Contact Us

New CRE Group Calls Out Harassment, Assault On Eve Of Conference Season

A new group of women in CRE has launched a campaign aimed at raising awareness around instances of sexual harassment and assault that have persisted at business conferences in the post-#MeToo era. 

In addition to circulating a video on Instagram and LinkedIn that highlights the issue, the 15 female members of the Power Beacons group plan to distribute special lids at events that can be used to keep drugs out of drinks. Their goal is to dispel the idea that these issues have faded away and encourage the industry to find solutions.

“It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Beth Azor, founder of a South Florida commercial real estate advisory firm and a Power Beacons member. “The first step is admitting you have a problem.

“I truly believe that conference organizers don’t realize, like I didn’t, that this was going on,” Azor said. “Truly, when this came up, I was flabbergasted to the point that I didn't believe it. Shame on me. I’m 63. Conference organizers are my age, and they’re not talking about this.” 

This awareness campaign, launched on the eve of RECon, an enormous annual event in Las Vegas from ICSC, is meant to highlight the risks women face at all such large industry events, according to organizers.

Members of Power Beacons, who said unwanted advances and harassment still occur with some frequency, hope to encourage event organizers across the industry to be more proactive with messaging around this issue. 

“You’re in this environment in Vegas, and drinking is foundationally part of the culture,” said Marissa Limsiaco, president and founder of Otso, an Austin proptech firm, and a founder of the Power Beacons group. “When you mix that with a professional environment, then you get what’s been happening.” 

A survey cited in the Power Beacons video, compiled in 2018 by MeetingsNet, indicates that 56% of female executives across industries said they had been harassed in a professional environment. Twenty-nine percent specifically referred to conferences.

Reporting on an incident of harassment and assault that allegedly took place at a bar earlier this year in connection with Legalweek, a legal tech conference in New York City, led to several incidents being shared across social media, according to NPR. In recent years, similar incidents have allegedly occurred at scholarly and tech conferences as well.

ICSC takes steps to ensure attendee safety and supports the efforts of Power Beacon members, according to Rae Logsdon, ICSC chief marketing officer and executive vice president. The organization “will not tolerate activities from our members or event attendees that are inconsistent with ICSC values or our Member Code of Conduct.”

Attendees at ICSC RECon 2019 in Las Vegas

RECon, which takes place over three days at the Las Vegas Convention Center and across the Strip, draws roughly 34,000 attendees and more than 1,000 exhibitors every year. Commercial real estate’s largest firms spend big on parties featuring a variety of entertainment, food and drinks.

“We communicate the Code of Conduct for Event Participants expectations to our members proactively via event and policy updates,” Logsdon wrote in response to questions from Bisnow.

“In addition, as with other major ICSC events, we will have an extensive security detail at ICSC Las Vegas which includes our own private security specialists and the Las Vegas Convention Center security staff. We are also in regular contact with local and state law enforcement agencies to ensure participant safety, that the event runs smoothly and no issues arise.”

Logsdon also wrote that ICSC and organizers have “not received any formal complaints related to inappropriate conduct of this nature in recent years.”

Concerns about this behavior allegedly happening during large industry gatherings aren’t limited to ICSC. RECon is just one of several large events in the real estate industry’s conference circuit — which includes large gatherings coordinated by organizations such as The CCIM Institute, which expects 750-plus attendees at its global summit in the fall; MIPIM, which brings in 20,000-plus at its global event in France; and NAIOP, which hosts dozens of events across the country each year. 

NAIOP also has a code of conduct, President and CEO Marc Selvitelli said, and, “if an attendee experiences harassment or sees someone who is, we’ve put procedures in place to address an immediate situation, which may include expulsion from an event, and investigate reports of negative behavior.”

Bisnow reached out to these groups regarding the Power Beacons campaign and will update the story with their responses. 

“Nobody thinks these organizations are the ones doing this,” said Carrie Bobb, a retail real estate specialist and Power Beacons member who made her sexual assault case public in a bid to protect future victims. “We just need their help raising awareness and preventing these things from happening.”

The #MeToo movement that swept through business, entertainment, politics and American culture in general gave women and nonbinary people in the industry a better platform but didn’t erase the dangers faced in conference settings, according to Power Beacons members. 

“A lot of the industry thinks this isn't an issue anymore,” Azor said.

She assumed this kind of behavior had gone away during #MeToo and was shocked to learn it was still an issue. 

The Power Beacons formed at the end of 2020 as an informal network, which Limsiaco started by reaching out to high performers in the industry, and offered support and a space for women in CRE to discuss industry challenges.

The national group, which consists of roughly 15 members who work across all asset classes, began holding monthly meetings, met in person in Austin for the first time in 2022, and in recent months decided to launch a video and awareness campaign around conference safety.  

Women in the group, mostly experienced executives, founders or independent business owners, had shared their personal stories of these kinds of incidents during regular meetings on Zoom, Limsiaco said.

The large proportion of group members with stories to share made them realize the continued prevalence of this type of behavior at large industry gatherings and that it impacted all women in the industry, including those with longer tenures and leadership positions, Limsiaco said. 

The Palais des Festivals in Cannes

“This happens across the board,” Limsiaco said. “There are 15 of us, and out of that whole group, only one raised her hand and said she hadn’t been harassed or assaulted. This is really rampant still, so what can we do to get out the message?”

Bobb, whose case led to a successful campaign to pass a national law invalidating the power of arbitration agreements to conceal such assaults, has been an outspoken advocate of increased awareness and safety at these events. Her case allegedly took place at RECon in 2018, and she added that although she filed a police report, she didn’t file a formal report with ICSC in 2018. 

“I did talk to them in 2022 and made [ICSC] aware of it, and I don’t think most women are,” Bobb said in a phone interview. “I think most people were filing police reports and talking to their company. Carrie’s Law only came about in 2022, so it’s only been a few years since people have been able to fully report this.”

In a written response to Bisnow, Bobb said the responses the group has received on social media have been overwhelmingly positive — it estimates at least 45,000 viewers and climbing. Many people in the industry are rallying to the cause, and this is “an opportunity for institutions to protect people in the industry, not just their employees, but all those gathering for an industry event.” 

Bobb has also noted on Instagram that the video has encouraged other women in CRE to share private stories of other women suffering through unwanted advances and assault. So far, the group says 19 women have reached out with their own stories of these kinds of incidents. 

The Power Beacons organizers want to raise awareness of a significant issue across the industry that often flies under the radar. They also want organizers to take steps to mitigate the risk of these incidents occurring and have protocols and processes for immediate action if incidents occur.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with this kind of behavior at conferences is the combination of drinking and the proliferation of satellite events and after-event trips to local bars or clubs where participants gather outside the direct scrutiny of conference and event staff and security measures. 

The Power Beacons group advocates for more awareness and messaging at events, being more transparent and formal about what is happening and being blunter about steps and efforts to prevent this kind of behavior.  

The group hasn’t asked to speak at ICSC. The initiative came together quickly, Azor said, so its members weren’t prepared for a large-scale event. With a focus on getting the word out, the group is trialing the distribution of roughly 250 drink covers to see if they should scale up at other events. Azor said she has been sending the video to CEOs, asking them to share it with their companies, and expects Power Beacons will regroup in the summer to plan the next stage. 

“Just like when I was 18, not much has really changed, in terms of these environments,” Limsiaco said. “It’d be nice if more men would stand up — that’s how this is really going to change, men recognizing this is still an issue and being more aware of it, especially leaders.”

UPDATE, May 16, 11:30 A.M. ET: The story was updated with a statement from NAIOP and misinterpreted references to MIPIM.