DEI Takes Center StageJuly 5, 2021

Discussing the Importance of Different Perspectives By
July 5, 2021

DEI Takes Center Stage

Discussing the Importance of Different Perspectives
The Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, inset. Above, Cleo Battle, right, recently replaced Karen Williams, center, as president & CEO of Louisville Tourism. Battle says the organization created a Black Tourism Advisory Council to discuss diversity issues.

The Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, inset. Above, Cleo Battle, right, recently replaced Karen Williams, center, as president & CEO of Louisville Tourism. Battle says the organization created a Black Tourism Advisory Council to discuss diversity issues.

When it comes to integrating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and community, 2020 proved to be a year of reckoning. The impact of COVID-19 on the African American community and the death of George Floyd, together with increased attacks against members of the Asian American community, have sparked conversations nationally of why DEI matters and best strategies for fostering positive change where all feel valued, visible and respected.

DEI Defined

Diversity advocate and activist, Verna Myers, popularized this distinction between diversity and inclusion as: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Industry insiders have since expanded that analogy, with some variations, to include “Equity and/or belonging is when everyone contributes to the playlist.” In essence, as Gwen Migita, vice president of social impact, sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion with Caesar’s Entertainment Inc. explains, “DEI is how we level the playing field. Everyone has diverse traits; inclusion is how you manage that.” In fact, says Julie Coker, president & CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA), “We celebrate differences that we all have.”

Yet, DEI conversations are ever-evolving as previously unspoken experiences come to light. For example, in today’s environment, Migita says,“There are deeper conversations around mental health and disabilities and the use of pronouns in transgender communities, also in policing and sex trafficking and how to reverse systemic barriers to equality.”

Deedra Mills-Hall, program coordinator for Tourism Diversity Matters, defines DEI in her organization as: “Diversity represents all the ways we differ; equity is the institution of justice, equality, impartiality and fairness through the implementation of processes, and the distribution of resources throughout the organization; and inclusion is the outcome of ensuring diverse individuals within the organization actually feel and are welcomed. Encouraging organizations within our industry to diversify their governance, leadership, teams and suppliers is key.”

Why does DEI matter ultimately? “Implementing effective diversity, equity and inclusion best practices provides an incubator that fosters unique perspectives, experiences, increase profitability, creativity, stronger governance, better problem-solving abilities and innovation that can drive the business forward,” Mills-Hall says. “There is substantial research that shows that organizations that invest in DEI outperform organizations that do not.”

Cleo Battle, CTA, who started as president & CEO of Louisville Tourism on July 1, agrees. “It’s also just good business. We believe all tourists are interested in what makes a city unique. Louisville would not be the creative, innovative, passionate city that it is without our black community. For all that inspires tourism in our city — from bourbon to horse racing, to food traditions and even ‘The Greatest’ himself, Muhammad Ali — countless people of color have contributed their gifts to build our vibrant culture. We stand with our community in advocating for racial equality and respect for all.” Battle continues, saying diversity in Louisville Tourism means, “Committing to advancing racial equality and inclusion, by taking thorough and direct action … intentionally hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including people of color, women and people who identify as LGBTQ, along with making sure Louisville Tourism regularly works with a more inclusive variety of vendors. [It also means] increasing diversity representation in marketing collateral and offering employee education covering unconscious bias and ways employees can help create a more inclusive workplace.”

Beyond diversity definitions, Roger Dow, president & CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, notes the link between DEI and tourism: “Our industry, we all know this, stands for hospitality, which means embracing people from every walk of life; from every background. We’re really in a position to be the stewards for our communities,” Dow says. “That’s been something we’ve built our whole travel industry on for decades. We have a real opportunity for ourselves and others to walk the talk when it comes to compassion.”

DEI Tourism Initiatives

Tourism Diversity Matters provides organizational assessments, workshops, training, and programs that allow organizations within the travel and tourism industry to identify their progress with moving DEI forward, and how they can improve from a business case by implementing DEI best practices to foster a more inclusive environment within their organizations. “Diversity, equity and inclusion is what we do,” Mills-Hall says. “And we provide other organizations within our industry with tools and resources that they can utilize and implement to shift the culture within their organizations.”

While the world has been on collective pause due to the pandemic, the pause has also provided an opportunity for Louisville Tourism to “step back, evaluate and continue to push forward to improve the future of the destination and our organization,” Battle says. This is in addition to “providing free, ongoing DEI training sessions to the entire hospitality industry in Louisville,” Battle describes how Louisville Tourism created a Black Tourism Advisory Council (BTAC) to address racial and minority inequities within the industry in 2020. “Members of the BTAC were invited to join ongoing conversations about intentional inclusivity in the hospitality industry. Representatives from all major local hospitality industry sectors were included to address systemic racism to improve Louisville’s hospitality organizations and overall destination experience for visitors and residents,” Battle says. “After establishing the BTAC, one of the first initiatives was getting the committee’s advice on a new product launch of Louisville’s African American heritage, now known as the Unfiltered Truth Collection. This new collection is a group of seven Louisville attractions that showcase experiences celebrating the impact of African American contributions to Louisville’s history, heritage and culture through stories many have never heard before at some of Louisville’s iconic attractions, including the Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, among others.” Battle thinks that “Not only is this a good introduction to Louisville’s top attractions, but it presents a fuller picture of the city’s history and accomplishments that have been less talked about. It’s been impactful to see we have the diversity, now we just need to tell these unique stories.”

At Caesars Entertainment, the company has also set goals, and the company’s DEI strategy is based on five pillars: Workforce & Workplace; Supplier & Contracting Diversity; Community Reinvestment; Marketing, Branding & Sales; and Policy Advocacy & Thought Leadership. “Caesars recently set new, aggressive targets to increase representation of women and people of color in leadership toward gender, and racial parity, by 2025,” Migita says. That means “50% of management roles will be held by women within both the mid-level and senior leadership populations, and 50% of mid-level leadership roles will be held by people of color (POC). We also commit to increase the representation of POC in senior leadership by 50%.”

Coker says the pandemic pause also gave her organization a chance to look inward. After losing 30% of their staffing, “We learned there were gaps we were missing” in our staff communication and DEI strategy. Moving forward, she says, “Now, we will rebuild and be more intentional” in implementation, including expanding board and supplier diversity. SDTA has initiated a Tourism Business Accelerator Program by which minority businesses are paired with tourism partners as mentors to accelerate their business opportunities and growth. For example, a law firm might provide free legal advice, and minority businesses also receive a one-year membership in SDTA, and advertising opportunities to increase their visibility in the community. As part of their workforce strategy, and what Coker describes as “wrap-around services,” SDTA also has a goal to provide scholarships to colleges with hospitality programs with the intention of attracting and recruiting minority graduates for employment.

One of the most important components of efforts to increase DEI awareness is for leaders, staff and other stakeholders to undergo training. Also, organizations should do an assessment to find blind spots.

One of the most important components of efforts to increase DEI awareness is for leaders, staff and other stakeholders to undergo training. Also, organizations should do an assessment to find blind spots.

DEI Challenges and Best Practices

Despite high hopes and best intentions, the road ahead presents its share of challenges, Mills-Hall says. “A challenge we foresee as an organization as we expand our DEI efforts is our ability to build sustainable resources that will help to support, sustain and maintain our momentum in prioritizing DEI in our industry.”

Migita mentions the “competition for talent” or discovering that “the pool of individuals in certain geographic markets is not there,” which may necessitate the “need to go where available talent is.” Battle also cites the need for “quantifiable metrics, which are oftentimes missing.” So, “a challenge is to develop quality DEI programs with long-term measures and goals,” he says.

For Coker, the greatest challenge to the future of DEI is that “We don’t seize this moment,” she says. “We are at a pivotal moment, and it would be a tragedy” if it slips by and the industry misses out on the chance to keep moving forward in building better outcomes in diversity, equity and inclusion.

When asked how to do just that, Mills-Hall offers: “As a start, organizations should begin by conducting an expert [DEI] organizational assessment of your organization’s culture to get a sense of the DEI blind spots that exist, develop a strategic DEI plan around addressing those DEI gaps discovered, and implement DEI best practices to ensure everyone is held accountable for fostering a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture within the organization. To continuously raise awareness, organizations should educate and inform their teams, leaders, board of directors and stakeholders about the importance of DEI, and how it can drive the organization’s efforts forward from a business case.” She adds: “DEI is important to all facets of our industry, and the only way to move forward is to take the necessary steps to drive change. It is important to understand the organization’s blind spots, so that too much emphasis and focus is not spent on improving inclusive efforts that are already working, but rather shift the focus to tackle the DEI blind spots and gaps that exist.”

In addition to conducting DEI assessments, Battle suggests: “It’s a good idea for organizations to provide, and participate in, DEI training for leadership and staff, and if applicable, create a diversity advisory council from your community to give specific recommendations and feedback. Revisit and re-evaluate the organization’s mission statement to address equality in the workplace, and incorporate DEI into strategic marketing plans. Create internship programs to help facilitate more minorities engaging with industry contacts on the ground floor with your organization.” Within communities, Battle encourages a grassroots effort “by volunteering for boards and committees to learn more and have your voice heard. You can’t necessarily change everything overnight, but what all of us can do is start small by engaging your family, friends and social networks with honest conversations about DEI.”

Coker outlines several recommendations for seizing this moment in the tourism industry. “One, you should be intentional. Two, make sure you are having real conversations and create a safe space to ask questions, and make mistakes. Conversation is an education; learn someone’s story. Three, it’s important to have metrics, and benchmarks to assess where you are now, and to set goals, guidelines, and dates. This allows the team to celebrate successes along the way. Four, offer training in diversity, equity and inclusion, not just under HR. This is easier discussed with a facilitator because it’s a sensitive and delicate conversation, and some may feel uncomfortable having those conversations. Five, you have to commit dollars to DEI. Training and scholarships have to be funded. Six, it starts with having a diverse board.”

All say it’s important for women and people of color to see someone like them in leadership positions, “Yet, when I look around,” Battle says, “there are very few women and people of color in the C-suites or leading DMOs across the country. As an industry, we must be more intentional about the representation of our DMOs nationally, this includes staff, boards and vendors.” Having greater representation of women and people of color in leadership positions is “extremely important for two reasons,” Coker says. “People need to see what’s possible. It opens a door in their minds. And also, having added perspectives can be a game-changer in breaking down barriers and making different connections, which gives you a better business outcome.”

Mills-Hall agrees: “As a black woman in my organization, my role at Tourism Diversity Matters is very vital, as I serve as an advocate and ambassador who is paving the way for future leaders of color and building a pipeline of talented emerging leaders that can change the dynamics of the industry.”

Migita advises: “Be patient. It can take six years just to get the foundation for culture change. Don’t try to do too much at once. Be really clear on what’s your North Star, for example, racial and gender equity, and how you get there, how you measure results. Meet people where they are. Build as part of a broader strategy, not just a DEI strategy. Look for outcomes attached in CFO/COO language.”

Ultimately, Coker says, “Everyone has a role. It takes action, money and muscle to get it done, and to measure results. Keep these conversations going. It doesn’t happen overnight.”    | AC&F |

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