Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: March/April 2023
By: Sonya Stinson

At a time when the industry is still rebuilding from the pandemic’s crushing impact on consumer demand, no destination or travel-related business can afford to overlook the revenue opportunities that the ethnic travel marker represents.

Jason Dunn

“If you want to maintain your relevancy and sustain your growth, it just makes sense to expand or broaden your consumer base,” says Jason Dunn, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals (NCBMP).

Recent studies value the African-American meetings and leisure travel market at more than $129 billion, and Dunn notes that when you add in the growing Asian-American and Hispanic markets, the economic case for capturing the ethnic travel market becomes even stronger.“Those three groups alone make up one of the largest GDP segments in the consumer base,” he says.

Julie Coker

Travel industry leaders not only benefit financially by targeting the ethnic market, they also boost their destinations’ brand as places where cultural diversity is highly valued and everyone is invited. “The meetings and tourism industry must pay close attention to ethnic markets to ensure that all are equally represented and welcomed,” says Julie Coker, President/CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Yet some research suggests these travelers aren't necessarily feeling the same amount of love everywhere they go. In November 2020, MMGY Global Travel Intelligence released the first phase of a research study, called The Black Traveler: Insights, Opportunities & Priorities, conducted on behalf of African-American traveler advocacy organizations to help them assess the needs, behaviors and sentiments of Black travelers. The report was based in part on an analysis of a survey of 200 NCBMP members. Among the respondents, 84 percent said they viewed some destinations as more welcoming than others of events with a majority of Black attendees, while 42 percent said their attendees had felt unwelcome in a meeting destination in the past.

Those kinds of experiences  – even when they are isolated to a particular venue or staff encounter – make a difference in the success or failure of a destination’s market outreach. That's especially so since meeting planners surveyed in the MMGY Global report ranked word-of-mouth as their top information source when choosing a   host destination.They also looked for evidence of a destination’s commitment to diversity, including the representation depicted in marketing materials and the racial diversity of the destination itself.

An effective strategy for reaching the ethnic travel market needs to incorporate a variety of elements, from the choice of marketing media, to the creation of the visitor’s experience, to the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion among travel industry employees and entrepreneurs.

Responding to Travelers’ Interests and Expectations

Greg DeShields

When it comes to the visitor experience, Greg DeShields, Executive Director of Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM), notes that meeting the expectations of ethnic travelers begins with getting to know them. “Learning about and engaging with those communities will allow you to be more authentic and genuine when you provide a variety of products and services,” DeShields says.

Following the murder of George Floyd, the organization’s President and CEO Mike Gamble, who heads a tourism-related executive search firm in in Minneapolis, recognized a need to help industry leaders create more effective DEI strategies and tactics, DeShield says. In one example of the organization’s work, a TDM analysis of the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau’s marketing outreach revealed that, to increase its appeal to the ethnic meeting groups market, the bureau needed a better way to tell the story of its diversity efforts and successes. Toward that end TDM worked with the Lansing CVB’s diversity council to highlight the diversity of the local community. Together, they created a new page on the bureau’s website linking information about multicultural attractions, events, businesses and historical facts.

At Destination DC, a new content hub called The DEI District is connecting leisure travelers, meeting attendees and even local residents with knowledge about the diverse population, business community and history in the city of Washington. The launch of The DEI District in May 2021 coincided with the emergence of protest tourism, which drew people to the U.S. capital to rally for a wide range of causes, including racial justice. People around the country were intrigued to learn more about sites like Black Lives Matter Plaza and the impromptu gallery of protest art along the fence erected at Lafayette Park. At a time when the local tourism industry was struggling to bring visitors back, this new activism-fueled interest in the city became an economic shot in the arm.

Elliott Ferguson

“I think the key thing that we’ve done as we look at … protest tourism is to remain nimble in terms of what disruptors or opportunities in the market that did not exist before but we may be able to expose people to,says Destination DC’s President/CEO Elliott Ferguson, who chairs the board of directors for Tourism Diversity Matters.

The San Diego Tourism Authority has also been deliberate about making sure its marketing materials highlight information of interest to African-American, HIspanic and other ethnic visitors. “Showcasing San Diego’s rich heritage and vibrant culture has allowed us to foster strong connections for various ethnic markets,” Coker says.” From the Barrio Logan, with its mural-filled Chicano Park chronicling the Chicano experience, to City Heights, where more than 30 different languages and dialects are spoken, to the multicultural landmarks across our neighborhoods, San Diego’s culture reverberates throughout the city, which resonates across ethnic markets.”

Beyond visitors bureau websites and other internal marketing vehicles, Coker notes that travel industry organizations can also look for ways to make better use of Black-owned and other ethnic media.

“This can be done by creating content tailored to the demographic and working with influencers who have a strong presence within these communities,” Coker says. “Additionally, using language, imagery, and content that is culturally relevant to the target audience can help bring their marketing efforts to life in a meaningful way. Furthermore, building relationships with critical media outlets and organizations that serve the desired demographic can help to gain access to additional audiences and opportunities.”

Both Ferguson and Coker mention the growing influence of digital and social media on the ethnic market. “Having a presence on platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram can help marketers reach target audiences and foster relationships with them,” Coker says.

Delivering Diversity in the Tourism Industry

Ethnic leisure travelers and meeting groups aren’t just looking for relatable tourist attractions when they choose a destination, they’re also noticing how much diversity there is – or isn’t – within the industry organizations vying for their business. As Ferguson notes, it’s essential that the boards of directors, marketing teams and memberships of destination marketing organizations be as diverse as the markets they are targeting.

“You have to have people at the table that represent those markets,” Ferguson says. “If they don’t work for you, you need to employ external organizations that can assist you with that.”

The American Experience Foundation, the official nonprofit affiliate of Destination DC, aims to increase diversity in the hospitality industry by providing students of color with access to free field trips to the city, internships and college scholarships.

Industry DEI is one of the four main pillars of activity at Tourism Diversity Matters, along with apprenticeships, workforce development, and research and data. “We have a bench of consultants who work with us to deliver organization DEI assessments,” DeShield says. “We’ve worked with a number of organizations since the inception of TDM to provide leaders with specific analyses of their organizations, to learn where their gaps are and to quantitatively and qualitatively deliver recommendations and resources to build a more effective strategy around DEI.”

For example, TDM is working with the HSMAI Foundation, the research and educational arm of the Hospitality Sales and Management Association International, to assess the reasons for the lack of representation of African Americans in sales, marketing and revenue management jobs in the hotel industry. “We established our organizational assessments to allow organizations to go beyond the performative nature of what they do around DEI,” DeShields says. “It’s not about just putting out a statement when something happens.”

If industry leaders want to get more people of color on track for leadership roles, DeShields adds, they must “fish where the fish are.” That means connecting, for example, with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black fraternities and sororities, and Black professional organizations to recruit job candidates. And DeShields stresses that workplace inclusion is just as important as hiring diversity. “Don’t build an environment of assimilation,” he advises. Instead, industry employers need to  “create a   culture that is inclusive and welcoming and allows people to feel that they belong.”

The growth and support of diversity among hospitality industry business owners is another key factor in attracting ethnic travelers, and something DeShields says is also a major component of TDM’s mission. The organization’s efforts on that front include its partnerships with the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the  Latino Hotel Association, whose President & CEO Lynette Montoya is on the TDM Board of Directors.

San Diego’s groundbreaking Tourism Accelerator Program, now in its second year, provides resources for businesses owned by people of color, women, veterans, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Each year, 10 local businesses are chosen to receive coaching, financial, legal, labor and marketing support, plus a complimentary SDTA membership. The entire package is valued at more than $14,000.

“By implementing the Tourism Accelerator, we are increasing the number of diverse businesses in our membership base and providing visitors and meeting planners with more diverse products and experiences from which to choose,” Coker says. When we grow the number of diverse businesses, we are helping to ensure the local tourism recovery is equitable for everyone, which is a win-win for our residents and visitors.”

Coker notes that working with local chambers of commerce and other business organizations is another important step in targeting ethnic markets. For example, the SDTA collaborated with the County of San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce to get the word out about the launch of the Tourism Accelerator.

Ethnic travelers choose destinations that engage with them through relatable media channels, make them feel welcome, offer opportunities to explore cultural connections and have visible diversity among travel industry professionals and business owners. Any strategy for targeting the ethnic market that fails to address each of those expectations is likely to miss the mark. Those that get it right can help accelerate their local industry’s economic recovery.

“An opportunity to attract more visitors and event attendees from ethnic markets leads to a more vibrant and diverse atmosphere and a boost to the local economy, which leads to a favorable return on investment,” Coker says.“All in all, paying attention to varying ethnic markets is essential for the continued growth and success of the   meetings and tourism industry.”

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