Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: January/February 2014
Should There Be A CVB Report Card
By: Michael Bennett

At a time in our nation's history of renewed calls for economic fairness and a restoration of the ideals once known as the American dream, travel and tourism remains one of the least progressive industries in the nation in terms of economic opportunity for all.  Might a CVB report card help fix the problem?

We've reported for years the paltry number of African-American CVB executives.  Are you curious what lack of diversity truly looks like?  Look around or simply go online and examine the leader profiles of some of your favorite destinations. 

As of today, we can only verify 8 African American CVB presidents from over 500 organizations nationwide, even in areas with a significant Black population.  That comes out to less than two-percent.  "In 2014, it's an embarrassment."  (You might remember that quote from President Obama's State of the Union address when referring to unequal pay for women.)

The notion that we no longer have qualified people of color to run these organizations is a myth dispelled long ago, so any other representation of that fact is a hoax.

But the CVB problems don't just stop at the executive level.  Examine the management structure at most CVBs below the president and CEO.  Anything catch your eye?

You typically find people of color in low-level administrative positions within a CVB or have a member or two on the sales staff to go after the "diversity markets," a phrase, I, and many others have come to loathe.

African-American leaders and key stakeholders in San Francisco are being pressured by local hospitality industry officials to call of a boycott that was called in January to address what some believe to be a "systemic exclusion" of African-Americans in the travel and tourism industry.

A working group of community leaders, labor representatives, city officials and hospitality executives have been charged with coming up with concrete plans by April 30 to increase African-American participation in San Francisco's $9 billion industry.

Specifically, the group is charged with creating opportunities for African-Americans in the areas of contracting and procurement, construction and professional services, assistance for African-American entrepreneurs, and job training and placement for African-American workers.

Many are not at all pleased with the moves to squash the boycott.  Mathew Thomas, president of Visit San Francisco is extremely concerned that efforts to undermine the boycott could ultimately result in minority leaders settling for less than they deserve or that politics will trump true reform.

"You don't see us anywhere," says Thomas.  He recently attended an event at a hotel with first lady Michelle Obama and challenged those sitting at his table to spot an African-American at the hotel working the event or a person of color working closely with the city for the event.   As you might imagine Thomas is a staunch supporter of a report card system with teeth to hold destinations accountable.  He also made it clear that the boycott has not been called off.

These issues aren't unique to the San Francisco CVB.  It's an epidemic of epic proportions at destinations all across the country and across all business sectors.

Many of you might remember when the NAACP launched the Economic Reciprocity Report (ERI) to measure corporate America's financial relationship with the African-American community.  The report, first published in 1998 looked at five broad business sectors.  One sector was the lodging industry.

            Participants in the survey were issued letter grades based on their success or lack thereof, in the areas of employment, marketing/communications, charitable giving, supplier diversity and community reinvestment. 

African-American travel, tourism and hospitality leaders fought hard for inclusion in the annual ERI.  The power of the NAACP, many thought, would serve a greater good and shine a spotlight on an industry that so sorely needed corrective measures to solve endemic economic inequities.

Inclusion in the ERI came in the midst of several highly-publicized discriminatory hotel practices in the 1990s, that resulted in several large settlements, including one against the Adam's Mark for $8 million.

But that wasn't the only controversy of the time.   Several Black-owned media outlets sought advertising from the major hotel brands, and as you might have guessed those ad dollars were not forthcoming despite the flow of African-American dollars into the hotels.  Timing is everything and in this case it was perfect.

Linda Haithcox, executive director, National Policy Alliance and one of the facilitators of the original report believes it was a highly effective tool that helped the lodging industry make "incredible progress."  Unfortunately, it wasn't maintained at the NAACP.

While the methodology is too complex to discuss here, the initial ERI was fraught with problems as reported in previous issues of Black Meetings and Tourism.  The most glaring was that of honest self-reporting.  Many hotels simply didn't report data.  For those who took the time, it was often skewed or the sample sizes were so small it wasn't a true reflection of the obvious; African-Americans didn't have a seat at the table.

Publicizing the many poor grades received by the lodging industry, and there were plenty to go around, lasted for a news cycle or two and then swept into the trash bins of history until the following year.  What good was it to have such a report if the purveyors lacked the capacity to foster change?

After 2008, the ERI as it applied to the lodging industry disappeared for a few years.  In 2012, The NAACP Opportunity and Diversity Report Card: The Hotel & Resort Industry was released.  This report was a significant improvement over the ERI. 

While this new report still contains a few systemic flaws from the earlier ERI, these flaws were beyond the NAACP's ability to control.  The strengths and weakness of the study were well documented in the report adding to its credibility.  It is the most comprehensive report to date of diversity issues faced by the lodging and hospitality industry, and well worth the read.

Many of the issues brought to light by the new NAACP report plague other sectors of the travel, tourism and hospitality industry starting with CVBs.  For example, the NAACP report graded supplier diversity for the top five hotel brands in the United States as compared to their competitors across the industry regardless of brand size.  Only one, Wyndham Hotel Group received an above average grade of a "B" when it comes to African-American supplier diversity.

Unfortunately, the hospitality industry as a whole is still in red numbers when it comes to including African-Americans in the supplier chain meaning a "B" grade is not that impressive as measured against their competitors.

When it came to a hotel's governing body - meaning Board of Directors, Marriott received an "A+" and Wyndham received an "A."  But that doesn't begin to tell the story.  When it came to "Top Management" and "Mid/Lower Management" all five hotel brand grades fell off a cliff in terms of diversity.  In fact, the 2013 report looks much like the 1998 report in large measure because of a lack of sustained effort from all parties.

Haithcox believes, without question a CVB report card could prove highly effective depending on "who is administering the report card and the national impact of that voice."

Roy Jay, president of the National Association of African American Meeting Professionals, and one of the earlier supporters of the ERI believes in a CVB report card and thinks it should be treated like a credit score to be updated annually.  Jay also believes state tourism boards should be included in any survey.  Jay supports the idea of public pressure using traditional and social media and sending report cards directly to key players in the industry.

Haithcox believes a CVB reporting systems is only effective if the report and its authors offer solutions.  "It's not enough just to create a report; you must be willing to sit down at the table and talk."

Another challenge is CVB structure.  Some CVBs are privately run and others receive all or a portion of their funding from the public.  For those in the public sector, you typically need to deal with a local elected official or two.  How you deal with an elected leader could make all the difference as to whether you have an advocate or an adversary.

Taking our foot off the gas pedal has plagued the African-American community for decades, which begs the question, what entity should create a CVB report and keep it updated.  Funding and underwriting most certainly won't come from the industry.

Haithcox suggests strategic alliances with policy-making organizations.  It's certainly a tried and true approach that's proven effective.  It's a way to get to local, state or national leaders to buy in without public humiliation.

With that said, a little public media pressure at times is necessary whether that be in the form of a highly-publicized boycott, or a simple mention before all organizations, associations and meeting planners contemplating doing business with a destination.

A well thought-out and managed CVB report card can prove highly effective and is long overdue.
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