Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2008/January 2009
Passing the Diversity Litmus Test
By: Michael Bennett

A river of tears moistened my cheeks and neck. The flood continued downward to my shirt collar, which was now absorbing the emotion pouring from my eyes like a brand new sponge. It was 8pm Pacific Standard Time on November 4, 2008. As my tears continued to flow, my business partner, a White male with dual citizenship in both Great Britain and the United States called. He too wept. Today was his 60th birthday and he had just been given the present of a lifetime, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

We talked for several minutes about what this meant to me, both of us trying to wrap our emotions around the enormity of the moment. Tony understood my profound sense of joy and relief when CNN made the official announcement. He has witnessed my struggles firsthand and heard the stories of my childhood. "I don't know how you tolerate it, (racism)" he has told me on more than one occasion.

Tony and I own an entertainment company that will start producing feature films once we obtain financing. He has lived in my world for some time now and understands better than anybody outside my family what its like for me to walk into an investor meeting, being the only person of color in the room and treated as if I don't belong.

After that call, I was deluged with calls from friends both Black and White. We set up a conference call so that we could all celebrate together while watching President-Elect Obama's acceptance speech from Chicago's Grant Park. The television cameras panned the crowd and froze on the face of Reverend Jesse Jackson. We all grew quiet watching a man who has experienced so much weep so openly and unashamed. Conversation ceased for a few moments, Jackson's tears said it all. Tony called back the following morning. By now we had had enough time to distance ourselves from the euphoria of the election. He asked me a rather profound question, one for which I did not have an equally profound answer. What does an Obama presidency mean to you personally, your business interests and the travel industry you so dearly love? The phone went silent as I pondered his question. Still not ready with an answer I quickly changed the subject.

Did you notice the crowds last night I asked? From Chicago to New York City, Atlanta to Washington D.C. and places all across the globe you couldn't help but notice the varying hues of people celebrating the moment. We were both buoyed by the makeup of the crowd. If this many people truly believe in diversity and the ascent of a black American to the pinnacle of global leadership, why is it so difficult to translate that political success on broader scale to American business and my beloved travel industry?

Tony being the astute businessman he is pointed out that an Obama presidency will not solve many of the issues I see and face on a daily basis. He reminded me that only 19 Fortune 500 CEO's are from a minority group and just five are African-American. If you're interested the five are Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Ronald Williams of Aetna, Clarence Otis of Darden Restaurants, John Thompson of Symantec and Rodney O'Neal of Delphi. In total, minorities make up only three percent of the leadership of America's top 500 companies.

An article I wrote a few months back pointed to the dearth of African-American CEO's at our nation's CVB's. To refresh your memory, at last count there are only seven African-American CEO's running more than 500 CVB's. That works out to just 1.4 percent. A President Obama is not going to solve this issue. It's important that those of us in the travel/tourism/hospitality industry not develop a case amnesia and relax just because an African-American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Our conversation morphed into a further discussion on institutional and societal barriers that have stymied people of color from moving into executive suites and boardrooms. I told Tony that in today's business climate it's vital that "minorities" have solid representation at the C-level and in the boardroom, yet too many organizations in our industry continue to exclude minorities from both positions. Will an Obama presidency have an impact on our industry and the elusive executive suite and boardroom? I submit that an Obama presidency by itself will not.

Tony next asked me if I witnessed any progress being made on the diversity front over the 10 plus years I have been affiliated with the travel industry. I told him about the great work of CVB's like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and New Orleans.

I mentioned to him the positive advances of many of our top hoteliers such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, InterContinental Hotels Group and MGM Mirage in management and scholarship programs for our youth. We discussed Disney and its diversity.

African-Americans are now considered a viable market in such distant lands as the African continent and throughout the Caribbean in places like Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

I waxed poetic about the changes I saw on the horizon to increase African-American hotel ownership. The current economic climate not withstanding, we have some players in the game now and virtually all the major brands have a minority ownership initiative in place with Marriott and Choices Hotel International leading the way. I told him about Andy Ingraham, president and CEO of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers and the impact his organization has had on Black hotel ownership.

Some of the destinations that many would consider second-tier in terms of their population and amenities have gone out of their way to attract top African-American meetings and conventions. And might I add these destinations rival and in many cases surpass their larger brethren. On this list would be places like Columbus, OH, St Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Louisville. We discussed the explosion of the family reunion business along with cultural and heritage tourism, all being fueled by the African-American traveler.

Many suppliers now have subcontracting deals in place with minority-owned vendors across a wide platform of business interests from construction to business supplies and printing services. None of this would be possible without the commitment to diversity of many business leaders and individuals.

Those leaders include Solomon and Gloria Herbert, publisher and editor-in-chief of this magazine. We discussed the achievements of Brian Parker at Choices Hotel International, Greg Ortale and the Greater Houston CVB, Carol Wallace at the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, Al Hutchinson in Virginia Beach a person poised to be the head of a CVB in the very near future and Wanda Collier-Wilson, president and CEO of the Jackson CVB and Roy Jay up in Portland. How about Brenda Scott at the Bryan-College Station CVB in Texas, who herself was one of the first African-American CVB heads in Mobile, AL or Pamela Richards, Commissioner of Tourism for the United States Virgin Islands. The list is endless.

And like our new president, those in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry are standing on the broad shoulders of the trailblazers who went before us. It's important to understand we've made all these advances without an African-American in the White House.

Tony said, "Michael, all of that sounds great, but it can't be all positive. I travel a great deal on business and I don't see minorities in key positions and sometimes when I pick up brochures, I don't see a person of color in any of the advertising, so what's missing?"

Wow! This country's greatest birth defect I told him is slavery and racism. We as a country, and our industry in particular have made tremendous strides over the past decade in curing this defect, yet we still have a few organizations that don't want to swallow the medicine. Just maybe an Obama presidency will finally convince them that diversity is ok.

I was drawn to a recent study from the Association of National Advertisers on multicultural marketing. Seventy-seven percent of survey participants have multicultural marketing initiatives in place and sixty-six percent indicate that their company's efforts in multicultural marketing have increased over the past few years.

That's the good news. But the frustration among marketers remains high. Only forty-five percent say they were satisfied with their company's results and twenty-six percent claimed they were very dissatisfied.

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