The International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals was just a gleam in the eye of Margaret Gonzalez back in 1996. That's when Gonzalez, along with about 17 other people who were attending a meeting in Miami Beach, came up with the idea of forming the association. Today IAHMP has more than 300 members and a mission not only to increase the number of Hispanics in the hospitality industry, but to demonstrate the growing economic impact of the Hispanic meetings and travel market.

“The future looks bright,” says Gonzalez, noting that the group, which is open to anyone interested in the Hispanic meeting and travel market, has new chapters opening around the country. “A strong Hispanic meeting planner association will benefit the industry.”

Scott Phelps, president of the Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau, is well aware of the economic impact of the group. Hartford rolled out the red carpet in bringing the IAHMP 100-person delegation to the city for IAHMP's October 2003 annual meeting. The CVB picked up travel costs for attendees, and sponsored all entertainment. “These are things we don't normally do,” says Phelps. “But we felt it was worth the investment because minority meetings business is one of the fastest-growing market segments.”

Numbers Don't Lie

The number of minority associations has jumped about 160 percent since 1999, based on the number of listings for these types of groups in Gale's Encyclopedia of Associations. One reason is that more people of color are rising to positions of authority and have the wherewithal to develop these organizations, says Howard Ross, president of Cook Ross Inc., a Silver Spring, Md., diversity consultant.

Another reason is demographics. By 2050, 47 percent of the U.S. population will be minorities, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. The minority population in total will account for nearly 90 percent of the total growth in the U.S. population from 1995 to 2050. Further, minority groups will have a combined buying power of $1.5 trillion by 2008, according to a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. That will represent 14 percent of the nation's total purchasing power in 2008.

Forming to Inform

Demographic shifts aside, minority associations are forming to fill a void not met in more mainstream professional organizations. “When it comes to people of color, everyone's talking about diversity, but not many people are really practicing it,” contends Patricia Tobin, president of the National Black Public Relations Society, which formed in 1998. “We find that these students of color need a mentor, someone to help them along and guide them, and in some cases, they're not getting it.”

Percent Increase in U.S. Population 1995 to 2050
Total: 50%
Minority: 169%
Non-Minority (non-Hispanic White): 7%
Black: 83%
American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut: 95%
Asian & Pacific Islander: 267%
Hispanic: 258%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Projections

NBPRS has several hundred national members, says Tobin, who runs Tobin & Associates, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm. “We're not anti-mainstream,” she adds. “We're just supportive of each other and our efforts.”

Another relatively new association is the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers. Formed in 1999, NABHOOD has been successful in its mission to increase the number of black-owned hotels, says Andy Ingraham, NABHOOD president, who is also president of Horizons Marketing Group International. “We filled a void,” he explains.

In the meetings industry, similar challenges exist for minority meeting planners, Gonzalez says. “For the most part, people who had been members of the older, established organizations never felt like issues pertaining to minorities were being addressed,” she says. Also, there weren't many minorities in the mainstream groups. But that's changing now as the established organizations are working hard to recruit minorities and address multicultural issues.

Meeting Professionals International, for example, recently launched a Multicultural Initiative, which is designed to enhance the success of multicultural meetings, to understand different cultural characteristics, and to address the needs of the multicultural meetings market. The American Society of Association Executives established the Diversity Executive Leadership Program in 1999 to help people from underrepresented segments of the association community to advance in the leadership ranks.

Capturing the Market

Phoenix began heavily courting the minority meetings market in 1995, says Marc Garcia, managing director of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We knew we had to start target marketing to [ethnic associations and groups] because they represent the future consumers of America,” says Garcia.

But the bureau had to overcome the Martin Luther King Day “debacle,” says Garcia, referring to the state legislature's 1997 refusal to make the day a state holiday. “The city was boycotted by many associations and corporations,” he recalls. “It was sad because we knew we were truly a multicultural destination.”

The bureau fought hard to gain ground with minorities. Since 1996, it has hosted more than 120 minority meetings, representing 130,000 room nights and $125 million in economic impact, says Garcia. For fiscal year 2003 to 2004, the bureau has already booked 30,000 room nights for minority meetings such as the National Council of La Raza, and the National Black Police Association.

“What makes our multicultural program so strong, compared to other CVBs, is that it's not just a sales initiative. We're encompassing multiculturalism on every front in our industry,” Garcia says. The city established a multicultural advisory council made up of community leaders and brings in experts from across the country to educate the members about the nuances of different minority groups.

For the Long Run?

Suzette Eaddy, director of conferences for the National Minority Supplier Development Council, reports that her organization, which supplies goods to corporations, just had its most successful annual conference ever, held in Chicago in October. It has grown by 44 new member companies this year alone. “Minority business development is hot right now,” says Eaddy. NMSDC has a total of 370 member companies.

Eaddy says the that the reason CVBs are wooing minority associations has as much to do with economic dips as demographic shifts. “They [CVBs] realized that after the economy went bad, groups like ours kept them going.” She's not referring to just minority associations, but the SMERF (social, military, education, religious, and fraternal) market in general, which stayed strong through the recession while corporations canceled left and right. Eaddy believes that many CVBs will forget the SMERFs and go after the big corporate money once the economy rebounds. “I have no doubt that they will do the same thing because I think they will be driven by the mighty dollar.”

Dan Fenton, CEO of the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau, says his bureau is committed to the minority meetings market for the long run. “For us, it's a big deal. We don't consider it a secondary market. We see the ethnic market as critical, not just because of a change in the economy or growth of associations,” says Fenton. “We think it's a natural match for San Jose in terms of our demographics.”

San Jose has hosted many minority meetings over the last few years, and recently signed the National Association of Hispanic Journalists for a 2007 conference. San Jose takes advantage of its ethnically diverse community to woo minority associations, often using minority community leaders as part of the strategy. The city has a Hispanic mayor, two Hispanic city council members, and several high-profile Latino community leaders.

In San Jose, the demographics are an asset. In other cities, shifting populations will make the minority meetings market that much more essential to revenue generation, says NABOOD's Ingraham. “I call it the browning of America. But it's really the greening of America.”

Diversity Certification on the Horizon

The International Association of Hispanic Meeting Planners unveiled plans at its conference in Hartford in October to develop a new designation, the Certified Diversity Meeting Professional.

The CDMP program would prepare planners to work with diverse groups of people, says Margaret Gonzalez, president of IAHMP. “We're in a global economy, and more and more, Americans need to know who they are dealing with,” she says. An advisory committee made up of industry professionals, people from academia, and diversity experts within the Asian-American, black, Hispanic, and other international markets will help develop the educational materials. Training and implementation will begin in the spring of 2004.

“We're trying to make sure that we're covering all the bases,” Gonzalez says, “but it's a huge task.” The guide will enable planners to learn about the different cultures of the people within their associations or companies. Part of the challenge for Gonzalez is developing an educational program that takes into account all the different groups within an ethnicity, such as Asian or Hispanic.

Gonzalez, who will lead the effort to develop the curriculum, says the certification fills a need. “Some of the other certification programs that are offered don't really deal with working with different publics,” she says.

That is changing, however. In September, the Convention Industry Council, which sponsors the industry standard Certified Meeting Professional program, held its first international CMP exam in Singapore. The questions were more global in scope than past tests, yet country-neutral, says Mary Power, president of CIC. The idea is to equip planners with knowledge of different countries and customs, adds Power. The next international exam is scheduled for Germany in May 2004. By March 2004, all CMP exams going forward will include the international questions.