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Originally published Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 8:02 AM

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Can Calif. hotel boycott change a sultan’s policies?

Human-rights advocates are boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel whose owner, the sultan of Brunei, is phasing in harsh Islamic laws in his country against homosexuality and abortion.

The New York Times


There are few hotels as fundamental to a place as the Beverly Hills Hotel. The pink palace, around which the town grew and celebrities flocked, is 102 years old, two years older than the city itself.

Yet this month, the City Council publicly censured the landmark by passing a unanimous resolution urging that it be sold, another in a string of protests aimed at the hotel’s owner, Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei.

In his small, oil-rich nation in Southeast Asia, the sultan recently began phasing in Islamic, or Shariah laws, covering criminal activity, which prescribe punishments that include public flogging, amputation and death by stoning for offenses such as adultery, abortion and homosexuality. Their adoption prompted a human rights rally and subsequent boycott directed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and, to a lesser extent, nine affiliated luxury properties under the Dorchester Collection banner. Expressions of anger at the laws have been prominent on social media, and celebrities and corporate executives have been vocal in their opposition.

“This case is unique because there’s such a strong outcry from so many sources, not just celebrities, but the city and corporations,” said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting USA, which specializes in hotels. “This is very emotional and pretty widespread within the entertainment industry, and the hotels are so tied to the entertainment industry. I assume it will have an impact, and, frankly, I’m not sure how it will be resolved.”

Ellen DeGeneres vowed, on Twitter, to avoid the hotel and its Los Angeles sibling, the Hotel Bel-Air. Jay and Mavis Leno, along with gay and women’s rights advocates, protested across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel earlier this month. “Kill-a-gay laws, or laws that allow the flogging of women for abortion, violate international law and have no place in civilized society,” Mavis Leno said in a statement from the Feminist Majority Foundation, of which she is a member.

The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign wrote letters to several organizations with scheduled events at the Beverly Hills Hotel encouraging them to take their business elsewhere. A wave of cancellations followed, estimated to have cost the hotel $2 million.

Europeans join in protest

Although the Beverly Hills Hotel has been the focus of fury, in Britain, where the Dorchester Collection is based, Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, joined the boycott as did actor Stephen Fry and online cruise agency On the Continent, home to three Dorchester hotels in Paris and Milan, fashion heavyweights — including François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, and Yves Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane — joined in, too.

The hotel group’s chief executive, Christopher Cowdray, released a statement asking that the issue “be placed in a broader perspective.” He continued: “Most of us are not aware of the investors behind the brands that have become an integral part of our everyday life, from the gas we put in our cars, to the clothes we wear, to the way we use social media, and to the hotels we frequent. American companies across the board are funded by foreign investment, including Sovereign Wealth Funds.”

Foreign investment is common in the hotel industry, some of it linked to countries with poor human rights records. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, another country with similar anti-gay laws, holds stakes in high-profile hotel management companies, including Four Seasons and Fairmont Raffles.

Hotel workers hurting

But, for now, the fight seems to center on Beverly Hills, where the City Council adopted a resolution urging “the government of Brunei to divest itself of the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

One of an estimated 150 employees who attended the Council’s public hearing on the issue, Anna Romer, a 42-year-old waitress in the hotel’s Polo Lounge, confirmed in a phone interview that business has slowed, along with appearances by celebrities.

“I feel like we’ve been written off by the very people we’ve been taking care of all this time,” Romer said.

Actor Russell Crowe recently tweeted his support of the workers, as well as LGBT rights, saying that “throwing the staff of Dorchester Collection Hotels under the bus to make a political point is not acceptable to me.”

Dorchester has promised to cover the lost wages of its employees for an indefinite period. Industry experts, however, say past hotel protests, which are usually labor-related and don’t tend to rivet public attention, provide few clues as to the staying power of this boycott.

Attempting to return attention to hospitality over politics, the Beverly Hills Hotel recently created a Facebook page devoted to the staff. Political change, however, may be much harder than filling guest rooms.

“For a boycott to work, first consumers have to change their behavior, then management has to change its behavior,” said Roland Rust, marketing professor in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and international research fellow at Oxford University Center for Corporate Reputation. “In this particular case it looks as though some consumers may change their behavior at the hotel out in Beverly Hills, but the odds the sultan of Brunei will be put off by a slight change of business are not very large. You don’t have much leverage when a guy has zillions and zillions of dollars.”

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