Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2014
What Happened To All Of The Industry's Diversity Programs And Why Are they Out Of Vogue?
By: Michael Bennett

Diversity initiatives are an imperfect pendulum that sways to and fro from action to complete and utter indifference.  It's a motion where the balance appears to rest strongly on the side of indifference, only to be pushed towards action when some cosmic event forces the industry to act.  Once that cosmic event dissipates, the gravitational pull of indifference reemerges with a vice grip like hold on the pendulum.  Kind of like our current political climate, but I digress.

Here is an example many of you might remember.  The NAACP Economic Reciprocity Initiative and the resulting Hotel Industry Report Card was widely reported on and discussed both inside and outside the hospitality industry.  Using the muscle of the NAACP, this report, and its results seemed to spark a media feeding frenzy back in the late 1990s.  The ubiquitous nature of media reports led many to believe, we just might see this diversity thing through to the other side - a utopian landscape where race no longer mattered. 

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.  Well, we've been fooled so many times that I don't even know how to quantify shame.

When the initial hotel industry report card was published several hotel chains were in the midst of widely publicized racial discrimination lawsuits.  The most infamous among them was the Adams Mark Hotel chain.  Back in 1999, the Adams Mark Hotel Chain was charged with discrimination by the U.S. Justice Department for systematically charging Black guests higher room rates for inferior rooms and restricting access to services freely provided to other guests.

The NAACP called for a boycott of the property.  Stories of the lawsuit made national news headlines both in print and on television - the Washington Post, CNN, etc.

Suddenly, a flurry of diversity initiatives appeared on the horizon to combat what many feared would lead to an industry wide indictment.  Then, just as suddenly as those diversity initiatives appeared, that pendulum swung back to indifference and got stuck.

As the first decade of this century progressed, we've heard very little about racial discrimination in lodging, but a quick Google search revealed several lawsuits pending in the courts.

Even the NAACP and its all-powerful report card disappeared from the horizon for several years.  It reappeared a few years ago stronger than its previous iteration, but the fanfare associated with the 1990s version is simply not there for this newer version.

Are we tired of talking about diversity?  Have we as African-Americans run out of energy, or are we retooling our efforts to deal with new realities in the 21st Century?  I don't have an answer to any of these questions, but one thing has always bothered me - our inability to sustain the effort it takes for long-term change.

In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, King was discussing the real promises of democracy for all Americans as emboldened in our Constitution and the progress of Civil Rights to that point in history (August 1963) when he said, "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."  Unfortunately, it often feels like we've overdosed on that drug. 

The Civil Rights Movement didn't start in the 1950s and end with passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  The movement was decades in the making prior to the Act, and it can definitely be argued we are still fighting for civil rights, under a different umbrella as witnessed by the rash of new voter restrictions.

Today, many of the large hotel chains have diversity programs.  The major brands; Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton all have diversity plans in place that deal with hiring along with supplier and vendor relationships and even hotel ownership possibilities.  We simply don't hear much about them unless confronted with a discrimination lawsuit or some cosmic event.  The positive effects, or lack thereof are not widely reported or monitored closely by outside groups.

Lodging isn't the only entity within our industry that lacks vigilant oversight.  As far as we know at Black Meetings and Tourism, only three destinations in the United States have agencies within their convention and visitor's bureaus devoted to the ethnic marketplace.

Let's give a round of applause to New Orleans and the Greater New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, Philadelphia and PHLDiversity (formerly Multicultural Affairs Congress) and the Oregon Convention and Visitors Services Network.  All three programs have proven a rousing success.  For those without concrete diversity programs, the template is right under your nose.

The goal of all three organizations is to increase their share of the meetings and tourism markets.  But that's not all.  These destinations have long established relationships with minority owned vendors and suppliers, many of whom actually participate in the RFP process.

Now before we get too far down the road, let's make this abundantly clear, there are several destinations such as Atlanta, while they might not have a specific, well-publicized division devoted to ethnic markets, their ability to incorporate diversity into their standard business practices makes them a model for anyone truly interested in progress. 

But places like Atlanta are the exception.  We shouldn't be fooled into thinking some destinations don't need a specific diversity program, because more than likely you do.  Diversity is hard, but necessary work if this country is ever to fulfill its promise of equality.

What makes these agencies and destinations work?  Well, for starters, other than Oregon, they all have sizeable African-American populations woven into the fabric of the city.  In Portland, they have a dynamic leader in Roy Jay, president of the Oregon Convention and Service Network. 

Why push diversity so much?  Let me rephrase, why should "we" push harder for diversity?  Let's forget for a moment about putting the onus for diversity on the dominant culture in our society.  Let's look within.

How about economic prosperity?  If you're one of the minority vendors working in Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia or Portland, the ability to bid and win contracts means economic freedom.   We've all heard stories of the crime problems in Chicago.  Let's remember, during the Great Migration, Chicago was intentionally segregated along racial lines leaving those on the Southside essentially lacking in all the economic opportunity the rest of the city enjoyed.

This segregation was repeated throughout most northern cities.  We can combat these problems through economic opportunity.  Now is not the time for an overdose of gradualism Dr. King referred to, but seize the opportunity to build better communities.     Allow those dollars to circulate and build other business.  Send your kids to college.  Build better schools. Tear down substandard housing.  We seem to settle when we should be pushing ahead.

The rust-belt city of Cleveland was in the throes of economic chaos even before the Great Recession.  Today, the city is enjoying a magnificent renaissance. Cleveland's income has jumped 4.1 percent from 2009 to 2010 compared with prerecession years 1993-2007.  That's millions of dollars in new city revenues.

Diversity is largely credited with driving the city's economic boom.  A coalition of diversity management leaders led by the Greater Cleveland Partnership developed a plan back in 2000 to bring wealth to economically underserved communities.  It's an all-volunteer program called the Commission on Economic Inclusion.  Over 100 northeast Ohio employers participate in the program designed to make diversity a source of strength.

Their three objectives are:  to grow supplier diversity through access to capital, workshops and a business matchmaking program that has already secured 54 deals worth $131.6 billion according to a report in DiversityInc.  Second, is workforce recruitment to increase access to well-paying jobs; and lastly is retention and leadership development.

The result, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other underrepresented groups participated in projects such as the construction of the 100,000 sq. ft. Cleveland Medical Mart, now known as the Global Center for Health Innovation.

The adjoining new 225,000-sq. ft. Cleveland Convention Center also involved heavy minority representation in its construction and management.  The scope of Cleveland's diversity program is too expansive to discuss here, but it's comprehensive and proven. 

Success stories like Cleveland's diversity program foster greater opportunities for all and does wonders to the self-esteem of a community.   Cleveland's success hasn't gone unnoticed.  In addition to the numerous health conferences held in the city, the GOP recently announced the 2016 Republican National Convention would be held on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland.

It's amazing what can happen with commitment, which brings me back to travel and tourism.  We are an industry responsible for one in nine of all American jobs.  Our economic impact puts tens of billions of dollars into local economies and government coffers.

Certainly an industry the size of travel and tourism can, and must do a better job of promoting diversity, but we shouldn't expect the industry to pursue inclusion without a gentle nudge or a hard push of the pendulum from us.

Meet Brilliantly