San Francisco’s reputation as a premier destination for a corporate conference has taken a hit in recent years amid concerns about homelessness and street crime.
Cases in point: the decision by both Meta and Red Hat to shift corporate events away from San Francisco, as well as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s standoff with the city over Dreamforce.
But now, the city has lured a conference away from Florida after its organizers expressed concern about how racism in the state could hurt attendees.
Originally scheduled for July 24-28 at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, just north of Miami, the National Black Nurses Association conference has officially moved to the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Downtown San Francisco and will run July 23-28.
“This ultimately is a matter of safety,” said Sheldon Fields, the organization’s president. “We are literally the National Black Nurses Association. We have Black in our name. I was not going to put signage up in a hotel and potentially invite anybody with a gun, or whatever have you, to come in and potentially harm anyone.”
The last time the association decided to pull a conference for political reasons was when Arizona refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day decades ago.
The organization’s decision to move next year’s conference was made after 84% of respondents in a survey said they supported moving the event due to a string of state policies that Fields described as “anti-DEI and anti-Black.” These include laws prohibiting Florida’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs and banning high schoolers from taking AP African American studies courses.
Source: Sean Rayford/Getty ImagesPresidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has spearheaded policies that has led Black-focused organizations like the NAACP and the National Society of Black Engineers to pull back activity in the state. |
Many of the policies Fields highlighted have been spearheaded by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is currently running for president.
“If you think about it, the conference would have been taking place in the summer before the presidential election, and we have no idea whether or not the rhetoric is going to be worse,” Fields said.
Another contributing factor was the fatal shooting of three Black people at a Dollar Tree in Jacksonville, Florida, in August. Racist manifestos were found in the gunman’s possession, and the killings are under investigation as a hate crime.
The association’s moral stance comes with a concrete cost: roughly $592,000 in cancellation fees.
Its decision will help buoy a relatively weak 2024 San Francisco convention calendar. It also represents a win for the city’s reputation as an open and welcoming destination amid challenging media narratives around public safety that have hampered the city’s pitch to conferences and group travel organizations.
Outgoing SF Travel CEO Joe D’Alessandro said the city has lost convention business “because of the perception of San Francisco not being safe and the streets not being up to par.” He noted that competitors like Las Vegas have become more aggressive in utilizing these negative media narratives—in addition to the city’s higher costs—to siphon business away.
Fields said well over 1,000 attendees were expected to attend the Florida conference, but he predicts an even greater number will be present in San Francisco.
“We have not been in San Francisco in 20 years, so the return of our conference to the West Coast is very much being heralded as something long overdue,” Fields said. “Plus, all of our chapters west of the Mississippi will find it easier to get to San Francisco.”
Fields admits that the organization doesn’t fully know how it will cover the cancellation fees—particularly if the Diplomat fails to book a replacement—but said the risk to the group’s members overrode those concerns.
“With regards to that fee, I simply pose the question, ‘What is the life of a member worth?'” Fields said. “To me, there is no number.”
With the help of a consultant, the organization identified other potential locations for its event and settled on San Francisco because of the presence of three strong chapters in Northern California.
Several organizations focused on the Black community have pulled back on spending and travel to Florida. Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha announced it would move its 2025 general convention from Orlando, and the National Society of Black Engineers moved its 2024 conference away from the state.
In May, the NAACP Board of Directors issued a formal Florida travel advisory, saying the state “devalues and marginalizes the contributions of and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”
Earlier this month, Fields was in San Francisco with a few of his colleagues to check out the newly chosen venue and while he said he recognized the city’s significant challenges around homelessness, he was struck by the hotel’s proximity to destinations like the Embarcadero and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“It’s nothing unlike what you see in major cities like Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans,” Fields said. “But what hasn’t diminished in San Francisco is the fact that it is an accepting environment in quite a diverse city.”