Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2007/January 2008
BM&T Salutes Hospitality Industry Diversity Leaders
By: Michael Bennett
As most readers of Black Meetings and Tourism know, periodically we like to salute those in our industry who signify the utmost in achievement when it comes to diversity. And what better time than the holiday season to shed light on those who deserve our praise for a job well done.

As we enter 2008, diversity will remain a hot button issue on the national stage and might actually intensify as we approach the November elections. For the first time in our nation’s history a female and an African-American have a legitimate chance to end up in the White House. No doubt we will see countless news stories both pro and con about whether our nation is ready for a different kind of president. While that drama plays itself out on a national stage, our industry will continue to wage that same battle at the corporate, local, city, state and national level in employment, marketing and advertising, customer/client relations, vendor diversity and ownership.

As a member of the travel industry for over a decade, I still find myself combating the same diversity demons I fought back in 1997 — the lack of marketing to people of color, ad agencies who refuse to allow their clients to advertise in minority-owned publications, companies who have no minority-owned vendors on their list of those they do business with, convention and visitors bureaus who resist equality and limited hotel ownership opportunities. The good news, things are changing, progress has been made but there is more work to be done.

Tanya Hall, director of Philadelphia’s MultiCultural Affairs Committee puts it best when it comes to this most necessary of goals, “to make a commitment to diversity will not only grow your bottom line, but will also grow your organization from a human resources perspective. We would be remiss not to enrich our tourism and hospitality business by maximizing the resources found in the country’s ethnic communities.”

At more than $40 billion a year, the African-American travel marketplace is a powerful and vibrant force in our industry and when combined with Black buying power, which is expected to reach $800 billion annually in 2008 — those who lag behind might have a tough time catching up as those mentioned below continue to make diversity a primary objective.

As reported numerous times in this magazine, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau is the gold standard when it comes to embracing diversity. The Atlanta CVB is so committed to diversity that their hard work appears effortless.

But Kathleen Bertrand, senior vice president, Community and Government Affairs at the Atlanta CVB is quick to point out, they understand the marketplace and work hard to create a positive experience for the African-American traveler. “We don’t take the appeal of Atlanta for granted” Bertrand told me in a piece I wrote earlier this year. It’s the total commitment of everyone on the staff, “if the top is aware that this (African-American) market is an important marketing segment then the body follows,” says Bertrand.

In 2006, Atlanta played host to 5.7 million convention attendees bringing in over $2.4 billion in spending to the city — many of those African-American, including; the Black Coaches Association, National Association of Black Accountants and the Progressive National Baptists.

Bertrand has received numerous awards for her achievement, commitment and dedication to our industry including an APEX Award from Black Meetings and Tourism earlier this year at a ceremony in Ft. Lauderdale. Sixteen years ago, Bertrand conceptualized and developed Atlanta Heritage, a visitors guide published annually and aimed at the African-American traveler. She also conceptualized the first publication geared to the African-American meeting planner.

Wanda Collier-Wilson has worked at the Jackson, MS., CVB since 1983. She is the first Black woman ever appointed permanent executive director of the bureau’s board of directors. And talk about being a pioneer, she is also the first person to be promoted to the organization’s top spot from within. Not bad from someone who started out as a receptionist. Today she serves as the president and CEO of the bureau.

Black Meetings and Tourism and Jet magazine have recognized Collier-Wilson for her achievements in travel and tourism. In 2006, the Mississippi Development-Authority Division of Tourism inducted Collier-Wilson into its Tourism Hall of Fame.

Philadelphia’s MultiCultural Affairs Congress (MAC) is a division of Philadelphia’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Under Hall’s leadership, MAC is primarily responsible for increasing Philadelphia’s share of multicultural meetings, conventions and tourism markets. Since its inception 20 years ago, MAC is responsible for $1 billion in multicultural meetings and conventions business.

As an extension of Hall’s duties as head of MAC, she works closely with Philadelphia’s hospitality and business communities to ensure that people of color have employment and training opportunities, chances to participate as vendors and suppliers and pretty much anything that would make the Philadelphia experience a successful one.

Philadelphia, largely through the efforts of MAC has been recognized nationally. The Washington Post named Philadelphia one of the top 10 places to hold family reunions and Essence named it one of the top 10 cities for Black families.

Individually, Black Meetings and Tourism has recognized Hall as one of the most influential African-Americans in the hospitality industry. She is also a 3-time recipient of the Philadelphia Tribune’s African American Leader Award.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA) continues its stellar performance in diversity and inclusion. In addition to an individual dedicated to diversity markets, they have a task force of “local stake holders and community leaders that are used as resources to reach out to their colleagues to help carry the sales message” about Baltimore as a outstanding destination for meetings, conventions and tourism says Ronnie Burt, vice president of convention sales and services.

Burt says they have a “diversity rich product” with great museums, Chesapeake Bay cuisine and numerous leisure time activities attractive to African-Americans. While sandwiched in a competitive east coast market between Washington DC and Philadelphia, Burt and the BACVA have an outstanding track record in bringing large African-American conventions to Baltimore from last year’s National Baptist Convention and their 50,000 plus members to next year’s National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Al Hutchinson is the director of convention sales for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. One of his primary responsibilities is marketing and booking events at the brand new 516,000-sq. ft. Virginia Beach Convention Center. With the facility just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, Hutchinson and his team are looking to attract groups from emerging multicultural markets throughout the country.

“In the past four years we have been very aggressive in our approach to capturing our share of this (African-American) meetings market. We have booked an estimated $11 million dollars economic impact of convention business in the African-American market,” Hutchinson says.

Virginia Beach CVB has a dedicated national sales manager that identifies and targets African-Americans and other emerging market groups that fit their convention space and hotel capacity. That strategy combined with educating the media through familiarization tours such as the one I attended in Virginia Beach last May, and their work with local African-American leaders has Hutchinson and his team at the forefront of diversity.

A couple of other CVB’s deserve a special mention for doing yeoman like work in establishing and achieving diversity goals and initiatives. Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau is a (i)Black Meetings and Tourism(ei) 2007 APEX Award winner. Under his leadership Miami has been a consistent venue for African-American themed meetings and conventions including this year’s National Coalition of Black Meetings Planners (NCBMP) gathering.