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From the January 24, 2003 print edition

Elevating minorities into hotel management progresses

Alexis Muellner  

Back in 1990 when Miami's Cuban expatriate community criticized apartheid activist Nelson Mandela for his support of Fidel Castro, black community leaders made the community pay with a devastating boycott.

By some estimates, as much as $50 million was lost in convention and tourism business. That's a drop in the $7.5 billion payload Black Meetings & Tourism magazine says is paid annually by black hotel guests.

But the 1,000-day tourism blockade became a watershed event for Miami. It forced the local hospitality industry to face ingrained issues of racism in the hierarchy of its labor force. It also fostered commitments to change.

And the talk wasn't cheap. Miami Beach pledged $10 million for a black-owned hotel and local hoteliers committed to a program to lift minorities – long the backbone of line-level jobs in the hotel industry – into management and ownership.

Now, more than a decade since the boycott, a scorecard on the progress of the advancement of minorities in hospitality industry management shows tangible evidence of change. There's also still a lot of work to do, observers say.

In Miami-Dade County, the boycott was the catalyst for the creation of the Visitor Industry Human Resource Development Council (VIC for short), which in 11 years has given away 142 scholarships and placed 72 percent of those students in industry jobs. More than half of those are on a management track, program organizers said.

To the north, the pipelines for minority hospitality managers are less developed. In Palm Beach County, through learning centers such as Lynn University and Florida Atlantic University, the Palm Beach County Hotel & Lodging Association is working to trumpet opportunities for career advancement.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau is working to develop multicultural tourism destinations and be pluralist friendly, but it has no organized program comparable to Miami's VIC. An attempt to build a black-owned convention center hotel failed.

Broward may not have to look farther than Miami for help, said Elizabeth Williams, executive director of VIC.

"There's been strong interest in the VIC from Fort Lauderdale and we are talking to the NAACP about a partnership which would look at the opportunity there," she said.

A workforce of tomorrow

Twice a year, the VIC accepts applications and doles out scholarships to blacks for management training courses at Florida International University, its founding partner. Scholarships cover tuition, books and uniforms. In the past two years, that has widened to include scholarships at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami and Miami-Dade Community College.

Now the scholarships are more sought after than ever.

"It has become more competitive over the years," Williams said.

"I look at our current crop of students and where they work while going to school and all around town, it is heavily populated with our students at the Mandarin Oriental or the Ritz[-Carlton hotels], not all African-Americans, there's many Hispanics, too," said Lee Dickson, associate dean and associate professor for management and marketing at FIU's School of Hospitality Management.

But it takes a while to move through the ranks and up the management ladder, Dickson said.

"We are at the point now where we begin to see these people and they are visible. That was one of the key goals in the early stages – to have a visible representation at a management level."

In its first two years, the VIC had to create a permanent endowment to become self-sustaining. With the help of then Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau Chairman Merrett Stierheim and Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association President and CEO Stuart Blumberg, more than $300,000 was raised. Blumberg tapped his membership hotels to provide additional cash and job experience.

Developer R. Donahue Peebles and The Loews Miami hotel each gave $60,000 (each has given more since). Blumberg kept ratcheting up his involvement with the VIC, signing up the hotels in his membership and marketing the concept of opportunity. He joined its board, serving three years as chairman until this year.

"Now, with the interest the endowment has generated, that fund will be providing scholarships into perpetuity," Blumberg said.

This year, Blumberg helped sign on Burger King as a partner. It will promote the VIC in the locker rooms of its restaurants.

But despite the VIC's list of achievements – including its school-to-work programs for 800 public high school students, student mentoring programs and increased corporate partners – there is a danger is declaring victory too soon, Williams said.

"No doubt the day is coming when one of our graduates will assume a GM position," she said. "That day is coming, but it is not here yet."

Black tourism magnet

At Peebles' $74 million, 422-room Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort on South Beach, 74 percent of the executives are black including the GM, director of sales, director of operations and director of human resources. Peebles has hired several VIC students.

But looking across the region at Broward specifically, Peebles said the process has just begun.

"Minorities, especially African-Americans, are significantly under represented in the hospitality industry in South Florida," said Peebles, chairman of Peebles Atlantic Development Corp.

He struggled with Broward in his failed bid to build a convention center hotel that was also to be black-owned.

"They tried to kill two birds," Peebles said. "Broward is way behind the times and has made the poorest progress in terms of having any type of investment in minorities in the industry."

"It was financial and political," said Christopher Pollock, president of the Fort Lauderdale Lodging & Hospitality Association, of Peebles' hotel concept. "It was not a good time to try and open a hotel. Obviously, we generate bed tax money and don't approve or support building something that's in competition against us."

As it relates specifically to blacks in management roles, maybe there is a shortage in Broward, Pollock said.

"But I don't think there's any concerted effort not to [advance minorities into management positions]," he said.

The 325-member association is working closely with the Academy of Travel and Tourism – which operates schools in high schools throughout the country – in Broward County and is encouraging hospitality as a career.

"A lot of people don't realize that 30 percent of the jobs in the hospitality industry lead to higher-paying management jobs," Pollock said

The association has partnerships with four schools, about half as many as it wants, he said. It gets financial help from the National Academy Foundation and corporate partners such as American Express and member hotels.

Albert Tucker, VP of minority development at the Fort Lauderdale CVB was hired two years ago. He works with cities to help them understand their multicultural tourism assets. In Lauderhill, not known as a tourism draw, he's working with the city to develop a tropical marketplace. It's a grassroots effort to attract developers of color to invest in communities. While not directly focused on lifting the diversity of managers, it does help the cause indirectly, he said.

"If it leads to hotel ownership by developers or owners of color, then it enhances those opportunities," he said.

For Broward multicultural tourism marketer Andy Ingraham, president of Horizons Marketing Group in Fort Lauderdale, it's all about tangible results.

"Broward is such a beautiful place to live and work, but in 2003, we still don't have a strong African-American community and many African-Americans have not felt welcome here," he said. "In other cities, you can see great African-American images both in business and tourism."

Black workers hold between 30 percent and 35 percent of hotel entry-level positions, but there are fewer than 60 black executives in the nation's 30,000 full-service hotels, Ingraham said. In terms of ownership, just 36 of the nation's 80,000 limited and full-service hotels are owned by blacks, along with about 40 smaller inns. Access to capital has been the biggest hindrance, he said.

Fostering a culture

But things are improving nationally, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Color People's annual lodging industry report card. They are at some of the larger hotel chains, where diversity has become a part of the corporate culture.

Marriott International (NYSE: MAR) ranked No. 1 in the NAACP's latest report card. Marriott was rated first on board membership, supplier diversity, franchising, and the hiring, retention and promotion of minorities. Nationally, it has the largest number of blacks and other minorities in senior management positions in the industry.

The majority of GMs chainwide are people promoted from within and that creates an internal engine that feeds the companies' growth, Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott GM Murray Lowe said.

"What we call [diversity] today is different than it was 10 years ago, because now diversity is also inclusive of an aging workforce."

Monthly, Lowe takes a message of opportunity when he runs town hall meetings with his entire team of 400 "associates." There, accolades are handed out in the form of peer-driven awards.

Lowe started 22 years ago as a host in a restaurant in Stamford, Conn.

"We have a very broad and diverse workforce," he said. "So if people are willing to grow and meet the challenges of new opportunities, we'll provide them."

At Four Seasons, there is a lot of focus on minority manager development, said Shelley Komitor, director of human resources at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach.

It is easy to get diverse, hourly wage-earning, line-level staff based on demand for jobs in South Florida. Advancing them into management is the challenge, she said. The hotel does a lot of recruiting at historically black colleges such as Bethune-Cookman.

"We've developed a presence so that they are aware of us," she said.

Four Seasons has also made its managers accountable for its success in diversity and tied financial rewards to that success. Minority recruitment and development are evaluated and scored based on percentages. The levels of minority managers are compared to local census data.

"In our case, the local percentage is 25 percent overall minorities and we have 29 percent minority managers, which is the maximum score," she said.

That means a financial payout for senior managers.

"That's eight people in the building but those are the people that make it happen."

Like others, Four Seasons also tries to promote from within. It is among several hotels and academic institutions in Palm Beach County trying to foster minority manager development, said David Semadeni, president of Amcal Management Corp. His firm helped publish a guide to hospitality education and recruitment in the county. Among other initiatives, it tries to initiate Spanish lessons for supervisors.

"I'm seeing if we can get a seminar done the same way called 'Creole for supervisors' but we need to write the textbook," he said. "We need to equip everyone with the communication skills to allow these people to be directed and to move up the ladder. It doesn't matter how the hell you do [diversity], it all helps."

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a monthly series on diversity. Upcoming: The next story in our series will look at the issue of diversity and vendors. Readers with comments or suggestions may e-mail Associate Editor Peter Zalewski at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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