Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2014
What Can Elected Officials Do To Level The Playing Field
By: Michael Bennett

It's no secret we don't have many elected officials who advocate for a level playing field when it comes to African-Americans in the hospitality industry.  Most elected officials who advocate on behalf of our industry in general typically look at the big picture - tax revenues, infrastructure projects like convention centers, tourist attractions and hotel properties.  These leaders remain oblivious to our lack of full participation in hospitality.

In fact, many politicians both at the national and local level know very little about the inner-workings of our industry, which is what makes the work of organizations like United States Travel Association (USTA) so vital.  Roger J. Dow, president and CEO of USTA and his team spend an inordinate amount of time simply educating politicians on the value and rewards of supporting an industry that’s responsible for one of nine American jobs and tens of billions in tax revenues.

So the challenge and value of leveling is often secondary and might not even be on the radar of politicians.  When is the last time you heard a campaign speech that included a mention of hospitality and its benefits to a community, unless it involved raising taxes for a sports stadium? 

What do we mean by leveling the playing field?  How about fairness in employment opportunities and leadership positions?  We still have just one African-American heading a state tourism bureau - Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation.  Listening to that worn out phrase "we can't find qualified candidates" is wearing thin.

At last count we had less than a dozen convention and visitors bureau chiefs out of over 500 positions nationwide.

How about tax revenues?  Where are the tax revenues generated by hospitality dollars going within the local communities?  Many of those we spoke to for this story complained loudly about the allocation of those resources, yet none wanted to speak on the record.

How about simply marketing travel and tourism products to the African-American community?  This issue is near and dear to my heart, not just because I write for a Black travel publication.  If you simply look at all Black media, you find very little in the way of direct promotion to the Black community.  Could an elected official use the bully-pulpit to create opportunities?

How about mandating city, state and federal governments that support our industry to require qualified minority participation in any supplier/vendor contract?

The list of places where an elected official can lend a voice are endless, and some have, but the clarion call for equality simply isn't loud enough just yet to make a significant difference.

Linda Haithcox, executive director of the National Policy Alliance laid out a simple four-step formula that would be easy to implement if only the will existed to truly level the playing field.

"Tourism starts at the local level," says Haithcox and "local leaders should create policy that not only encourages minority participation but requires participation with the CVBs."  It should cross all strata of city, county and state government. 

To make this step easier to implement, Haithcox believes there should be incentives for local CVBs.  You exceed a certain percentage of minority hires in places other than low-level administration jobs or increased vendor participation, then reward those efforts.  The reward could be monetary in the form of increased funding or some other creative recognition of success. 

Unfortunately, many places don't seek equality because it's the right thing to do, so lets give them the opportunity through incentives to get it right.  This approach could be part of a broad-based plan of economic development that goes a long way towards not only creating economic growth, but creating a harmonious relationship with all leaders and their constituents as well. 

If rewarding the CVBs doesn't do the trick, maybe its time to apply a little financial pressure in the other direction.  Bed tax revenues fund most CVBs.  Elected officials are certainly in a position to affect the disbursement of those tax dollars in a more equitable manner.

Second, Haithcox believes, "African-Americans and other minorities should be given the opportunity to own hotels in the communities in which they live.  Local leaders should partner with the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers to expand such opportunities."  Most communities can put together teams of African-American investors to partner on hotel properties.

Governments create business opportunities with private industry all the time.  Back in 2011, Perry County Alabama Commissioner Albert Turner, Jr., spearheaded efforts for a Sleep Inn and Suites in the town of Marion.  The county purchased the site of the hotel for $150,000 and leased back the property to hotel developers to build and manage the property.

Back in the 1990s, R. Donahue Peebles made history through a public/private partnership on Miami Beach to develop the Royal Crowne Plaza Resort, which he later sold for a tidy profit in the millions of dollars.

Third, Haithcox says, "cities and CVBs should openly inform people they are doing outreach to the Black community" using any and all means at their disposal, whether it be through public forums, the media or other forms of local outreach.  The good will alone will pay tremendous dividends, but some are just too afraid to promote their efforts.  Why, we have no clue.

And finally, more African-American organizations should do what Haithcox and the NPA have done.  They have named this publication, Black Meetings and Tourism (BM&T) magazine as the official tourism guide to the National Policy Alliance. 

What's that mean?  For organizations the NPA represents, in order to be considered as a host destination for a conference or other group gathering, NPA wants to make sure the local CVB and others benefiting from their organizations' attendance do business with BM&T.  And for those who remember Haithcox from her days at the NAACP, she is not afraid to ask the question or enforce the mandate.

Elected officials have had a direct impact on BM&T.  A few years back Solomon J. Herbert and his wife Gloria Herbert, publisher of BM&T attended a reception in Los Angeles, the magazine's home base.  In attendance was Los Angeles city councilman Bernard Parks who asked the Herbert's if Los Angeles was supporting BM&T.  The answer, much to Parks' chagrin was no.

Councilman Parks took the extraordinary step of setting up a meeting in his office with the CVB and the Los Angeles Convention Center.  The result, both started advertising in BM&T. 

While those advertising efforts weren't sustained over the long haul, that all changed when Ernest Wooden, one of only 11 African-Americans to head a CVB, came on board as president/CEO in January of 2013.  Wooden has made a concerted outreach effort to the African-American and multicultural market segments, and the Bureau now makes sure invitations are extended to BM&T for various industry functions they host. BM&T has begun working closely with the CVB to increase business opportunities.

Need another example of the power of a local official.  Back in the early part of the last decade, BM&T organized the Global Travel Pavilion at the Congressional Black Caucus annual gathering.  The president of the Atlantic City, NJ city council approached the Herbert's about advertising opportunities in their magazine.  The council president made it clear that Atlantic City was seeking the African-American market and couched it as a top priority.

The Herbert's informed the council president they had left multiple phone messages and sent proposals to the local CVB, but said the bureau never expressed an interest in the publication on the African-American market segment.  Upon receiving this information, the council president returned to Atlantic City and ripped into the CVB during a council meeting.  The Bureau made an advertising buy almost immediately, but this too was short lived with the changing of the guard when new officials were elected to the City Council.

It saddens me that a town that's been predominantly African-American for decades and the place of my birth would ignore the Black community, but unfortunately this is all too common an occurrence.

But the tide just might be turning after all these years.  Destinations are beginning to recognize our value outside traditional African-American hotspots like Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Just last month the Minister of Tourism for The Bahamas, the Honorable Obie Wilchombe appointed Linville Johnson as director of the African-American market.  This new appointment is part of the Ministry of Tourism's new marketing strategy and commitment to increasing its support and visibility in the African-American market.

According to Johnson, the African-American market generates billions in revenues on an annual basis.  "The Bahamas has always enjoyed a fantastic relationship with African-Americans.  Our geographical location as the first country outside" those that border "the United States of America, our easy-access, affordability, pre-American customs and immigration clearance coupled with our shared affinity of heritage tourism and culture makes us the ideal destination for African-Americans."

As the United States rapidly becomes a majority minority country, destinations will be forced to do more to share the wealth.  The first step is education of elected officials.  After nearly two decades in the business, I'm continually amazed at how few American politicians get the value of hospitality to their local communities and even worse, how little of the economic benefit reaches the Black community.