Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: November/December 2017
By: Solomon J. Herbert

As we draw to the end of 2017 during this pervasive climate of division that grips our nation ever tighter each day, we must pause to access the state of our industry and the progress, or lack thereof, that African-Americans have made in the meetings, hospitality and travel arena.  While there are numerous indicators that can reveal trends in the industry regarding this overarching question, the one that resonates with me the most is the number of African-Americans heading convention & visitors bureaus across the country.

Currently there are just 12 African-Americans serving as presidents/CEOs or executive directors of CVBs in the US. The presidents/CEOs are: Karin Aaron - Greater Newark CVB, Larry Alexander - Detroit Metro CVB, Bennish Brown - Tacoma Regional CVB, Ronnie Burt - Kansas City CVB, Wanda Collier-Wilson - Jackson CVB, Elliott Ferguson - Destination DC, Julie Coker-Graham - Philadelphia CVB, Al Hutchinson - Visit Baltimore, Melvin Tennant - Minneapolis CVA, Patricia Washington - Alexandria CVA, and Ernest Wooden - Los Angeles TCB.  Shanitra Finley is executive director of the Yazoo County CVB.

Put another way, African-Americans, who make up over 13% of the US population, head only 2% of all US CVBs.  Considering there are over 550 convention & visitors bureaus in our nation, this is not a very encouraging statistic.  And their numbers among CVB vice president ranks are not impressive either.  From my point of view, there is only one justifiable reason for this imbalance to exist - that there aren't any qualified Black candidates to hire and fill top-level positions as they become available. Clearly this is not the case!  There are an abundance of talented, highly skilled and experienced African-American industry professionals eagerly waiting to step up to the plate and assume the responsibility of running a CVB.  Given the availability of qualified Black industry professionals to fill executive positions at CVBs, it would appear that racial barriers are preventing more African-Americans from ascending up the corporate ladder.

The question is, how can we change this picture?  For starters, meeting, incentive and event planners need to book their conventions in those destinations that have demonstrated how much they value your community and your business by embracing diversity and inclusion.  Granted, your first obligation as a planner is to provide service to the members of your organization, which means to negotiate the best rates and dates for your meeting or convention as you can.  But that doesn't mean you can't leverage your buying power by lobbying destination reps to hire and promote more African-Americans!  Why should you continue to bring your business to destinations where CVB staff (especially at the executive level) is not diverse, and where vendor opportunities are all but non-existent for people of color?   The lack of opportunities they offer our community demonstrates that they neither respect you nor value your business.

Secondly, keep in mind that CVBs rely on receiving a percentage of a locally collected bed tax as a major funding source for their operating budget.  The tax is paid to the city whenever a guest stays at a hotel within the destination, and the city in turn appropriates a portion of that revenue to the CVB.  If you identify a CVB that you feel is not an equal opportunity employer and/or has a record of not contracting vendors of color, then you should contact your local elected official and let them know.  Perhaps the best example of this concept in action was way back when Andrew Young was the mayor of Atlanta.  When it was brought to his attention that the CVB was not hiring African-Americans or providing vendor opportunities to people of color, he made it clear he would cut off the bed tax appropriation if this did not change immediately.  Needless to say, they cleaned up their act, and the Atlanta CVB has been one of the most diverse ever since. 

The point I'm making here is there is always a way to correct a situation where African-Americans and other people of color are not getting a fair shake.  We must work together, support one another, and stir the pot from time to time if we want to be a catalyst for change when we are faced with what we perceive as an injustice.