Hospitality: An Industry in Flux: Opportunities abound, but so do challenges

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It used to be that the African-American experience in the hospitality industry was little more than shining shoes, working in the kitchen, doing laundry or carrying luggage. Today, African-Americans can be found at the top of the game, managing companies and organizations in what has become a multitrillion-dollar industry that comprises everything from transportation, travel, and tourism to lodging, event planning, and media, video, and food services. What?s most intriguing about this industry is the ability of organizations in one sector to complement those in the others, providing support where needed. That can mean opportunities as well as challenges for African-American professionals and entrepreneurs, with the challenges sometimes outweighing the opportunities.

The NAACP, for example, saw more challenges than opportunities for African-Americans in lodging. In its sixth ?Report on the Lodging Industry?, issued last July, the group awarded the sector an overall grade of C in its dealings with minorities in employment, equity ownership and franchise opportunity, advertising/marketing opportunities and expenditures, procurement/vendor relationships and charitable activity. The report indicates that while the major hotels continue to show a willingness to explore incentives and to establish creative programs to increase African-American property ownership, almost no change has been seen overall in the numbers. Property ownership poses the greatest challenge for the industry overall.

Looking at the hotels most often used by African-American organizations and consumers for conventions and other gatherings?African-Americans spend more than $5.5 billion annually in travel, transportation and lodging combined, according to Target Market News Inc.?the report graded the largest hotel chains (Marriott, Wyndham, Choice, Radisson, Starwood, Adam?s Mark, Hilton, Hyatt, Omni, Six Continents, Cendant, and Best Western).

Even so, ?Blacks have a tremendous opportunity today in both gaining employment in the [wider hospitality] industry and in forming their own business operations in the industry,? says Debert Cook, president and CEO of Event Planners Plus, a New York firm. One reason for this, she says, is the tremendous amount of growth in minority business.

New York media relations firm Noelle-Elaine Media Inc. has benefited from this increase in the number of minority businesses and from the advancement of African-Americans to top executive positions with authority to hire minority-owned companies. ?We have made great strides within the hospitality industry. The outlook is very active because, within our 10 years of owning Noelle-Elaine, we can see the growth in the company and success. We have more business today, and it is easier to get business compared to five or 10 years ago,? says Renee E. Warren, one of the firm?s two co-founders and co-presidents. Noelle-Elaine, which also specializes in event planning and video production, has many African-American clients in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including financial institutions, leading entrepreneurs and celebrities.

Recognition of ?hospitality? as an industry in its own right, complete with certification requirements, plus the emergence of a solid network of Black business alliances in the industry, have also enhanced opportunities for African-Americans.? Organizations such as the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners (NCBMP) and the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD), for example, are committed to bolstering African-American businesses in the industry with the necessary resources to make them viable as well as lucrative investments.

NABHOOD President Andrew Ingraham says the Washington, D.C.-based organization has embarked upon an education campaign that promotes the hotel industry as a prime investment opportunity. He notes that the hospitality industry is proving to be one of the most successful venues for professional opportunities in the 21st century, especially for young college graduates. The organization is working to increase the number of African-American suppliers to the industry and to increase the number of professional opportunities at the executive level. It is partnering with media outlets throughout the country in disseminating industry information and with historically Black colleges and universities in encouraging students to consider the opportunities available.

NABHOOD, adds Ingraham, is also creating strategic partnerships with the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which, he says, has learned to leverage its economic clout, and with the Native American Gaming Association. ?Just as African-Americans can invest in a duplex, they can invest in a hotel. One thing we learned from the Asian American community is how to [marshal] economic clout. By owning a large chunk of a limited hotel market, they now employ more than a million people as a group.? Typically, if we were to emulate that group?s frame of mind, we will find it can change the way the hotel industry acts with us as a whole.?

Tourism and travel bureaus also are growth areas for African-Americans, says Neal Shoemaker, owner of Harlem Heritage Tours, which conducts tours of New York?s Black cultural mecca. ?Heritage tourism is hot,? he says, noting that tourists spent some $35 million in New York last year alone and that many of those visitors wanted to see local culture. ?Harlem and communities like it have a great opportunity to capitalize on their heritage,? he says.

Opportunities aside, the hospitality industry is still recovering from the double whammy of a sluggish U.S. economy and a terrorism-wary environment that has curtailed business and tourism travel. Warren of Noelle-Elaine Media says many of her clients no longer have access to as many sponsorship opportunities because of corporate downsizing. Her company is often faced with the ingenious task of organizing an elaborate affair with limited resources. That?s tantamount to satisfying ?champagne tastes? with beer money. ?The challenge is to become creative and produce what your client wants on a limited budget,? she says.

Racial bias is an obstacle that just won?t go away. Cook of Event Planners Plus says she occasionally encounters an interviewer who is initially impressed with her proposal, but reconsiders after they see her ethnicity. To avoid this, Cook added a photo gallery to her Web site. This way, ?I don?t have to waste a solicitor?s time. They know right up front who I am and what my capabilities are for handling their meeting and program,? she says.

For Noelle-Elaine Media, the biggest hurdle is the misperception about the big boys. ?A lot of times, people will see larger public relations companies and expect them to produce higher quality work. However, in many cases, that is not so. I believe we give more personalized attention. We are a company that prides [itself on] giving high-quality service,? says Warren.

Ingraham, meanwhile, is faced with the challenge of generating interest in the African-American community in hotel management and operation. To that end, he is trying to gain more access to capital. ?We are looking to develop an investment fund?that would make some capital available to parties that are interested,? he says.

The outlook for the hospitality industry is certainly promising, industry experts agree. They contend that African-Americans have made impressive strides professionally and entrepreneurially, but much more needs to be done to create viable opportunities and to enhance access for others to the industry?s various sectors.