriminate against homosexuals in Indiana, because Indiana's civil rights laws do not recognize sexual orientation as a protected class. So using the IRFRA as a catalyst for this sort of protest is disingenuous to say the least. It was just as legal to discriminate against homosexuals in Indiana in 2003 when Gencon first moved there as it is in 2015, and they didn't say a word back then.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not talking about the actual law, Holmes. We're talking about Gen Con's actions from implicitly threatening that they're going to pull out to then saying, "Nevermind," to claiming that they've been doing so-so-so much to help fight against discrimination.

      Delete
  7. I'm interested to see which companies will attend a Gen Con held in a state that supports such discriminatory laws.
    If Gen Con can't or won't take a stand against this law, how about WoTC, Steve Jackson, Pinnacle, Mongoose, Green Ronin,and other companies?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't seen statements on SB 101 from any of them

      Delete
    2. Yeah, neither have I. And I find that very interesting. It looks like they are waiting to see how this all plays out. The gaming community can protest all they want online it may or may not have an effect. what WILL have an effect is if manufacturer's,publishers, and gamer's refuse to come to a convention held in a state that supports this kind of legislation. Gen Con LLC can waffle if it wants, the power in this instance is in the hands of the attendees.

      Delete

Just a Little Update

Just a few quick notes for those of you wondering about Dyvers. I'm currently working on a project in my spare time that is taking...