Jonathan Ewing

Carlson, the company that owns Radisson and hotels around the world, is in the perfect place to do something about human trafficking. From training its employees to spot trafficking at its hotels, to the partnerships it forms with nonprofits and other businesses, the company takes human trafficking seriously.

We asked Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former Chairman & CEO of Carlson, about her personal commitment to ending trafficking, and the work her company does to put an end to this global problem.

Q: Why is Carlson, a Minnesota-based firm, taking on international human trafficking?

A: Human trafficking is a global issue. As a global company with operations in 160 countries, we have the “sphere of influence” to make a significant difference.

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Traffickers often use the travel and hospitality industry as a facilitator. Airlines are used to transport victims and hotels can unknowingly be used as the settings for this illicit activity.

We felt we had the tools and resources to make a difference. As a family-owned business, once we learned of the millions of children who are used for sexual purposes in the travel and tourism industry worldwide, we could not turn away.  This became our focus.

Also, your question implies that because we are headquartered in Minnesota we may somehow be “isolated” from the issue. There is no state in which the trafficking of children for sexual purposes is not occurring. I encourage everyone to research the situation in their local communities and get involved in stopping it. We need as many 21st century abolitionists as we can recruit to protect our children.

Q: How can the travel industry be part of the solution?

As an industry, we represent a virtual army of eyes and ears when employees are trained about what to watch for and how to report it. In our hotel company, CarlsonRezidor, we have ongoing training for all hotel employees on this topic, so it’s become a normal business practice for us.

At Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the world’s largest travel management company, we have partnered with the State Department to craft language on electronic ticket itineraries that educates travelers on the sexual exploitation of children and asks travelers to report any suspicious activity to the Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888).

I feel very strongly that no travel and hospitality company can truly call itself a “responsible business” if it is not taking steps to do what it can to impact this issue.

Q: How important was it to you, as a woman and a business leader, for Carlson to be the first company to win the first “Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking” last year?

I am immensely proud of the efforts that Carlson has taken over the past decade to be the leader in our industry on this issue. The President’s award was, of course, a high honor in recognition of our employees’ efforts. But even beyond that, it was personally gratifying for me to know that we are successfully joining hands across sectors to bring our unique leverage, resources and expertise to bear on this problem.

As a woman, I am keenly aware that women and girls represent the greatest segment of human trafficking victims. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimate that women are 2/3 of all victims. Distressing, yes, but we must not feign surprise. Societal attitudes towards women are uneven around the world. Economic, political and educational opportunities for women in most cases lag behind those of men. Where war erupts, where natural disasters occur, where poverty has a stronghold, women and girls are always the most vulnerable.

But I am hopeful that the models of partnership, collaboration and cooperation that we are forming to combat human trafficking will serve as inspiration to do the same to attack the other injustices that disproportionately affect women.

Increasingly, I see more and more men who are adding their voices to address these issues which adversely affect women. In particular, I have great admiration for those men who are speaking out against the sex trafficking of minors. They are my new heroes.

Q: Why is it important for businesses to partner with the public sector and NGOs on this issue? Who are some of your current partners?

A: If we train our hotel employees but hotlines aren’t answered promptly or law enforcement is complicit, it’s to no avail. If the legal community won’t prosecute the perpetrators, there is no disincentive to engage in this criminal activity. If there is no safe haven where victims can take refuge, it is unlikely that they will come forward and testify.

For that reason, we are partnering with ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking); Polaris, which runs the national human trafficking hotline; and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which has a very aggressive and comprehensive campaign to fight this issue in our headquarters’ state. And, we have long supported the World Childhood Foundation, which we helped to establish with the Queen of Sweden in 1999 to protect street children around the world.

We’ve held several leadership positions in such industry associations as the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Travel Industry of America and the American Hotel & Lodging Association. We have used those platforms consistently to urge our colleagues to become allies in this fight.

Our family foundation has assisted in the underwriting of a globally-acclaimed film on human trafficking called “Not My Life” which aired on CNN International and we were also sponsors of the PBS airing of Nick Kristof’s “Half the Sky” documentary.

Our partnerships extend to other companies as well. Carlson, along with several other major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Ford, Manpower and Microsoft came together a few years ago to form gBCAT – The Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking. gBCAT’s goal is to educate the extensive employee bases of these companies on human trafficking, to share best practices in supply chain and employee policies and recruit more businesses partners to engage in the issue.

Our partnership with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s “Smart Power Innovations” initiative is also important to us as a catalyst to multi-sector engagement in this issue and others of urgent global importance.

It is so encouraging to see that there is promising momentum in every sector!

Q: What is Carlson doing to ensure the work you are doing to prevent human trafficking is sustained for years to come?

A: Carlson continues to make the prevention of human trafficking a top business and philanthropic focus. From offering our training to the rest of the industry, to supporting charitable organizations that align with this mission, we are committed to remaining on the forefront of this fight.

Now that 10 years have passed since we first took up the mantle to lead on this issue, we are pleased to see so many elected officials, business leaders, NGOs, academic leaders and citizens are now aware of this problem and have joined in the fight against human trafficking.

Moving forward we are turning our attention from awareness to advocacy and direct services for victims in the form of job creation. Carlson is here to stay on this issue and honored to join with other like-minded companies and partners to do together what none of us can do alone – put an end to this horrific activity.

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