As the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals meets for its annual conclave in Atlanta this month, its members — several hundred strong — are enjoying a newfound clout for the groups they represent.

Destinations and hotel companies are aggressively courting Hispanic groups, whose spending power has never been higher or more appreciated. A certification program that stresses planner diversity, spearheaded by IAHMP, appears finally to be taking form. And Hispanic organizations have found another way — a political way — to flex their collective muscle in support of hotel workers, promising to alter the balance of power between hotels and hotel workers' unions nationally.

“The Travel Industry Association of America recently valued meetings and travel among minority groups at $92 billion, and I think that's conservative,” says Margaret Gonzalez, president of IAHMP, and president of the GVR Public Relations Agency, both based in Houston.

The number and impact of Hispanic organizations appears to be growing as fast as the Hispanic population in the United States, which for some time has outstripped that of other demographic groups. The U.S. population reached the 300 million mark in October, driven largely, many feel, by the Latino boom. There are now some 45 million Hispanics in the U.S., representing almost 15 percent of the population and nearly $600 billion in buying power.

Estimates have predicted that Hispanics will make up 25 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050.

A Higher Profile

“I would say there is definitely an increased awareness from the hospitality industry of the economic impact and value of Hispanic meetings and events,” says Delia de la Vara, deputy vice president, Strategic Communications Group, and the spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. “Hispanic groups — many nonprofit, social-service type organizations like La Raza, but also more traditional associations — are coming forward and connecting with CVBs and convention centers.

“The missions of both these social-activist and professional associations are similar in trying to make a positive impact on the lives of Hispanics in the U.S.,” de la Vara adds.

In addition to hosting approximately 125 Hispanic meeting planners, IAHMP's Atlanta meeting is slated to host some 80 exhibitors and sponsors, 20 of whom represent Hispanic associations. They include the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute; MANA, a national women's association; the National Association for Bilingual Education; the National Society of Hispanic MBAs; the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities; the National Hispanic Business Association; and the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives.

“This is an increasingly viable market; our company would be losing ground if we didn't deal with it,” says Sal Mendoza, assistant vice president of diversity with Hyatt Hotels, in Chicago, and one of the sponsors of the IAHMP Atlanta meeting.

And while Southwestern destinations are still preferred among Hispanic travelers overall, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, Latino-oriented groups seem to be diversifying their destination choices. For example, in September the National Society of Hispanic MBAs held its annual convention in Cincinnati, the same month that the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce met for its annual convention in Philadelphia. La Raza held its annual convention in Philadelphia in 2005.

“When we booked La Raza, it was the first time they ever came that far north,” notes Tanya Hall, executive director of the Multicultural Affairs Congress, a department of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau that markets the city to minority meetings. “In my nine years with the CVB, there has been a dramatic increase in meetings and overall attendance among Hispanic groups here.”

Unforeseen Influences

The increasing clout of Hispanic meetings is being felt in unforeseen ways. For example, many Hispanic organizations say they feel a sense of duty toward hotel workers. Unite Here, the hotel workers union, estimates that its membership is roughly one-third Hispanic. As Hispanic organizations make their support of hotel workers known, there appears to be a growing equalization in power between hotels and the workers' unions, according to Gonzalez.

“You can't run a hotel without these workers,” says Gonzalez. “Everybody talks about return on investment. Well, it's high time we started valuing everyone who's an important component of the hospitality and meetings industry. We want our meetings to go forward and be successful, but we can't close our eyes to the very people who are important to us.”

An official with the hotel workers' union, Unite Here, who requested anonymity, was blunt about the support of Hispanic groups — among them both IAHMP and La Raza — and their impact on contract negotiations with hotels. “We've settled with Hilton and we're close to settling with Starwood in Chicago,” notes the official, interviewed last month. “These hotel groups observed that our union has what they called a captive audience among Hispanic groups, and that this is worth a lot to both the union and the hotels.”

Hyatt's Mendoza agrees that the growing clout of Hispanic groups is altering the labor-negotiations landscape. “I can tell you we're seeing more and more organizations looking at hotel union activity,” Mendoza says. “It is in those instances where we as a company want to build partnerships, so these organizations will see that Hyatt really is concerned with the best interests of our associates.”

Cultures Within Culture

Destination officials say courting Hispanic groups can be complex, often because the notion of what's Hispanic defies easy generalization. People from Mexico (two-thirds of the U.S. Hispanic population), Puerto Rico (9 percent), and Cuba (4 percent) may speak the same language, but often don't consider themselves as being part of the same cultural group. Moreover, a fair number of U.S.-born Hispanics don't speak Spanish at all.

And general perceptions of the Hispanic population may cause an underestimation of its growing influence. For example, while household incomes tend to be lower for Hispanics compared with households overall (a median of $33,103 versus a national average of $42,409), according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic buying power is growing fast. Disposable personal income for Hispanics was expected to top $863 billion in 2007, some 300 percent higher than it was in 1990, according to a study from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia in Athens. The study predicts that spending power of non-Hispanics during the same period will rise just 125 percent.

As for cultural affinities, dietary options are of critical concern for Hispanic conventions, but it goes beyond just making sure catering can whip up superb arroz con pollo or flan. Latinos are three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to suffer from diabetes, and more likely to be plagued by asthma and hypertension, issues that catering departments need to be particularly sensitive to. (La Raza holds a fundraising foot race at each of its annual conventions to benefit diabetes research.)

Also on the cultural front, Hyatt's Mendoza and many others assert that Hispanic groups are extra-sensitive to the perception of fairness in contract negotiations, and the exhibition of respect toward Hispanic groups, perhaps due to a history of discrimination.

Certifiably Knowledgeable

As for the certification program, the Certified Diversity Meeting Professional program has been discussed for years now; IAHMP first announced it in October 2003. But IAHMP's Gonzalez says this month's annual meeting will be an opportunity to move it forward.

“The demographics of the nation are changing rapidly, and anybody in the meetings industry has to be well-versed in all the different groups, their customs and traditions,” she notes. “A lot of certification programs don't address the issues of diversity.”

Gonzalez did not indicate the topics of knowledge that would be required to obtain a CDMP or provide a timeline for its debut, but she says that the certification would include knowledge of many demographic groups, not just Hispanic culture.

IAHMP is working with the University of Houston to develop a curriculum for the certification program.

Christopher Hosford has been executive editor of Meeting News and editor-in-chief of Sales & Marketing Management. He is based in New York City.