Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: May/June 2011
The Value Of A Diverse Workforce And The Cost Of Not Having One
By: Michael Bennett

“Good business is business that allows you to enter it from a variety of angles and emerge with a variety of views.” It is the “variety of views” that will allow today’s business leaders to adapt to a rapidly changing demographic.

As Tanya Hall, CHME, executive director of the Multicultural Affairs Congress points out, “the ‘Browning of America’ is happening faster than researchers expected.” Hall is correct. The prevailing view just five years ago was that American would be majority minority by 2050; today some experts believe this could happen as early as 2035 or 2040.

While Mary Schmich’s original quote at the beginning of this story had to do with viewing art, my change of her eloquent words points to the prevailing view that diversity is a necessity most people agree is imperative for economic survival. Yet, after decades of philosophical discussions, diversity summits, studies and workforce diversity plans, some still have a problem implementing the obvious.

Most business owners will tell you the difference between a profitable business and one that operates in the red boils down to less than one percentage point in key areas such as customer attraction and repeat business. That half-a-percentage point can leave a business facing bankruptcy or handing out year-end bonuses.

But there’s more to the value of diversity than immediate financial reward. While it can be argued that the value of diversity is still all about the money, and in truth that assumption is correct, the value of diversity also comes in the form of new ideas and perspectives, increased retention of valuable employees, increased motivation and buy-in of employees, which of course leads to greater productivity and efficiency and yes more customers and money. In this day and age of tight operating budgets a good business needs every advantage possible.

Hall believes having “a diverse workforce should be viewed as an opportunity for your organization rather than a liability or nuisance…those companies that are not diverse or do not have a strong diversity platform, are the ones that will be locked out of contracts and procurements opportunities.” The tourism and hospitality industry should be leading the world in workforce diversity. No other industry is more dependent on leveraging cultural differences into positive results than tourism and hospitality.

Most of us pay close attention to the nametags of those who serve us at various hotels or on cruise ships. Those tags usually have the person’s name and the country, city or state they are from. Talk about a conversation piece or an icebreaker, that simple gesture puts a human face on the person on the other side of the desk and breeds a certain familiarity. Most people do business with those they know or can relate to.

Unfortunately, what’s on the front lines still doesn’t translate behind the scenes. It’s no secret that the employment pyramid on the supply side is severely limited for minority candidates the closer one gets to the top.  In the case of African-Americans, the squeeze actually starts more toward the center of the pyramid leaving little opportunity for career advancement. That leaves many making a series of horizontal moves as opposed to vertical moves up the career ladder. This should be yesterday’s problem, but unfortunately it’s a festering wound that just won’t heal.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.8 percent of all African-Americans over the age of 16 are employed in the Leisure and Hospitality industry. That translates to over 1.5 million African-Americans if my math is correct.  No longer can the industry blame it on a lack of education or qualifications. Today, 24 percent of African-Americans in the workforce have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, and hospitality schools are churning out solid numbers of Black graduates.

In addition to Hall, we queried a few industry professionals on the buy and supply side to get their general observations on diversity and as it affects their careers or their ability to perform in their current position.

On the question does supplier diversity influence your decisions when selecting sites for your event, Rosa L. McArthur, CMP, President of Meeting Planners Plus says, “the diversity of the supplier is very important to me…It does not always influence my decision, but it is an important factor. So often we hear that our suppliers value diversity and even have a diversity program in place…rarely do we have an opportunity to interface with people of color when doing business with their company.”

“Usually the sales department is my first line of contact with suppliers. However, rarely do I find at the level of Director of Sales or Senior Sales Manager much diversity.” Pat Norman, CMP from the National Medical Association, explains “I can’t say that diversity is the final decision, but it is the first when I start to look for opinions to present to my board. I like doing business with friends…the final decision is always rate, space and date.”

Charlotte Haymore, president of the Travel Professionals of Color says, “Diversity of the supplier does most often influence my decision when selecting sites for events because diversity sends the message of inclusiveness for both my agency and my clients.”

Is the situation at some suppliers improving, absolutely — but all too often I hear comments from meeting planners frustrated by interactions with suppliers who don’t understand the business or culture of the groups the meeting planner represents. In other words, the supplier didn’t do their homework.

A few years ago a meeting planner representing a prominent and distinguished African-American organization of high caliber, affluent members shared with me a rather disgusting story. This hotel hired a freelance sales team of African-Americans to court a group because they had no people of color in management, an omission this group would have certainly noticed.  Several meeting planners who wish to remain anonymous have told me they haven’t had this particular experience, but that “lack of caring” attitude still persists among some suppliers. African-American meeting planners have sharpened their skills over the years to identify those who try to disguise their oneness.

Peggy Riley, director of Multicultural Sales at the Louisville CVB says, “Major conventions, such as the National Urban League and the NAACP request information on diversity in their RFP…I have been asked many times by planners about the diversity of the Louisville Hospitality Community, as well as the city in general.”

Another tool in our arsenal is the power of the purse. Hall says we should “encourage African-Americans and other diverse conventions, meetings, and businesses to support other businesses owned by people of color. Many conventions have the purchasing power to set a standard when it comes to vendors and suppliers.” A persistent problem brought to our attention is one we’ve addressed continually. During tough economic times, or any drop in business such as September 11, 2001 or our current economic meltdown, suppliers rollout the red carpet to attract African-American business. Once the economy improves the opportunities to get a good deal evaporate faster than a pot of boiling water — that’s just plain old capitalism at work.

But what bothers most meeting planners is that the suppliers who craved their business during bad times won’t even return their calls during good times even when that group is prepared to pay a slightly higher price. African-Americans on the supply side face equally daunting challenges on the diversity front. Some have been placed in the position of being the “one” or “the only” and expected to carry the water for all people of color. The dynamic is not lost on those in this position, yet they figure out a way to positively impact their respective organizations and advance.

Mike Gunn, vice president of Sales at the Greater Birmingham CVB says he feels blessed. “The organization I work for has always been committed to diversity…I have taken positions in the workforce to fulfill that even balance of diversity needed for that particular organization or company. This opens other doors by giving me the experience needed to fill some of the upper management positions in a company…and serve on various boards throughout the industry as well.”

But Gunn is aware that “there is still a big gap between people of color in this industry as it relates to upper management. There are still very few general managers with the major hotels, only a handful of CEO’s at the CVB and convention center level. The young men and women need to have role models in these positions to encourage them, mentor them and feel they play a major role in shaping the industry in years to come.”

Hall echoed Gunn’s words with her own story, “I am certain that I wouldn’t be where I am professionally if there was an absence of diverse leaders in the Philadelphia hospitality and tourism industry. Each major opportunity in my career has developed with the assistance of a diverse leader investing personally and professionally in my development.”

This from Peggy Riley in Louisville: “To me, the need is to provide realistic skill training to minorities who are interested in senior level positions or who want to be CEOs, so they can compete for those positions. I think a DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) that has minorities with the potential of moving to the next level in their careers should serve as a mentor and provide the skill training needed.”

“I give credit to Melvin Tennant, CEO of the Minneapolis CVB, for encouraging Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) to look at diversity in the Industry and figure out a way that they could promote and encourage a more diverse workforce at DMO’s around the country,” add Riley.. “Out of Tennant’s encouragement, DMAI has just created the ‘Raising Star’ program that will identify African-American senior-level DMO staffers who are interested in taking their career to the next level.” From Rosa McArthur: “Social media has made the world smaller and brought us closer together. Because we are so connected in this way, understanding the world's ethnicity is crucial especially in view of current economic conditions. With that in mind a more diverse workforce allows us the opportunity to conduct business with even more sensitivity and productively. With so many experienced people in our industry out of work, developing a diverse workforce should be an easy fix.”

And finally, a word of encouragement; President Obama has withstood continuous attacks on his character since his election and handled it with dignity and grace, even when some wish he would fight fire with fire. One of the President’s great strengths is his ability to resist such petty disputes, which at the end solves nothing and hurts everyone. Our pursuit of diversity must be equally measured in degree and tone, for we all know we are on the right side of this issue.
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