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Multicultural Meetings and Events Will Be Key as Minorities Become the Majority

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

This article appeared in Skift Magazine May 2017 issue

by Lisa Skriloff

Bringing more multicultural groups to a destination for meetings and events isn’t just good business. It’s also good for local communities and future tourism, too.

— Deanna Ting

With the United States poised to become a minority-majority country by 2040, multicultural markets are no longer a niche outreach business target for convention & visitors bureaus and destination marketing organizations.

Philadelphia is already a minority-majority city, said Greg DeShields, executive director, PHL Diversity, a business development division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which works to increase Philadelphia’s share of diverse/multicultural meetings and tourism.

“There are a lot of assets in this market for meeting conference attendees,” he said. “Eighty-one percent of room nights consumed by PHL Diversity-related groups fell in hotel need periods.”

Launched two years ago, PHL Diversity Podcasts strive to “give a good sense of the destination and how leadership influencers have a consistent point of view of Philadelphia being a diverse and welcoming city,” DeShields said. The group recorded 30 podcasts so far this year, including interviews with Marriott’s vice president of multicultural affairs, Apoorva Gandhi; Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. executive director John Chin, and Iron Chef Jose Garces, for instance.

“By leading the charge in hospitality inclusion efforts, PHL Diversity aims to spur the advancement of meetings and conventions in the coming years. We envision an industry in which each interest group feels valued because of their unique perspective,” said DeShields.


From Fort Lauderdale to New York City, tourism entities are reaching out to a broader clientele than they might have done in years’ past.

“With the growing changes in the demographics, our destination is now [comprised of] more than 54 percent individuals of color,” said Albert Tucker, vice president of multicultural business development for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. “This market segment also travels when our hotels need the business the most, and it supports good economics.”

New York City likewise has put out a welcome map for diverse groups.

“We have done significant outreach to all these groups and more,” said Jerry Cito, SVP of convention development for NYC & Company, said regarding African American, Hispanic, LGBT, and Asian American groups, people with disabilities, seniors, and women- and minority-owned businesses or organizations. “New York City is a melting pot of culture and diversity, and we welcome all groups to see what a New York City meeting can do for them.”

DeShields added African diaspora and Native American to this list of diverse/multicultural groups that PHL Diversity devotes resources to and provides services for.

Cara Banasch, senior vice president of business development and strategy for the New Orleans CVB, said she also looks at “diverse religious gatherings and fraternal groups. Diversity covers a lot of special interests and the list grows and changes constantly.”

Interviews with tourism show that the hallmarks of success for convention and visitors bureaus around the country that have increased meetings business from diverse groups include: recognizing changing demographics; responding to the political climate and national news; involving the local multicultural community; having a dedicated budget plus long-term commitment, and thinking ahead about the next generation that will make up the travel industry.

Recruiting young people for tourism careers may indeed help in the effort to attract more diverse groups of meeting attendees.

“Building relationships is key,” said Connie W. Kinnard, vice president of multicultural tourism and development at the Greater Miami CVB, which also offers as a companion to the CVB’s main website. “Good relationships lead to good outcomes.”

Thinking ahead to the next generation, Kinnard said, “The push to get youth to understand that this industry is lucrative and multifaceted so that they will choose it as a career path is a need.”

Involving the local community and addressing city-related national news head on is what brought groups to St. Louis, Missouri, and Durham, North Carolina.


Explore St. Louis president Kitty Ratcliffe said, “One of the things we do is work with local community members who are connected to a variety of diverse audiences. We work with the St. Louis Mosaic Project, which is representative of many different cultures within the community, to help us identify convention groups. Many of those are fraternal groups or professional groups of a particular ethnic background or culture.”

She added, “We are working with local Pakistani physicians to bring their convention here. We are working with Indian professionals for their convention coming up, the Telugu Association of North America. We worked with the Ancient Order of Hibernians to attract that national convention as well.”

“Working with locals is always important,” Ratcliffe said. “One of the things I always ask the sales team is, ‘Who is the local on this?’” Once identified, her team will involve that person on a board, or a committee.

“They have a lot of insight that we won’t find out just by doing general research and can help us craft the bid the right way. Some of the groups want you to involve the locals, to provide volunteer support or instructors for some sessions or content.”

Ratcliffe has found this approach to be very successful, particularly with Indian groups with whom she has worked.

“They have a very large vegetarian attendance … so working upfront with the locals helped us understand that and position our food service operation the right way.”

In fact, for the Telugu Association of North America, which is coming in May, she said, “They have specific food requirements, so we are letting them in the kitchen in the convention center.”

The city will host the National Urban League Conference in July. “Of particular importance for us was that the National Urban League was willing to meet in St. Louis this year in light of the events that occurred in Ferguson a few years ago and the media attention that occurred in this suburban community of St. Louis,” said Ratcliffe. “We invited them to meet here, and it is an opportunity for them to see Ferguson and put it into context and use St. Louis as a forum of a discussion of some very challenging issues.”

She underscored that the meeting itself, when thousands will be in St. Louis, “serves a more important role than just the economic contribution that particular week. We made a concerted effort to ask [them]. We the organization, from the highest level, went to them and asked them to meet in St. Louis.” She noted that “Some things require a different kind of conversation first.” Ratcliffe personally attended one of the group’s meetings to ask them to consider her destination for the National Urban League’s next meeting.

April Ellerbe, director of sales for the Durham CVB works closely with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and has perfected the conversation of how to market to these groups differently than how they market to financial insurance and corporate groups, and has designed special itineraries for multicultural markets. Her philosophy? “Don’t invite me to the party; ask me to dance. I think that what that means is without diversity, there is no growth. Without diversity there is a perception we are not being stretched,” Ellerbe said.

She also said, “North Carolina has gone through this strange period where we had HB2, a law that did not allow transgender individuals to use the appropriate bathroom. Because of that it was a huge hit on North Carolina which saw a decrease in meetings. The great thing about Durham, we didn’t see a huge decrease like our neighboring cities, because of who we are. We are inclusive. We stand on what we believe.”

An Associated Press analysis released in March said North Carolina’s bathroom bill will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over the next dozen years. That law was partially repealed in April.

Another strategy for bringing more diverse groups involves enlisting city government support.

Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach CVB, said “Our mayor, Robert Garcia, has been instrumental in reaching out to Hispanic organizations to promote our city, i.e., Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. And as one of the first openly gay mayors of a major city, [he] has helped us reach out to LGBT groups. Our CVB staff is also ethnically diverse, with Asian American, African American, and Hispanic sales directors and support staff.”

Echoing the “local” sentiment, Jason Dunn, vice president of multicultural and community development for the Cincinnati USA CVB said, “I keep an open dialogue going with as many local groups as possible so that they become great ambassadors for our destination. We work very hard to build authentic relationships with our local groups. Lacking that, we would have no credibility as a multicultural destination.”

He mentioned that they “worked closely with the VA (Veterans Administration) to bring in the National Veteran’s Wheelchair Games.”


Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination DC said, “As we look to continue increasing business travel, diversity is an important part of our market mix, making up 12 percent of the business we attract to D.C.”

Ferguson noted the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists, both of which recently chose to meet in D.C. “Networking and participating in industry associations is what creates the relationships and business follows. People want to work with people they like, first and foremost, so relationship building is incredibly important.”

Marie Sueing, vice president of multicultural community relations for Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation cited the upcoming National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference in 2018.

“Music of all genres is at the heart of Nashville. It is critical that we attract groups that reflect – and nurture – the diversity of Music City, and that by doing so, foster the economic development of businesses owned by those in the ethnic, multicultural and LGBTQ communities.”

Shun Hatten, VP of sales for Visit Jackson said, “As a destination organization it is important to us to be able to market to all multicultural groups … Our city is a very diverse city. It is important to us as an organization to be inclusive.”

The Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, The Red Door Foundation, and the Conference of Minority Public Administrators are a few examples of organizations that selected Jackson.

Las Vegas will be hosting the 2017 National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) International Business & Leadership Conference at Caesars Palace this summer.

Jim McMichael, specialty markets manager for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, said, “I was brought on board based on my experience dealing with the LGBT community.” For 23 years in a row. Las Vegas has been the No. 1 trade show destination in the U.S. so McMichael is in a good position to offer advice to conventions and visitors bureaus about reaching out to multicultural groups.

“Ask, Is there a chamber of commerce that supports that particular minority? A great way to get started is to interact with them to understand what those groups are looking for.”

Involving the community is also what Rick Blackburn, vice president, convention sales and destination services for the Greater Palm Springs CVB, hopes will attract meetings with attendees from diverse backgrounds.

“The LGBT community has embraced the Greater Palm Springs area for decades on the leisure side, but we have discovered that groups/conventions don’t automatically follow, so we have been proactively searching for groups to contact,” Blackburn said. “LGBT groups are a natural fit for us as we have worked hand in hand with this community for decades.”

Emily Lauer, a spokeswoman for Destination Cleveland, said “As an emerging meetings and events location … Cleveland attracts many leads that fall within some of the multicultural and special interest categories given the city’s diversity — we’re home to residents representing more than 100 ethnicities — and its welcoming environment and Midwest hospitality.

“Since just 2013 when the city opened its new convention center, Cleveland has hosted citywide events including Gay Games (2014), Senior Games (2013), as well as groups such as Teamsters National Black Caucus (2016), Sigma Gamma Rho, Inc. (2016), and Alcoholics Anonymous International Women’s Conference (2017).”

Fort Lauderdale’s Tucker had additional advice to convention bureaus looking to attract a multicultural audience.

“My advice would be to understand the economic value of this market and to get on board and provide the necessary direction and funding to attract this important market segment. The multicultural market is a vibrant market that should be respected, marketed to in an appropriate manner and attention should be paid to the cultural nuances.”

DeShields outlined a three-step plan for CVBs on how to get started in multicultural group outreach: “Design a strategy grounded in extensive research to determine your return on investment. Develop an effective budget for the undertaking. Create a culture which values diversity and inclusion and human dignity.”

Cara Banasch, senior vice president of business development and strategy for the New Orleans CVB, said outreach takes commitment.

“Make the commitment and stay invested. It is not a quick turnaround market and organizations want to feel truly valued and understood, not only by their sales representatives but by local leaders and entities. Be prepared that decisions are made differently than traditional corporate entities and associations often with many volunteers who serve with their personal time and passion, and that the process may include a lot more decision makers that will need to support the choice.”

Diverse groups need to know that their presence is indeed wanted in various markets.

Said Visit Jackson’s Hatten: “Our world is continuously changing, and as a destination organization we have to be inviting to all groups.”