True Colors - 2005-06-01

Next month, Kappa Alpha Psi, an upscale black fraternal organization, will bring 12,000 attendees to St. Louis, where they'll spend $7 million in one week. This September, 7,000 members of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs will gather at the Anaheim Convention Center and are expected to lavish $4 million on the Southern California destination. And at last month's Asian Diversity Career Expo, held in New York City's Madison Square Garden, only a thousand or so attendees came from out of town, but they spent an estimated $700,000 on exhibit space, transportation, hotel rooms, meals, and entertainment—all for a one-day gathering.

No comprehensive statistics on the value of the ethnic meetings market exist—Meeting Professionals International is currently working on an economic impact study—but it's clear from the above examples that the business is big. Yet despite the evident size and spending power of these gatherings, many minority conference organizers feel left out by the major meetings organizations.

In lengthy interviews with 20 minority-meetings professionals, Successful Meetings found that despite over 15 years of diversity programs, including new collaborative initiatives recently announced by MPI, the American Society of Association Executives, and the Professional Convention Management Association, most were skeptical of the industry's efforts to truly engage them. What follows is an exploration of the disparity between the thriving ethnic meetings market represented by the planners interviewed for this article, and the world of the mainstream meetings societies.

A Myopic Industry?

More than a year later, Suzette Eaddy is still angry.

Last winter, MPI held its annual conference over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. That alone wouldn't be so egregious, says Eaddy, an African-American conference organizer who has been a member of MPI since 1984—except that it wasn't the first time the society had met on the slain civil rights leader's birthday: "Once would be a mistake, but they did the same thing back in 2002," she notes. And she's quick to point out that MPI has slighted other groups as well: "They've also met several times over Jewish holidays. Apparently, MPI does not give a [expletive] about Jewish people or black people."

Eaddy's language may be extreme, but her belief that mainstream meetings organizations overlook or ignore those from different (read: nonwhite, non-Christian) cultures is not uncommon. "There's a lot written about diversity initiatives, but I don't see the implementation," agrees John Crump, executive director of the National Bar Association, an organization of African-American attorneys, and a 27-year industry veteran.

Indeed, despite the considerable contributions made by minorities to group travel and meetings, go to any of the annual conferences of MPI, PCMA, or ASAE and you'll see few blacks, Latinos, or Asians in the audience. Often, it's not that planners from these groups aren't members. It's that they feel uncomfortable seeing so few attendees who look like them.

"One of the reasons I stopped going to industry events is that people like me were neither in attendance nor addressing the audience," notes Eaddy, who as director of conferences for the New York City-based National Minority Supplier Development Council oversees a meetings department that last year netted $1.75 million. But what about the fact that MPI's chairman of the board, Hugh Lee, is Asian American? There are still very few minorities, Eaddy insists: "From what I see in the brochures, there are hardly any speakers of color, for example. If you want to promote diversity, you have to walk the talk."

Likewise, Ozzie Jenkins, an independent planner in Silver Spring, MD, is a member of both PCMA and ASAE but no longer attends the annual get-togethers. "I would have felt more comfortable if there had been more people of color at the meetings," explains Jenkins, who coordinates gatherings worth between $350,000 and $2 million for African-American organizations such as the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. "Our experiences are totally different [from those of white planners] and we like to bounce ideas off each other." Both Eaddy and Jenkins are also longtime members of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners (which was founded over 20 years ago precisely because planners like Jenkins and Eaddy felt their needs weren't being addressed by MPI and the other industry organizations), and rarely miss that society's meetings.

Other groups express similar frustration about the industry. "As a corporate recruiter, I've had the opportunity to sit down with literally thousands of Asian Americans and talk about their career challenges," notes Jino Ahn, organizer of the Asian Diversity Expo, who adds that he's had difficulty convincing exhibitors from the hospitality industry to come to his show. "In contrast to industries like finance and IT, where Asians are now in upper management, it seems there's a pretty low glass ceiling in events and meetings. Those who are in the industry say it's difficult to get ahead, and those who want to join say it's difficult to get their foot in the door."

Eaddy's view is similar: "The hospitality industry is incestuous. Everybody's dating each other, married to each other. It's the old boys' and old girls' network. They're very clannish—when you go to these events, many won't even speak to you!" To combat this phenomenon, in fact, Dvorah Evans, CMP, director of conventions and tourism for the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, is currently working with her local MPI chapter on creating a mentor program "so that when you go to a meeting, you have a buddy with you. Being one of the few African Americans [present] is always an issue."

Taking Action

The major meetings organizations, of course, are aware of such sentiments and have renewed their efforts to reach out to minorities. In January, MPI and PCMA jointly announced a new multicultural program and are looking into holding a "diversity summit" that would include representatives from all the major meetings organizations, including ASAE and NCBMP. "As we start building relationships with NCBMP, International Association of Hispanic Meeting Planners, and other groups, we'll be able to better address the needs of those who are underrepresented in the industry by working collectively," says Karen Garcia-Gonzales, managing director of the MPI Multicultural Initiative. As for the Martin Luther King Day missteps, "Those meetings were booked years before the Multicultural Initiative had even been thought of. In fact, we tried to change the dates but couldn't. So it was a problem we inherited. Was it wrong? Absolutely. Will we do it again? Absolutely not."

ASAE, meanwhile, is now in the fifth year of its Diversity Education Leadership program, which awards a few scholarships to people from underrepresented groups that enable them to attend ASAE programs and sit for the Certified Association Exec-utive exam free of charge. "There are a lot of minorities in the industry who may not have the financial flexibility to attend the meetings," explains Marilu Morada, who heads up the program. "That's the reason for this program: to give them a boost in their careers."

However, critics—especially those with longtime industry experience—say that such initiatives accomplish little beyond making the organizations promoting them feel better about themselves and perhaps gain a few new memberships. "My biggest issue with diversity programs is that they rarely reach the decision-makers who can really make a difference," says Crump, who recently stepped down after 11 years as chair of the NCBMP. "Three years ago, I sat on a panel about this topic at an MPI conference with [former MPI chairman] George Aguel, and the attendees were nearly all people of color. It had no impact, because the issues needed to be heard by the people who weren't in the room."

Others argue that programs such as ASAE's fall short by only targeting those already in the industry. "I don't think I've seen any serious effort to create awareness among minorities of the association industry as a career option," observes Ana Herrera-Malone, marketing and development director of the National Society for Hispanic MBAs in Irving, TX. "By contrast, corporate America has been much more active about recruiting minorities."

The Universal Color: Green

While admitting that the meetings industry has been historically late to embrace diversity, some observers claim that today's efforts are indeed different, because of America's changing demographics. In 48 of the 100 largest cities, for example, minorities are now the collective majority; more importantly, by 2009, the combined buying power of people of color will pass the $1.5 trillion mark, exceeding that of whites.

"I agree that traditionally there haven't been strong numbers of minorities—certainly not of African Americans—in any of the mainstream meetings organizations," says Richard Lee Snow, executive director of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and chairman of the NCBMP. "However, over the past few years, PCMA and MPI especially have come to understand that there's great value in the meetings [business] we bring."

"In my 20-plus years in the diversity business, we've gone through three stages," says Hattie Hill, the African-American founder of Dallas-based Hattie Hill Enterprises Inc., a management consultancy with an emphasis on promoting multiculturalism. "At first, it was about racism and segregation. Then we went through the affirmative-action period, when corporate America felt a responsibility to hire people of color. But in this century and beyond, it's about reaching out to others—not out of a sense of responsibility, but because in order to function as a professional in a multicultural society, it's important to have multicultural relationships."

"Money will drive diversity," says Andy Ingraham, president of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers in Fort Lauderdale, FL. "Nothing else will." Reggie Sears, who as a Sacramento, CA-based independent planner with 22 years in the business has worked with African-American groups from Kappa Alpha Psi to the National African American Speakers Association, agrees. "The bottom line is profit. African Americans spend more per capita at conferences than their white counterparts. When I'm on site inspections I always tell the hoteliers that." (He also tells the food and beverage person to order extra amounts of top-shelf liquor, to avoid the embarrassment of running out of Courvoisier—as happened at one of his Kappa Alpha Psi meetings.)

As America grows less white, and minorities' purses grow fatter, perhaps the mainstream meetings organizations can eventually convince people of color that they're sincere about reaching out to them. Still, those who have watched the diversity issue wax and wane over time aren't so easily convinced. "Since chairing MPI's first diversity initiative in 1990, I've seen very little change," admits Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt Associates in Washington D.C. "As the meetings industry, we should be modeling best behavior and best practices, and we haven't. In a global society we need to be aware of group sensitivities. I do think it's getting better, but it's been a very tough education."


SIDEBAR

Show Me the Money: Minority Meetings and Travel

African Americans spend more than $40 billion annually on business and leisure travel; 75 percent of that, or $30 billion, derives from meetings and conventions, estimates Roy Jay, a Portland, OR-based expert on African-American group business. A recent survey of the 775 members of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners showed that nearly half (48 percent) of African-American meetings see at least 1,000 attendees, while 47 percent use 10,000 square feet or more of exhibit space. Blacks are no longer the largest minority, but they enjoy the greatest purchasing power—$723 billion last year. And African- American group business is a lucrative niche for many cities—Atlanta, Orlando, Washington D.C., Dallas, New York City, and Las Vegas are the top destinations for black travelers, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

As of 2002, Hispanics, or Latinos, are the largest minority group in the country, and the most diverse—the term "Hispanic," coined by the U.S. Census Bureau, refers to people of any race, from native Californians of Mexican Indian heritage, to Cuban immigrants whose ancestors were originally from Africa and Asia, to Santa Fe families whose forebears came from Spain 300 years ago. The International Association of Hispanic Meeting Planners, founded in 1994, doesn't keep tabs on the economic impact of Hispanic conventions, but experts say that Latinos as well as blacks continued to travel and hold meetings after 9/11 while the rest of the industry languished. From 2000 to 2002, in fact, the volume of Hispanic travel climbed an amazing 20 percent, or 10 times the national average, according to the TIA; for blacks it was double the national average, or four percent.

Both African-American and Latino travelers are also more likely to combine business trips with vacations, often bringing family members to meetings and staying extra days at a destination. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Diego, and Houston are the top destinations for Hispanic travelers. And though Latinos are often stereotyped as impoverished, illegal immigrants, more than 60 percent were born in this country, and are fast increasing their purchasing power—between 1980 and 2000, the Hispanic middle class grew by 80 percent. Indeed, attendance at the National Society of Hispanic MBAs annual convention has more than doubled in just four years.

Tracking the value of Asian-American conferences is more difficult, as there's no equivalent to the NCBMP or IAHMP for Asian-American meeting planners. Still, TIA statistics show that like blacks and Hispanics, Asians also kept traveling after 9/11—from 2000 to 2002, travel volume increased tenfold for this group. Asians also spend considerably more when traveling, with the average Asian household spending $515 per trip, excluding transportation, while the nationwide average is $457. And while Asian Americans represent less than six percent of the population, their purchasing power is relatively high—$363 billion for only 17.4 million people.


Can't We All Just Get Along?

Alas, cultures clash. Here are some multicultural missteps from various meetings:

• At a leadership retreat held at a Raleigh, NC, hotel for the National Association of Asian American Professionals, association president Vincent Yee was "shocked" when he realized that the pictures on the walls depicting Chinese characters were hung upside down.

• As an African-American attendee was checking in for a meeting of the National Urban League in Wichita, KS, the young, white desk clerk remarked, "There are a lot of you all here!" She gasped in shock at her own comment and—remembering her sensitivity training—added, "They told me not to say that."

• While Margaret Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Planners, was on a site inspection at a high-end hotel in San Diego, the sales manager said offhandedly, "I'm sure you're not interested in seeing the suites." The clear implication, says Gonzalez, was that she couldn't afford them—even though she was accompanied by representatives from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other corporate sponsors.

• At a luncheon held to celebrate the launch of a local MPI chapter's multicultural initiative, pork was the main entrée, even though this type of meat is off-limits to both Jews and Muslims. The meeting was chaired by a Hispanic woman, proving that cultural insensitivity is not the sole domain of non-minorities.