Back Off, NAACP

I'm not an African-American, or for that matter part of any discernible minority group. Therefore, no matter what I say here will be dismissed by some readers. Yet it needs to be said: the NAACP needs to back off on both its overt and subtle attacks on the U.S. lodging industry.

After reporting and writing on the hotel business for more than 31 years, I can say with authority that the industry is no more racist or discriminatory than any other segment of the nation's economy. In fact, despite what the NACCP reports in its annual report card on diversity in the hotel business, a solid case can be made that the lodging industry is far more open to minorities as owners, managers, suppliers and guests than just about any other type of business.

It's true, of course, that like every other sector of the economy, the hotel business is comprised of individuals, not all of whom fit that characterization. And, from reports we hear, even hotel companies with a dedication to diversity sometimes blatantly or incidentally display discrimination to minority guests, employees, suppliers and owners. It's a societal problem that's larger than one industry.

Last month, the NAACP released its annual survey of 13 major hotel companies rating their diversity efforts in hiring, promotion, procurement, philanthropy and marketing. According to the civil rights group, the lodging industry earned an overall grade of C, the same that it scored in last year's study and actually slightly lower than its grade (C+) in the first review done in 1996.

Perhaps coincidentally, just 10 days after the NAACP issued its report card, the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers met in Miami Beach for its 9th annual conference. This year's meeting was its largest ever, so crowded in fact that the group will probably move to a larger venue next year. The gathering was all about business, particularly the development of hotels by the growing cadre of African-American lodging entrepreneurs. (Features Editor Carlo Wolff will have a full report on the conference in the next issue of Lodging Hospitality.)

One major change at NABHOOD over the years has been the increasing interest among the major hotel brands in adding developers from this segment. It's very reminiscent of the early 1990s, when the chains finally recognized the clout of the Asian-American hotel community.

The top franchising executives from nearly every major chain — Hilton, Starwood, InterContinental, Choice, Cendant, La Quinta, Accor, Carlson, Americas Best Value and Best Western — attended the event, all trawling for new licensees. These chains match their presence with action in the form of significant incentive packages for minority owners and developers who join their chains.

While it's hard to pinpoint the number of African-American-owned hotels, statistical evidence points to the overall increase in businesses owned by all minorities. A recent Census Bureau report reveals that minority groups and women are increasing their business ownership at a sharply higher rate than the national average. While the number of U.S. businesses increased by 10 percent since 1997, the number of black-owned businesses is up by 45 percent during the same period. A high percentage of these new African-American businesses are in the service and retail sectors, such as lodging.

By no means am I suggesting that minorities, even well-heeled minority entrepreneurs, have it easy in the world of business. And while many strides have been made in the hotel business, additional progress is needed. It's not that hotel companies are completely altruistic; they see minorities as a large and growing group of potential new owners and licensees. In our society, economics usually trumps any other factor and emotion, including racism.

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