February 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Last-Minute Meetings February 1999 Current Issue
February 1999

John D’Alessandro, President
of Out & Traveling Representation

Insightful Selection

Where to meet? For these planners, political correctness factors into the decision

By Maria Lenhart

Cities promote themselves as “multicultural” venues. Organizations rate hotel chains based on ethnic hiring practices, community service and the amount of business they do with minority vendors. A negative vote on affirmative action or gay rights suddenly turns a popular meetings destination into a place to be shunned.

Is it any wonder that site selection, never a simple process to begin with, is even more complicated for minority meetings? Along with all the usual battles fought by association planners to secure a desirable location, reasonable rates and adequate room blocks and meeting space, those who plan minority meetings must often navigate the murky waters of political correctness as well.

The boycott dilemma
If anything strikes fear in the hearts of convention and visitor bureau staff, it’s unpopular political legislation that ignites a meetings boycott. No one wants to experience what befell Arizona in the mid-1980s, when the then-governor refused to recognize the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a legal holiday. The ensuing five-year boycott by associations and corporations ultimately cost the city of Phoenix an estimated $100 million in meetings business that was canceled or never booked, according to the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Since the King boycott, a smattering of other cities and states have felt the sting of controversial legislation. Among them are Colorado, where anti-gay legislation was passed (and later overturned) in 1992, and California, where voters in 1996 passed Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action measure banning race or gender preferences in state hiring, contracts and college admissions. Groups that have since elected not to meet in California because of Proposition 209 include the National Bar Association, Blacks in Government, National League for Nursing, National Urban League and the International Black Firefighters.

“The biggest stick you have is to not choose a city,” says John Crump, executive director of the National Bar Association and chairman of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, both based in Washington, D.C. “A lot of CVB heads won’t say that political legislation affects their business, but it does. Most have no way of tracking the business that was lost.”

Although the National Bar Association had been considering San Diego as a site for its national convention, Proposition 209 eliminated the city as a choice. “We sent no letter stating our position; we just took it off our list,” says Crump.

Because no bookings had been made in San Diego and no contracts signed, deciding to meet elsewhere was easy. Crump acknowledges that political principles are more difficult to adhere to when deals have already been made. “We don’t recommend anyone break a contract, although you should try to negotiate out of it if you can,” he says. “Our policy is to honor contracts. But if it hasn’t reached that stage, then we can take our business elsewhere.”

But what if “elsewhere” carries the same political baggage? “We know that anti-affirmative action is brewing in a lot of states,” says Crump. “If it crops up in every state, then we’ve got a problem. At this point, however, we still have choices.”

For John D’Alessandro, a San Francisco-based independent meeting planner and consultant who is president of Out & Traveling Representation and immediate past president of the Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, it’s not a question of boycotting, it’s one of “bycotting.” “We don’t have to boycott places that express hostility towards gays and lesbians, we can just ignore them,” he says. “There are many other places that want our business and are attractive destinations.”

Practical versus political
Sometimes social and political considerations have to be weighed against logistics, such as a site’s accessibility and the demographics of where attendees are located. For Margaret Gonzalez, a Houston-based independent planner who is president of the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals, such conflicting concerns surfaced after she selected a site in California for a client, the National Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists. Although she received calls from members who objected to recent anti-immigration legislation passed in California, the fact that many of the engineers lived in or near the state convinced her to stick with her original choice.

Independent planner Theresa Garza, president of Amigo Meeting Solutions in Tucson, Ariz., says political concerns do not play a major role in site selection for her client, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. “My most important concern is finding the best value for our members, who have to pay their own way,” she says. “Another big consideration is having the meeting close to where most members live: California and the Southwest.”

Some groups believe they can make a more effective social statement by meeting in a city rather than boycotting it. Kathie Michael, director of meetings and festivals for the Alexandria, Va.-based Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, found her organization divided over whether or not to hold its 1996 international festival in Tampa, Fla., where gay-rights ordinances in a nearby community had been recently overturned. “Some of our members objected to meeting in Tampa, but a greater number felt it was an opportunity to confront the issue head-on. They said, “Why run away?’”

Planners of the festival worked with the Tampa gay community to hold a gay pride parade in the city during the event that included both chorus members and local groups. “We had a few hecklers at the parade, but other than that everything went smoothly,” says Michael.

For Michael, a bigger concern than politics is whether or not a city is in close proximity to a large gay and lesbian community. When organizing the group’s international festival, held every four years, she first sends out requests for proposals to the organization’s 180 member choruses around the world.

“We need at least 600 volunteers for each festival, so we need to be in a place that has an active community,” she says. “And, of course, it helps with attendance.”

Approval ratings
While the social and political climate of cities has long been an issue, hotels have come under scrutiny during the past few years, most notably with the NAACP’s Hotel Industry Report Card (see “NAACP to Rate CVBs and Airlines,” on page 51) and the International Society of Gay & Lesbian Meeting Professional’s Seal of Approval ratings for gay-friendly suppliers. Are planners paying attention?

According to Crump, the Hotel Industry Report Card, which grades hotel chains based on minority hiring practices and other factors, are taken very seriously by members of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. “A lot of planners are now asking hotels, ‘What are you doing to improve your rating?’” he says. “It’s also had a lot of impact on hotel management because, like most people in the corporate world, they are very concerned with how they are perceived by their clients.”

While Crump says the National Bar Association researches the hiring practices of hotels, he also notes that there may be extenuating circumstances. “If the hotel is in an area where there’s not a large minority population, that has to be taken into account.”

Brenda Scott, president and CEO of the Mobile (Ala.) Convention & Visitors Bureau and the only African-American woman to head a CVB, adds that planners of minority meetings are taking a careful look at the ethnic makeup of CVBs and convention centers, in addition to hotels. “Minority meeting planners now have much higher expectations of a meeting site,” she says. “If a city has a sizable minority population and that population is not represented in the hotel and CVB staff, then you’ve got a problem.”

Customer service first
Like most planners, Crump prefers to book business at hotels where he has established working relationships with salespeople, but says those relationships are getting harder to achieve. “Unfortunately, a lot of hotels seem to be outsourcing to telemarketing firms in their efforts to solicit minority business,” he says. “We get cold calls from people who don’t know us and who don’t have any decision-making power. It’s just a waste of time.”

For Michael, cultural sensitivity is one of the biggest concerns guiding hotel selection. She makes it a practice to meet with members of the hotel staff for some “sensitivity training” before the meeting. “We only work with properties that really want us,” she says. “If we find that any of the hotel employees have an aversion to serving gays or lesbians, then we ask that they not be assigned to us.”

D’Alessandro, who serves as a consultant to suppliers courting the gay and lesbian markets, says, “Hotels need not worry that planners will ask for desserts shaped like pink triangles, but they do want basic considerations.” He believes good customer service should start at the front desk, but often doesn’t. “While straight couples are automatically given a room with one large bed, gay couples often aren’t even when they’ve requested it beforehand,” he says. “The front desk clerk will second-guess the situation and decide it’s not appropriate.”

The concierge desk should also be trained to handle the needs of a diverse range of guests. “The concierge should know where the gay bars are and about gay theater and restaurants,” says D’Alessandro.

Similarly Roy Jay, president of African-American Convention & Tourism, a Portland, Ore.-based national organization for meeting planners and suppliers, says hotels need to give African-American guests the same consideration often accorded to Japanese visitors. “Hotels go to great lengths to make Japanese guests feel at home, and we want the same kind of consideration,” he says. “Hotels should be able to tell guests about the local black radio stations, or where to find a barber or hairdresser who caters to black people. It’s a question of good service and knowing your customers.”

We want you
Increasingly, CVBs are making an effort to capture minority business, publishing customized visitors guides, working more closely with gay and ethnic business groups and hiring directors of multicultural tourism. Among those who find this a welcome trend is D’Alessandro, who says, “Some CVBs are really waking up and are working with their membership to attract more gay and lesbian business. Equally important, some have been successful in getting local sponsorship for gay events.”

While he commends such U.S. cities as Ft. Lauderdale, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles for their marketing efforts, he also notes more international destinations are starting to court gay and lesbian business. “The British Tourist Authority, Tourism New South Wales, the French Government Tourist Office and the Netherlands Board of Tourism recently did a series of dinners for gay and lesbian meeting planners and travel agents,” he says. “This is a very effective thing to do; it shows us that these places want our business.”

Crump also welcomes the efforts of cities to court minority business, but says this plays a minor role in site selection for the National Bar Association. “Minority marketing by cities is a good thing, but I won’t make a decision based on that alone,” he says. “First, I’m going to look at the hard-core economics."

Selecting a Site for Unity ’99

Controversy aside, Seattle wins

If you think the issues surrounding site selection for minority meetings are complex, consider what befell the planners of Unity ’99, a convention for the members of four minority journalist associations scheduled to meet in Seattle in July.

The convention, which was last held in Atlanta in 1995 and drew 6,000 attendees, is organized by Unity: Journalists of Color, a group comprising representatives from the National Association of Black Journalists, Native American Journalists Association, Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

When the planning process began for Unity ’99 several years ago, Unity board members agreed they wanted a city in the western United States, preferably in California. Topping the list of choices were Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then in November 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action initiative banning race and gender preferences for state jobs, contracts and college admissions. “At that point we knew we couldn’t meet in California,” says Walt Swanston, Unity’s executive director in Alexandria, Va. “No bookings had yet been made, but we sent letters to the bureaus in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Francisco to let them know why they were no longer under consideration.”

After looking at cities elsewhere in the region, the Unity board selected Seattle. Space was secured at the Washington State Convention Center and 15 nearby hotels to house the anticipated 6,000 to 8,000 journalist. Early last year, however, the board learned that Initiative 200, anti-affirmative action legislation similar to Proposition 209, would be on the ballot in Washington in November 1998. A heated debate soon arose among members of the four journalist groups over whether a withdrawal from Seattle would be worth the costs in cancellation fees and difficulty of finding an alternative venue on such short notice.

In the end, practicality won over politics. “The board looked at 14 other cities, based on the assumption that the legislation might pass,” says Swanston. “It proved extremely difficult. The cities that had space for us either didn’t have the kind of diversity we want or they already had anti-affirmative action policies in place.”

While Washington voters ultimately did pass Initiative 200, Unity ’99 will meet in Seattle as planned. Although the group won’t be making a statement by boycotting, “We’ve decided to tackle the issue head-on by making affirmative action the theme of the conference,” says Swanston. “We’ll have plenary sessions on the topic and we’ll issue a major report on affirmative action in the media.” M.L.

NAACP to Rate CVBs and Airlines
Roy Jay

Two years ago the NAACP sent shock waves through the hotel industry by introducing its annual Hotel Industry Report Card, which assigns grades to the major hotel chains. The grades are based on a survey that examines the hiring practices at hotel chains, the amount of business they do with minority vendors and other issues.

Now airlines and convention and visitor bureaus can expect the same scrutiny. According to Roy Jay, a member of the NAACP’s Hotel Initiative Industry Advisory Task Force and president of African-American Convention & Tourism, a Portland, Ore.-based national organization for meeting planners and suppliers, the hotel survey is being expanded to include more than 450 CVBs across the country and all U.S. domestic and regional airlines. The CVB and airline portion of the survey, scheduled to be sent out to recipients this month, will be jointly funded and sponsored by the NAACP and African-American Convention & Tourism.

Like hotel companies, airlines and CVBs will be graded based on their hiring patterns and other business practices affecting minorities. “In the case of CVBs, we’ll ask them about the ethnic diversity of their staffs and membership,” says Jay. “We’ll ask if they’re working with ethnic organizations in their communities and what kind of opportunities and training they provide.”

Jay says the NAACP task force also will track customer service at hotels, airlines and CVBs. “We plan to send people out to report on how they are treated. It’s a way to ensure quality control,” he says.

In addition, the task force is developing NAACP-endorsed workshops in diversity training that will be available to hotels and CVBs across the United States by the end of the year. “Some organizations want to do a better job, but they don’t know how to approach it,” says Jay. “Along with workshops, we’ll also have consultants available to work with CVBs and hotels.”

The NAACP is considering granting a seal of approval to organizations that go through its diversity training. “We want to find a way of rewarding those who at least demonstrate an effort in good faith,” says Jay. M.L.

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