Leveraging Our Conference Dollars

African Americans are the convention industry's biggest customers–to the tune of $5.6 billion. it's time we flexed our collective muscle and cashed in on some benefits

Plus, vendors have been more open to negotiate since Sept. 11.

African American conventions can range in size from 25 — 30 attendees to 25,000-35,000 participants or more. The average attendance at black conventions is about 300. The average delegate, including those at black conventions, spent about $814 per event in 2000, up from $785 in 1999, according to the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. In addition, the $80-billion-a-year hospitality industry gets a hefty $6 billion to $8 billion from African American conventions, one of its fastest growing segments.

“The minority market is a large and fast-growing market,” says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman at the TIA. According to the TIA survey, minority travelers accounted for 20%–or $90 billion worth–of total domestic travel in 1999, paying for such things as shopping and travel to destinations. And of all minority groups, African Americans were more likely than any other group to travel on group tours to attend business or group conventions, cultural events, and festivals. “That’s why many major cities, like St. Louis and Washington, D.C., are taking great pains to target the market and promote what they have to offer,” adds Keefe.

As evidence mounts to prove the importance of the black consumer in the travel industry, it’s more imperative than ever that black groups stake a claim on their share of the benefits, according to the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. But the organizers of these various conventions often consist of board members, executives, or staff who don’t have the know-how or experience to negotiate for the best deals.

For instance, when it comes to booking hotels for conventions, many black groups are unaware that everything from hotel rates–including commissionable room rates that provides rebates–as well as surcharges for long-distance phone calls and meeting space fees are negotiable, experts say. That means black groups end up shelling out millions of dollars in convention expenses that could be saved or used to train staff to bargain for the best deals.

Concessions for larger groups might include the waiving of convention center fees, depending on the city where the event is held. These fees can range from $100,000 to $1 million, according to Romona Riscoe, president of Riscoe & Associates Inc. in Philadelphia, a company that helps groups like the National Baptist Convention book convention sites. Other concessions might include discounts on hotel suites, complimentary or discounted meeting space, and VIP gifts like fruit baskets, flowers, and free round-trip airport transport services.

Black groups have much to gain if they ask and shop around, either in cash or “in-kind” sponsorships, notes Clyde C. Allen, chairman of the National Alliance of Market Developers (NAMD) and president of Allen and Partners Inc., a Plainfield, New Jersey-based marketing services firm. He’s seen cases of local car rental agencies offering free cars for an event; airlines featuring discounted coach rates or first-class seats for speakers; local or national media outlets providing free promotional and advertising packages; and convention site venues granting

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