Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: November/December 2012
Why Haven't African-Americans Made More Progress In The Meetings/Travel Industry?
By: Michael Bennett

I awoke on February 28, 2012 to a cool, crisp morning with not a cloud in the sky. I pulled back the curtains to my 15th floor hotel room and felt a sense of awe as I sat frozen starring at the Washington Monument off in the distance. At street level I witnessed joggers in various forms of dress out for their daily exercise just as the sun peaked over the eastern horizon. This was it; I had arrived. Nothing could replace the awesome power and sense of belonging I felt than a trip to Washington DC to discuss how to propel America forward as a top international tourist destination.

The United States had dropped the ball for way too long as regards to promoting America as a travel destination. Since 9/11 our loss of market share cost the U.S. economy billions. We allowed our arrogance on the one hand and fear on the other drive us underground, but all of that was about to be corrected.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Travel Promotion Act. The Act established a public/private partnership that became known as BrandUSA. I was selected to be on the Marketing Advisory Committee. I felt honored to be trusted with such an important role and correct this egregious error in judgment. Today was our first face-to-face meeting. That morning I dressed quickly. I had a spring in my step as I scurried down to the lobby for breakfast and a quick five-minute cab ride to the meeting site.There would be approximately 60 people in attendance that day from all over the country representing destinations, hotels and just about any entity that had an interest in travel and tourism.

Finally the clock struck 9am and we were shepherded from the lobby into the meeting room for all day presentations and discussions. That was to be followed by dinner later that evening at one of Washington’s best steak houses. As I took my seat near the front of the room, I couldn’t help but notice the jovial mood of the group. It was like the first day of a family reunion – lots of hugs and comments such as “the last time I saw you…”

Once the euphoria subsided a stillness settled over the room as we prepared to listen to our first presentation. The pause gave me a moment to take stock of my situation.  The light bulb in my over-stimulated brain finally brightened enough for me to realize I was the only person of color sitting in the room. Surely, there must be other African-Americans on this board. Maybe they just had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend.

I have spent so much of my professional career as the “only” this obvious oversight on my part went unnoticed for a moment. Certainly, promoting America would involve a better tapestry than the one starring me in the face. Where were the other African-Americans? Where were my Hispanic friends?
Later that evening at dinner it was brought to my attention that I was the only person of color in the room, as if I hadn’t already noticed. The observant lady who brought this to my attention quickly shuttered our conversation when others started drifting over to mingle and network. I could see the embarrassment written all over her face.

I have been part of the travel, tourism and hospitality industry for nearly two decades, primarily on the media and marketing side of the business. I have attended investors conferences, trade shows, travel conferences both domestically and internationally. I have written columns for several publications and produced television programs about travel and had the honor to meet several foreign dignitaries along the way.

It has troubled me deeply that African-Americans have had such little impact on any level within this industry. For every one step forward in pursuit of diversity, we take two steps backwards. The tired old arguments such as we can’t find qualified people or African-Americans don’t spend money are just that, tired old arguments that no longer pass the smell test.

So what is it? Why such slow, if not down right non-existent progress? Today, there are well over 600 CVBs across the country. Less than 10 have an African-American as a president/CEO. Over the past 20 years we’ve had fewer than 25 CVB presidents/CEOs combined, even though several organization have had an African-American as second in command or some other lofty position worthy of promotion to CEO. In the hotel business, thanks to the efforts of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD) we now have over 500 Black-owned hotels up from one in 1995. But even that is somewhat misleading, as RLJ Companies headed by Robert L. Johnson owns approximately a quarter of those.

The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) by contrast owns upwards of 40 percent of all hotels in the United States. AAHOA has proven to be a great friend of NABHOOD and works closely with them to improve the African-American plight. When it comes to hotel employment and supplier diversity things have improved somewhat, but progress remains stilted. The Great Recession certainly set us back a few years.

Probably the single most egregious lack of progress is in the arena of marketing and advertising opportunities. I have spoken to numerous tourism department heads both domestically and internationally. Like a broken record most will tell you that African-Americans don’t travel or don’t spend money. Others believe they can reach the African-American consumer using their general market resources – in other words we are being marginalized.

Most destinations outsource their business to large Madison Avenue firms. Very few of these firms have African-Americans in managerial or creative positions hence the snub and the distorted comments mentioned above. For those who do set aside a portion of their budget for the “diversity markets” those budgets get slashed during a recession so drastically that it might not appear that they ever had a diversity budget in the first place. Many African-American’s will not like what I’m about to say next, but at the risk of ruffling a few feathers, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. I’ve lost track of how many meetings I’ve sat in where complaints about our lack of progress fly around the room faster than an auctioneer can say, “sold to the person in the front row.”

Most of these conversations lack any semblance of a solution. Solutions won’t be easy. Our neglect has left us vulnerable and devoid of fresh ideas. Look around. The demographics of America are changing rapidly. The economy is also starting to heal. The time is now to find and implement solutions.

Here are a few suggestions. First, there must be sustainability. Every time we make a little progress, we retreat resting on our laurels thinking the change we’ve made is lasting. We become complacent only to have the rug slowly ripped out from under us. If there is any one thing we should learn from the LGBT community is that sustained effort wins the day. Success might come in fits and starts, but it will come, if for no other reason than you are on the right side of the issue. Case in point about our lack of sustained effort – the NAACP previously had a report card system that graded hotels on things like diversity in management and supplier diversity. As flawed as the report card system was, allowing the hotels to report on themselves, at least it was a system. Fortunately, the NAACP is about to embark upon reinstating a report card system.

My admonition to the NAACP is to create a platform that does not require self-reporting. As was proven in the previous iteration, few hotels even participated and for those that did, the data lacked an honest assessment. Also, make sure those travel and tourism industry professionals you consult are truly committed to diversity or your findings will ring hallow. Which actually brings me to another point that has troubled me for some time. One reason we as a people can’t sustain our efforts is individual self-interest supersedes all.

No, there is nothing wrong with pursuing self-interest, but for those who choose to lead diversity efforts you must recognize when a greater good can be served and temper your pursuit of recognition. Think strategically and employ different tactics for the greater good, otherwise you become part of the problem.  Too many times I have witnessed leaders of African-American organizations in our industry treat their organizations as if it were their own individual fiefdom at the exclusion of their members. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, in a phrase he took from the Bible, “a house divided against itself can not stand.”

Number two is data collection. Most of the data I’ve seen on African-American travel and tourism talks about a $50 billion a year African-American marketplace. First, that particular report has a few flaws because it doesn’t account for our meeting and convention business.  Someone in the African-American travel community must become the repository of our travel data and its economic impact and keep it updated. This will not be an easy lift, but lift we must. Since we don’t control the marketing and advertising dollars, we must make the economic argument to gain clout in the industry.
Third, we must control our message. More often than not others are telling our story. Those large Madison Avenue firms I mentioned earlier are not conveying the true African-American experience and our contributions both as professionals and consumers. This allows them to control what the rest of the industry, the country and global community think of us.

We have more opportunity to correct this sin today than at anytime in our history thanks to the Internet. We must strive to be leaders in the adoption of technology, not followers. It seems we always wait to find out what the general market does then we react. Technology is one area where being proactive should be encouraged. Finally, we should think about our own lobbying group at both the federal and state level. I’ve been an advocate of this for years and have started taking steps in that direction. We have no voice to address our concerns to government leaders.

Most travel and tourism dollars that come into state coffers never find their way to the African-American community even though we contribute tens of millions to each state. Why, because no one is minding the store. In closing, Cornel West said something very profound that sums up the point I’m making. “You’ve got to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer, a thermostat shapes the climate of opinion; a thermometer just reflects it.”
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