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

higher rates for hotel rooms, convention space, and other hospitality services than smaller cities like Charlotte, North Carolina and Memphis, experts say. Those locales typically offer more affordable rates because of the lower cost of living overall.

Riscoe says groups often are able to get better rates and more concessions by negotiating or signing contracts to book conventions over several years, or agreeing to have their event in the same city over a certain time period. Other black convention experts are mixed about whether this strategy can be used to land the best deal.

Ophelia Long, chairperson of the Black Congress on Health, Law and Economics (BCHLE), an organization that represents 12 black trade groups in those fields, says the groups meet collectively every four years and typically attract approximately 50,000 visitors to the host city. According to her, the BCHLE has been able to get perks from cities and negotiate better hotel rates as an organization because it pools the resources of the groups it represents.

Another strategy for landing a good deal for your group is securing bids from various cities. Before selecting a site, Clarence Smith, president of Essence Communications Partners, which sponsors the Essence Music Festival (EMF), suggests that leadership of black groups, particularly larger organizations, ask cities and convention-related businesses, what incentives are being offered.

Essence gets RFPs from four to five cities before beginning the bidding process, asking such things as how many hotel rooms are available; what’s the city’s fee for convention space; the number of nearby restaurants, stores, and cab stands; and how many spaces are available for black vendors.

The EMF has even more bargaining power since the annual event last year in New Orleans attracted about 182,000 visitors and pumped about $100 million into the city. Now other cities, including Houston and Atlanta, are expressing interest in the event.

“All African American organizations should realize that most major cities are competing for [their] business because they need the revenue,” Smith says. “That gives you more negotiating leverage.”

Another tip is to do your research so you can be specific about your needs. For example, if you don’t determine the difference between a hotel’s net and commissionable rate for rooms, then you don’t know what percentage of the rate is negotiable, explains John C. Graves, president of B.E. Unlimited, which hosts and sponsors BLACK ENTERPRISE’s annual conferences. Adds Graves, “You need to specifically state what your group wants and understand the host’s needs as well. Then you can clearly communicate to get the best deal.”

Hiring a professional or at least using an experienced member of your organization to help with the negotiations is key. Just make sure a few of your active members sit in on the process, advises Riscoe.

Most importantly, don’t forget to use your financial clout to benefit local black residents and business owners. Before booking a site, the NAACP asks how many African Americans are employed by the local hotel or convention center, how much money the hotel or

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