Student work sheds light on hotels' dark side: sex trafficking

Giovanna Cavagnaro

A School of Hotel Administration student is shedding light on a dark side of the hospitality industry: child sex trafficking.

The chilling and largely underreported problem is the subject of senior Giovanna Cavagnaro’s honors thesis.

“It’s prevalent, and it’s local. Everybody thinks it’s a global problem, [that] it happens in Thailand. But it happens – very much so – in America,” said Cavagnaro '17, winner of the Cornell Hotel Society Senior Prize. “Google ‘sex trafficking case’ and your local community, and you’ll find at least one article. Nobody ever expects that, because they think, ‘Oh, not in my area.’”

Sex trafficking is a crime in which a trafficker sells a victim to customers to perform sexual services; the victim is often under age 18.

Human trafficking is the second-largest illicit crime industry, behind only the sale of drugs, with $150 billion earned in 2014, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). More than 26 percent of victims are children. Between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked every year, according to ILO.

Children are an easy target for traffickers. They are easily lured and kidnapped. The earning opportunities from selling children are tremendous, due to high demand. And traffickers can sell victims to multiple customers each day.

Hotels come in to play because they offer traffickers anonymity, privacy and non-traceability, making them a top venue for the crime. According to a 2012 study by Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, 65 percent of trafficking happens in hotels, from luxury to economy.

The people who buy sex – mostly middle-aged men – often do so when traveling, thus naturally increasing the involvement of hotels, Cavagnaro found. For example, a significant amount of trafficking occurs during the Super Bowl, noted Jan deRoos, Cavagnaro’s adviser and the HVS Professor of Hotel Finance and Real Estate.

“The industry acknowledges child sex trafficking is a problem. But the problem is much bigger than people are willing to acknowledge,” deRoos said.

Cavagnaro’s thesis explores the hospitality industry’s role and responsibility in U.S. sex trafficking. She researched the prevalence of the issue, legal implications for hotels, resources available and hospitality companies’ current initiatives. She also conducted surveys and interviews to identify hoteliers’ overall sentiments and prevention strategies advocated by anti-trafficking organizations.

Cavagnaro’s main finding? The hospitality industry needs more awareness and training, she said.

Hotel employees are often in the best position to spot the signs of sex trafficking, because they have access to the entire property. Some of the most prevalent signs include guests who pay in cash, and a high amount of foot traffic around a room. Traffickers are often picky about when they allow housekeeping to clean the room. They often request rooms located near an exit, making it easy for customers to come and go unnoticed. And a group of males or females with identical tattoos in similar locations on their bodies may signal “branding” by a trafficker.

In the course of her research, the American Hotel and Lodging Association offered Cornell students and faculty its online child trafficking training guide for hotel employees.

“Awareness is not going to solve the issue, by any means,” Cavagnaro said. “But it won’t be solved without it.”

Cavagnaro’s religious faith motivated her to pursue the topic, despite its disturbing nature. “I see value in every single human being,” she said. “They should never be treated as products, because in my faith … there’s that fundamental value in each person. … I knew that I had the opportunity to make a difference.”

Beyond the moral and ethical responsibilities, hoteliers who let trafficking occur on their properties are exposing themselves to liability, deRoos said.

And it’s bad for business, he added. “All it takes is a few bad reviews on a TripAdvisor or Yelp, and there will be customers who just will not use your facilities.”

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Rebecca Valli