With a whopping 500,000 visitors and locals hitting the city of New Orleans for the annual Essence Music Festival held July 5 through July 8, this month’s “300 in Black” looks back to 20 years ago and articled we published in 1998.  Originally titled “Black Tourists Pump Millions into the New Orleans Economy…White Businesses Are Getting All the Bucks… What’s Up?”, the article explored the surge in Black tourism to the city, efforts to court the Black dollar and the apparent lack of benefit for Black-owned business. Considering the record-setting Essence Fest weekend that recently took place in New Orleans, now is a good time to revisit this story and measure just how far we have come.

by C.C. Campbell-Rock

New Orleans is a popular destination for many travelers. Area hotels, restaurants, French Quarter businesses, music clubs, and numerous attractions draw millions of tourists who plunk down millions of dollars in their quest for fun. Overall, tourists spend $3.5 billion annually in New Orleans, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Yet of all the tourists coming to New Orleans, the African-American traveler has had the greatest impact on the tourism industry in recent years. The tourist season traditionally ran from September to November and picked up again from February through April; summers constituted a dead zone in the city’s top industry. But a sustained effort to market the city to African-American travelers is finally paying off. It began in 1986 with the founding of the Greater New Orleans Black Tourism Center. The demise of the Center paved the way for the founding of the Greater New Orleans Black Tourism Network in 1990, which was the brainchild of the late Clarence Barney, then-president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

Today, New Orleans’ summer tourism season is booming with thousands of African Americans who come to New Orleans each summer to discuss pressing issues, set agendas, attend family reunions, conduct business, and bask in New Orleans’ African-inspired culture. While here, they spend millions.

But some local Black businesses and industry observers are wondering why African Americans, who comprise the majority of the city’s population, aren’t cashing in on the wealth-generating sector of the New Orleans economy. They question why African Americans aren’t in top management positions and why more than a handful of African American businesses aren’t contracting with major hotels, restaurants, and tourist-related attractions.

Some believe the lack of African Americans in middle and upper management positions in the tourism and hospitality industry is a by-product of institutional racism. Others believe African-American businesses are not pitching their goods and services aggressively enough. Still others think a lack of proper training and education has led to the low numbers of ethnic people employed in leadership positions.

Black Tourist Visits Increasing

New Orleans’ nouveau tourism season heated up last summer with 33 African-American groups bringing more than a quarter million visitors who collectively spent half-billion dollars. At least 10 African-American groups have basked in the splendor of New Orleans so far this summer. They journeyed to the Crescent City for conventions, meeting conclaves, anniversaries, and uninhibited fun. Among the June/July celebrants were the Order of the Eastern Star, 100 Black Men of America, Inc., Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., ESSENCE Music Festival, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., the Full Gospel Baptist  Fellowship Conference, and the Metropolitan Spiritual Churches in Christ.

The ESSENCE Music Festival, New Orleans’ premiere summer venue, returns for the July 4th weekend to celebrate America’s independence African-American style. The 1998 ESSENCE Music Festival topped its own 1997-attendance record of 160,000 visitors. This year’s event drew over 171,000. Over the past four years, festival travelers totaling 450,000 poured $235 million into local coffers.

At press time, the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship Conference was expected to draw 20,000 visitors, followed by three law related organizations- the National Black Prosecutors Associations, National Black Police Association and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Thousands are expected to attend events in August hosted by The National Medical Association, Inc., United Most Worshipful St. John Grand Lodge, New Orleans International Black Theatre/Dance Festival, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., American Black Chiropractic Association, the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles/Mystic Shrine, and the National Multicultural Tourism Conference.

Total attendance for the 1998 Summer Conventions/Events hosted by African Americans is estimated at nearly 250,000 with a projected aggregated economic impact of more than $312 million, according to the Greater New Orleans Black Tourism Network.

Competition for the Ethnic Traveler Dollar Intensifying Nationwide

African Americans comprise a significant segment of the $473 billion U.S. travel and tourism industry. A 1994 survey by Travel Industry Association of America found 64 percent of African-American households reported taking a trip, resulting in about 79 million person-trips. According to the National Tour Association in Kentucky, African Americans spend $30-$35 billion annually in travel and tourism dollars. Those figures have grown proportionally with the increase in African-American buying power, up from $304 billion in 1990 to $469 billion in 1997.

A report by the Travel Industry Association of America examined minority travelers and found that minority groups represent a major marketing opportunity for the industry. “Today, ethnic groups represent 26 percent of the U.S. population. By 2050, they will represent 47 percent,” explains TIA President & CEO William S. Norman in an article on the organization’s web site. The TIA survey indicated that African Americans had the highest level of participation of all groups in shopping while traveling and that they were more likely to participation in cultural events and festivals, nightlife and dancing and gambling than travelers over all.

TIA’s survey is good for New Orleans, a city steeped in African American culture, festivals, nightlife, and gaming. But other destinations are competing for the Black traveler dollar as well, including Los Angeles, which is promoting a Black tourist guide on the Internet, and Philadelphia, Portland, and New Jersey which have launched multicultural tourism campaigns.

“The tourism industry hasn’t always had a huge amount of understanding of separate niche markets. The industry is taking a closer look now,” says Robin Wright, a spokeswoman at VisitFlorida, in a Tampa Bay Business Journal article published earlier this year.

“VisitFlorida recently formed a Multi-Cultural Tourism Subcommittee and budgeted $500,000 this fiscal year for multicultural cooperative media campaigns. They include ad buys in such Black-oriented newspapers as the Michigan Silver Star, Baltimore Times and Michigan Chronicles, as well as popular Black-audience magazines such as Ebony and Elegance.”

An article in The Star-Ledger proclaimed “New Jersey Wants Those Ethnic Tourist Dollars.” Writer Iris Taylor said Gil Medina, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Commerce and Economic Development, “hopes to duplicate the success of other areas-notably Philadelphia, New Orleans and Portland.” “His goal is to swell the state’s coffers with more tourist dollars.” New Jersey has invested about $500,000 to lure Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

Philadelphia is credited with being among the first to back into the Black tourism market. The city set up the Multicultural Affairs Congress in 1988, a division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. In Oregon, a Portland businessman started a private tourism company, the Oregon Convention and Visitors Services Network and later won a state contract to develop that city’s minority tourism market.

The State of Louisiana Pursuing Multicultural Travelers

State officials recognized the value of the multicultural tourism market several years ago. The Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, published and distributed, ”Our Culture Abounds: A pictorial Directory of Louisiana’s African American Attractions,” in 1995 under former Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann’s leadership. Since taking office, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has been totally committed to multicultural tourism marketing. She authorized the publication of “The Fabric of Our Culture,” in 1996 and dedicated funding for marketing campaigns.

The state of Louisiana now spends $500,000 annually to bring ethnically diverse tourists to the state. GMc & Company Advertising has been instrumental in the development of the state’s multicultural tourism market over the past five years. “Last year, our return on investment was $114 for every dollar spent. That’s 39 percent higher than the general market. Our conversion rate was 41 percent (the actual number of visitors who were converted by the campaigns). That’s the 21 percent higher than the average rate,” says Glenda McKinley English, founder and CEO of GMc & Company. “The return on investment and the conversion rate tell us that this market makes sense. As Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco says, “It’s not politically correct. It’s economically correct,” English adds. “We definitely put the state on the map as a multicultural destination.”

GMc & Company designs print and television advertisements for placement in national media. The firm’s work has appeared in Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise and American Visions magazines, as well as on the Black Entertainment Television network.

New Orleans Pivotal in

Growth of Multicultural Tourism

New Orleans, however, is a major player in the multicultural tourism market. Incorporated in July 1990, the Greater New Orleans Black Tourism Network (GNOBTN) initiated the first National Multicultural Tourism conference in 1991. Now in its seventh year, the conference is recognized as the only national event held annually that brings together a diverse mix of delegates from throughout the United States.

This year’s conference, slated for August 10-22, 1998 at the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans, offers the broadest agenda to date. The theme, “Emerging Markets: preparing for the New World order,” indicates a focus toward new millennium and that the conference will begin rotating to other cities beginning in 1999. A total of 12 sessions, a special round table of state tourism officials, and a Tour & Travel Expo are on the agenda. Industry representatives from California, Phoenix, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida will participate. The keynote speaker is broadcaster Tavis Smiley, host of BET Tonight.

The GNOBTN has worked in conjunction with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitor Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation to increase the number of African-American travelers to New Orleans. In addition to producing the first comprehensive African American Visitors Guide to New Orleans (SOUL of New Orleans), the GNOBTN saw Black tourism spending increase from $120 million in 1993 to half-billion dollars in 1996.

The organization also plugs local African-American businesses directly into tourism-related opportunities. The GNOBTN sends out monthly sales leads to its business members. A significant accomplishment was the group’s effort to link businesses to the Super Bowl Business Development Program. Of the 75 businesses that provided goods and services for Super Bowl XXXI, 27 were GNOBTN members.

“We’re having a record summer with tourism in general,” says Phala Mire, executive director of GNOBTN,” but we’ve got some heavy-hitting, African-American groups coming, too.” Mire says alliances formed with other organizations over the last four years are paying big dividends. The GNOBTN uses its annual $356,000 budget to lure Black travelers, organizations and family reunions to the city.

“My impression is the number of Black tourists grew from 12 percent up to 22 percent in 1966. Then it went back down to the 17 percent range last year,” says Gary Esolen, director of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. “Given that the national average is eight percent, we’re doing quite well.”

The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation receives funding from the hotel/motel tax to market the city of New Orleans to leisure traveler. The agency uses multimedia advertising-television, radio, newspaper and magazines ads to reach visitors, including African Americans.

Is The Industry Racist?

Most major hotels, restaurants, music clubs (House of Blues is the exception) and other tourism-related businesses rarely, if at all, pitch their products to the local African American community. They don’t advertise in the African American press and employment picture is not good, either.

“To my knowledge there is no African American director of sales and no African American general manager at a convention property (hotels and facilities that offer convention property(hotels and facilities that offer convention space),” says Phala Mire. There is, however, one assistant general manager in town, Daniel Morning of the Holiday Inn French Quarter.

Mire and Esolen both agree that the first ESSENCE Music Festival (was not well-received).

Before ESSENCE, the most visible event that involved Black tourism was the Bayou Classic. Held every November during Thanksgiving weekend, the gridiron battle between Southern University and Grambling State University in the Superdome draws visitors from across the state.

Initially, ESSENCE Festival producers were dissed by the industry. They asked for 10,000 to 12,000 reserved rooms for the inaugural event in 1995. “ At one point  Quint Davis and Anna Zimmerman (festival producers) said, ‘We can’t get the hotels to talk to us’ They went in asking for the rooms they needed and they (hotel officials) laughed at them,” confirms Esolen. Acting as a liaison between the two sides, Esolen facilitated a meeting that resulted in a commitment for 6,000 rooms.

Defending the industry, Esolen comments, “Hotels are used to looking at track records. ESSENCE had none.” There were also complaints, as there has been with Bayou Classic, about higher-than-average room rates.

“They were using standard yield strategies. All the different hotels, everybody wanted to be the guy who stayed out. The guy who didn’t get in the block got to rent rooms at the highest rate at the last minute. ESSENCE had to fight them like crazy. All of a sudden they saw the Black tourist market and, in a flash, they understood the power of the dollar. Now, they are more aware year-round. They see people with different eyes, as a result.

“What ESSENCE did was give us a Black tourist not from the region. If we had a little more national marketing money or maybe direct help from the state, we could bring in more ourselves,” Esolen adds. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation is doing a study this year on the economic impact of the Black traveler.

“ESSENCE showed the national industry the economic clout of African Americans. They saw upscale visitors spending upscale dollars,” says Mire.”We still have a long way to go but there has been an increase in the number of African-American sales managers and the industry is looking at educational incentives and reaching out to youth to prepare them for hospitality.

African-American Vendors Missing Mega-Bucks

Industry professionals agree that the local African-American business community is not benefiting the millions of dollars generated by the tourist trade. “There is no stated policy” for affirmative action, says Langkopp of his organization’s membership. “Each hotel has its own policy of who it purchases from. Major hotels may have policies but we (industry) don’t have an overall policy. It’s a market-driven situation.”

Langkopp says tourist-related business need scores of goods and services: linens, soaps, pens, paper, food items, services, china, silverware, uniforms, printing, all the crafts, furniture, fixtures, office/computer equipment, legal, accounting, typing services-everything you see in hotels and restaurants.

While confirming that small businesses sometimes face problems competing with larger, nationality-based firms that provide products, Langkopp advised African American vendors to aggressively pursue contracts. “We would say to African-American businesses to make a pitch. Prove you’ve got the best price and products, especially now. It’s a wide-open market. Business is good. The economy is god.”

“It’s incumbent on us to show our strength. We know our people and our market. We know we should be educating people as to our own economic clout. That’s why people should join the Greater New Orleans Black Tourism Network. It behooves you as a business owner to become a member. It will make us stronger,” says Mire.

“We should put together coalitions of people to provide services,” says Jones remembering the coalition of African-American businesses that provided services to the National Urban League during its annual convention in 1996. “We have to combine resources.”

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