(Originally published Sept. 26, 2005)
A growing number of convention and visitors bureaus are tapping into what once was a largely overlooked market: ethnic minority meetings. These CVB efforts are encompassing everything from forming advisory boards drawn from ethnic community leaders, to publishing minority visitor guides and initiating targeted advertising campaigns.
While some bureaus began targeting ethnic meetings more than a decade ago, the trend has intensified in the wake of 9/11 and —for West Coast CVBs at least —a downturn in the Asian leisure travel market.
"Things have really changed in the past four or five years, with more cities realizing the value of ethnic business," said Roy Jay, president of the Oregon Convention & Visitors Services Network, an organization affiliated with the Portland Oregon Visitors Association that promotes Portland as a multicultural meetings destination.
"Now, instead of focusing so much on Far East business, more CVBs are looking at the potential gold mine in their own backyards."
Jay, who has worked with a variety of CVBs and organizations such as the American Society of Association Executives on multicultural training, insists that minority meetings are indeed a gold mine for destinations.
"African-American groups spend more money on average," he said. "They are more likely to bring family along and use the meeting as an extended vacation."
Ty Christian, a managing partner with Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, an Orlando-based marketing firm that recently completed a study on multicultural travel behavior, agreed.
"People of color have a big desire to experience all of the key attributes of travel," he said. "They go out and enjoy nightlife more, they shop more and use more food and beverage. They spend more on the spa."
Others in the industry observe that travel among ethnic minorities, including convention travel, did not take a nosedive after 9/11 the way other markets did.
"Since 9/11 it has been minority meetings that have held up best — they didn't cancel and they kept on coming," said Peggy Riley, director of multicultural affairs for the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "So this market has become more important to us than ever."
While Christian believes that destinations in general have not done nearly enough to market to minority travelers, he notes that many CVBs are using conventions as a starting point.
"The convention market is very lucrative, so it's been the first to be addressed," he said. "And if you can sell to the group side, it translates to the leisure side. They'll come back on vacation to a place they enjoyed during a convention."
Atlanta is a leader in working to attract minority meetings. The Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show brings in about 90,000 hair stylists in two shows a year to Atlanta, among several big events that are primarily minority in nature. Helping spur interest among ethic groups is the CVB's vice president of community affairs, Kathleen Bertrand, as well as numerous minority-oriented attractions.
Ironically, one of the nation's biggest ethnic marketing success stories has its roots in a public relations nightmare of the mid-1980s: a boycott against Phoenix that grew out of Arizona's refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a legal holiday.
A five-year boycott by minority meeting groups ultimately cost the city of Phoenix an estimated $100 million in canceled meetings or business that was never booked, according to the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Once the holiday issue was finally resolved, the Phoenix CVB set out not only to repair the damage, but to proactively position itself as a multicultural meetings and leisure destination.
"We had lost millions in market share, but we knew that Phoenix had the potential to turn things around," said Marc Garcia, vice president of community affairs for the CVB.
"We also saw the ethnic demographics shifting, so it made perfect business sense to appeal to the multicultural market."
Garcia, who heads the bureau's Multi-Cultural Affairs Department, said the CVB has booked more than 135 ethnic meetings since efforts were launched in the late 1990s.
"The business represents over $150 million in visitor spending and over 177,000 room nights," he said. "Our ethnic leisure travel has been growing every year as well."
Marketing efforts have included the formation of a multicultural advisory board, fam trips for minority meeting planners, targeted advertising and promotional literature, and a quarterly breakfast series where CVB members can meet with multicultural marketing experts.
What Garcia regards as crucial to his department's success is the fact that, like the overall CVB, it receives steady funding from the city's hotel tax.
"I don't have to fight for funding every year; we're part of the overall budget," he said.
Also helping financially is the creation of the Multi-Cultural and Arts Foundation, a non-profit subsidiary of the CVB that is able to go after private funding. Funding from the foundation has been used toward training, scholarship and internship programs for minority students seeking careers in hospitality management.
"Many ethnic customers want to see people of color in front-of-the-house operations, not just relegated to housekeeping positions," said Garcia. "Some of these are students now in college or working in hospitality careers."
Milwaukee, which started a multicultural marketing program in 2000, has also reaped benefits, according to Mary Denis, vice president of marketing for Visit Milwaukee. The bureau has hired a sales manager dedicated to the ethnic meetings market, published a guide called Multicultural Milwaukee and launched a targeted advertising campaign.
Also part of the efforts are diversity training for bureau staff and members.
So far Milwaukee has booked 64 ethnic meetings representing 90,000 room nights and an economic impact of $56 million to local businesses, according to Denis. This past summer Milwaukee hosted the national conventions of the NAACP and U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"Rather than spreading our marketing dollars internationally, we think it makes sense to market closer to home," said Denis. "We're doing this because it makes good business sense and it's been a great return on investment."
Gary Simon, director of multicultural affairs for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes that marketing has to involve more than just promotion of the city's attributes. Along with diversity training, Simon said the involvement of local minority-owned businesses and local ethnic chambers of commerce is crucial.
Not only has Simon worked to get more minority businesses to join the CVB, but he also strives to make sure they are involved with providing services to ethnic convention groups.
"These groups want to see people who look like them reaping some of the economic benefit," he said, adding that Sacramento saw an economic impact of $24 million from ethnic conventions in 2004.
Roy Jay at the Oregon Convention & Visitors Service Network agreed.
"Some CVBs think it's enough to hire some blacks and Hispanics, but do nothing else," he said. "Planners can see right through this. They want to know what you're doing 12 months out of the year, not just during Black History Month or on Cinco de Mayo."
While it might be expected that cities with large ethnic populations are the most likely destinations for minority meetings, Jay believes there is potential for a wide range of destinations.
"A city doesn't have to have to have a big ethnic population," he said. "What's much more important is good customer service."