Sixteen months have passed since the death of George Floyd and the rise of a nationwide racial reckoning. But despite all the public pledges of support and promises to improve diversity, Blacks within the travel industry say they have seen little change over the past year.
"I think we're at the very beginning," said Shannon Jones, director of diversity, equity and inclusion programming at Experience Columbus, during the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals' State of Black Tourism event. "This industry has a historical legacy of only having people of color and Black folks in those entry level positions. We need to expand that and ensure that people that look like us are in more leadership positions, and have the opportunity to shape the cultures of our communities."
This year marked the eighth annual State of Black Tourism event. The gathering, which was held online on Sept. 29, brought together meeting planners, convention and visitor bureau representatives and leaders from industry associations in a joint call for change.
In her opening remarks, NCBMP chair Marlinda Henry noted that "the pace of change may be slow, but as Frederick Douglass stated, 'power concedes nothing without demand.'"
Moving From Awareness to Action
During the hour-long panel discussion, the speakers stressed that racial injustice has long plagued the nation and noted that intentional, long-term solutions will be needed to address the issue.
"Last year we had two crises. We had the health crisis with Covid-19, intersecting with the crisis of social injustice," said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. "But the social injustice piece is an over-400-year-old issue that as Americans, we kept kicking the can down the road. We did not want to deal with it."
The subject, however, can no longer be ignored. The panelists focused on the need to move from awareness to action, and emphasized that everyone has a role to play in making sure the industry becomes more diverse and inclusive. For destinations, this means providing diversity training for their staff and local institutions. Meanwhile, planners should reassess their speaker and vendor lists, and hold their host cities accountable to the same standards.
"Those of us that make decisions on what cities we go to, what hotel contracts we sign and what venues we hire, we need to make clear what our expectations are," said Dwayne Crawford, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. "We want to see a complete mosaic of our country reflected in your city."
Finding and Retaining Black Talent
Time and time again, the panelists noted that the industry's lack of diversity is not due to a dearth of Black talent, but rather a lack of effort to find, hire and train people of all backgrounds.
"We need to stop saying there's no talent in the BIPOC community," said Hutchinson. "There's plenty of talent, but where are you looking? Are you going to the historically Black colleges and universities? Are you going to the major institutions, because they have BIPOC people that attend those schools as well. We have to make sure that we're seeking out the right folks, partner with colleges in our region and spend money with BIPOC publications to find talent."
But the speakers noted that just hiring diverse applicants isn't enough. Organizations must also address retention and ensure that people of color feel welcome and supported within the industry and at work. For this reason, Jones suggested rethinking the order of DEI, with a focus on first creating equitable and inclusive environments. She noted that diversity will follow naturally once these steps have been taken.
"Sometimes when we talk about checking the box, we just want to get people of color on a panel and in organizations. But once they get there, it's traumatic and they don't end up staying there," said Jones. "I think first and foremost, organizations have to think about inclusion and are their spaces safe for Black and brown people to exist and work in? If that is not happening, then there's no way that diversity is really going to stick."