Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2013
Will African-Americans Still Meet & Vacation In Florida?
By: Michael Bennett

While the George Zimmerman verdict is a public relations nightmare, African-Americans will continue to visit Florida. 

While the voices calling for a boycott in the immediate aftermath of the verdict have garnered most of the attention, those calls might be a bit premature. 

For purely economic reasons, a boycott could have a devastating affect on Florida's Black community - many who make their living in travel, tourism and hospitality.  As the number one tourist destination it the country, it stands to reason the employment numbers for African-Americans are huge, not to mention the numerous Black-owned hotels throughout the state.

The NAACP, in an ironic twist started their convention 35 miles away in Orlando on the same day the legal system acquitted Zimmerman. 

Later that same month, the National Bar Association held their annual gathering in Miami Beach and the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD) held their tradeshow in Miami.

On July 31, 2014 the National Association of Black Journalist (NABJ) started their annual convention in Orlando. 

NABJ president Gregory Lee, in a statement released just prior to their gathering discouraged the idea of boycotting.  Lee stated, "it would be impractical and costly and fail to take advantage of a 'unique opportunity' for Black journalists."

The continuation of these conventions actually had a benefit or two that might not be readily apparent to the boycott crowd. 

First, it was a reminder of the economic clout wielded by the African-American community - an estimated $25 million in economic impact just from these four groups.  That is a conservative estimate that does not include the cost of travel.

The second benefit should serve as a wake-up call to elected leaders in Florida.   African-Americans are unafraid of agitating in the belly of the beast.  Specifically, striking down Stand Your Ground laws. 

While legal experts might disagree on how much Stand Your Ground was relied upon in defense of George Zimmerman, there is little doubt it played a role.  Stand Your Ground and the new restrictive voter ID laws have rallied a new generation of Americans to take a stand.

So here's the question.  What does our industry, and more specifically the African-American travel, tourism and hospitality professional do to influence action on social issues, or should we?

An informal survey of African-American travel agents conducted by Black Meetings and Tourism found that 56 percent advocated for a full-scale boycott of Florida until Stand Your Ground is repealed. 

Eighty-four percent of those surveyed also believe Florida tourism leaders have a responsibility to address Stand Your Ground with local leaders and explain the devastating economic consequences a full boycott might have on Florida.

While the poll numbers suggest boycotting Florida is popular, there are 22 other states that have this same law, or a derivative of Stand Your Ground.  What do we do, boycott them all?  That would remove some rather popular tourist destinations from our list of places to visit and conduct business.

Some have suggested making an example out of Florida.  But will that really work? 

Boycotts of the Civil Rights era such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott were successful because they were targeted at a very specific group in which African-Americans had little, if any economic clout.  African-Americans didn't own the buses, so the economic burden was borne by the enforcers of Jim Crow who owned the buses.

Evaluating the effectiveness of more recent boycotts has proven somewhat elusive. 

When the NAACP instituted a boycott in South Carolina protesting the Confederate flag flying over the capital dome, the boycott did indeed bring some unwanted attention.  The flag was eventually removed from its prominent position atop the capital to another location on state grounds - a move that has still not satisfied the NAACP.

But what about the cost of that boycott, which is still in effect today.  South Carolina has over 60,000 workers in travel, tourism and hospitality.  How many African-American suppliers, vendors, entrepreneurs, tourism and hospitality professionals have either lost their businesses, lost their jobs, had their hours cut to part time, or were never hired because of the boycott?

The mayor of the state's largest city is African-American.  How has the boycott complicated his job as he seeks to balance budgets against the need for city services?

The third highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, James Clyburn has certainly been put in a difficult position of supporting the NAACP on one hand and advocating for his district on the other.

The "snubbing" of Miami as it came to be known, was a sad turn of events surrounding what should have been the celebrated arrival of Nelson Mandela in Miami back in 1990.  Due to remarks Mandela made at an appearance with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, the city rescinded a proclamation for the South African freedom fighter and refused to meet him or acknowledge he was in town.

African-Americans, in an attempt to avoid violence called for a tourism boycott in Miami.  Dubbed "the Quiet Riot" by local leader H.T. Smith, the three-year boycott is estimated to have cost the city $50 million.

Was it successful?  Several reports 20 years later suggest in was effective.

Many of you remember the tourism boycott in Arizona for their refusal to support a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The national holiday became federal law in 1983. 

After years of legislative battles, voters in Arizona finally took matters into their own hands and approved the holiday in 1992.  But the economic damage and the state's reputation had already suffered.

Under pressure from civil rights groups and the National Football League Players Association the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena in protest.  That single move by the NFL is estimated to have cost the state $350 million. 

The NBA also told the Phoenix Suns not to bother submitting a proposal for the All-Star game.

From a purely African-American point of view, the economic harm to Arizona was borne largely by others, since that state's Black population at the time was less than five percent.

Fast forward to 2010, Arizona once again made boycott news with a highly controversial immigrant profiling law that prompted several jurisdictions, including the city of Los Angeles to refrain from conducting business with the state until the law was repealed.

Members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) and good friends of NABHOOD and the African-American community applied pressure to repeal the immigration profiling laws.  AAHOA had a huge stake in the outcome, as AAHOA members own 40 percent of all hotels in the state.

Several media organizations reported that this boycott cost the state over $140 million in lost convention business over a three-year period and $750 million in total economic loss.

Did this boycott, like that of the King holiday get the desired result?  One could argue yes.  What did these two boycotts have in common?  They got buy in from big business and jurisdictions nationwide who did not want to tarnish their brand.

With that little history lessons as a backdrop, what about Florida?  What do we do now?   Will a future boycott of meetings, convention and tourism work in the 21st century?  Are there other tools in the shed that can be used to apply pressure without abandoning such a hot (no pun intended) tourist, meeting and convention destination?

The immediate aftermath of such a controversial decision almost always elicits condemnation and a call to action, but over the long haul they typically prove ineffective unless attached to a larger effort by political leaders or civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Social media was a beehive of activity from mid-July until early August.  On the website a petition called Boycott Florida Tourism had over 13,000 signatures at press time.  Many of the comments on the site are not fit to print and were more of an expression of raw emotion and probably won't coalesce into any large-scale action.

Thousands have taken to Twitter to express their anger.  The #BoycottFloridaTourism has attracted tens of thousands pushing for a boycott until Stand Your Ground is repealed.

Another Twitter hash tag receiving lots of comment is #NotFlorida.  Both accounts have experienced a significant reduction in comments the further away we get from the verdict.

On Facebook, the Boycott Florida account had just 4,500 signatures as of late August.

While all of the above allowed some to express their outrage about the verdict and Stand Your Ground, these numbers certainly won't have any lasting impact, if any, on Florida tourism.

Multi-Grammy award winners and other entertainers such as Stevie Wonder planned to abandon the state until Stand Your Ground was repealed.  Several have since walked back those plans.

Florida's popularity will make it difficult to boycott despite all the Social Media outrage.

In an Orlando Sentinel story from July 16, 2013, Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management believes, "Most people are familiar with what's going on and they won't blame an entire state for what happened in a very isolated case."

It's a comment echoed by many African-Americans we spoke with during the NABHOOD conference.  Most of the attendees, including some locals were quick to distance themselves from events in Sanford.  Some went so far as to say South Florida is entirely different than other parts of the state.

The city of Miami Gardens, home of Trayvon Martin, hosts the annual Jazz in the Gardens.  This event, hosted by radio personality Michael Baisden attracts an A-list of performers from Neyo, to Kenneth 'Babyface" Edmonds and Fantasia.  In an ironic twist, it was Baisden who actually shed light on police inaction in Sanford.

Miami Gardens is 70 percent African-American.  It would seem a little counterproductive to boycott an event that supports so many people of color

Miami Gardens mayor Oliver Gilbert III believes "it would be tragic if a boycott ensues from this extraordinarily bad verdict."

All the travel and tourism professionals we contacted for this story preferred not to comment.  Off the record, many believed the impact would be minimal and were hoping the Florida tourism product would stand on its own, separate and distinct from the verdict and Stand Your Ground.

Which brings us back to the question should travel and tourism be used as a political football to force change?  We've chosen to remain neutral on the question, but don't mistake our reluctance to use travel and tourism as a wedge to force change as support for the status quo - far from it.

We firmly believe Stand Your Ground should be repealed forthwith.  It's just a matter of how to get it accomplished without hurting African-Americans.