Minority Agents Forge Links

First targeted trade show inspires goals for the future

By: Theresa Norton Masek

DENVER As a travel agent for more than eight years, Charlotte Haymore has attended her share of industry conferences and trade shows.

Yet the African-American owner of Charlotte’s Cruises-N-Tours here never saw many minorities at travel events.

“There were just very few people of color in attendance,” she said. “I always wondered why. I felt like there was a lot of education and training available that was valuable and that a lot of minorities were missing out on it.”

An exact figure for the number of minorities in the travel agency industry is difficult to establish; few industry associations track such statistics. But the Minority Development Center of Colorado estimates 3 percent of all travel agents nationally are minorities.

In an effort to unify and reach out to this segment of the industry, Haymore and Betty Jones, of CB Jones Travel Services in Denver, last month organized The Travel Professionals of Color Conference and Trade Show here, which drew about 35 agents, mostly African-American.

Sessions addressed general travel-seller issues as well as challenges specific to minority agents.

A prevailing concern was how African-American agents can attract more business in the African-American community.

“Much of the African-American community is accustomed to going to another community for their business needs,” Haymore said. “That’s because we weren’t there, because of our history. Now that’s changed, and we need to make sure our customers know we’re here and we’re professional.”

The potential is worth pursuing: minorities are spending lots of money on travel.

“A billion dollars is spent by African-Americans and other minorities on leisure travel,” said Haymore. “It’s out there, and it’s big spending, and it’s no longer just one vacation a year.”

African-Americans have favorite destinations such as the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Africa, to name a few. Cruising in groups is becoming popular, particularly on the mass-market ships.

Expertise in those destinations and the cultures is valuable and should be promoted as a way to gain clients. So is in-depth knowledge of, say, historically black colleges.

“You’re not selling a product that a traveler can’t get anywhere else,” said Pat Spencer, a former travel-agency owner who now specializes in agency relations for ARC. “Why would I go to one agent rather than another? If I know you specialize in heritage tours, I’d go to you for that kind of trip. The value is to know what you’re selling and to have a passion.”

Personal relationships within the minority community can also result in business.

“Those relationships can be very, very powerful,” said conference speaker Milt Branch, the retired business development manager for Carnival Cruise Lines in Colorado. “That’s how you overcome the level of mistrust that sometimes exists among minority customers for minority businesses.”

Jones, for example, an independent consultant affiliated with Polk Travel, built business with her church, organizing all the travel for five conferences a year. Her sales last year exceeded $500,000; of that about 95 percent was from African-American business.

Haymore organizes theme cruises, such as this November’s “Rhythms of Soul” cruise featuring three styles of music appreciated by African-Americans. She hopes to book 200 passengers on the Carnival Conquest cruise, which kicks off with a land stay in New Orleans for the Bayou Classic football tournament in which black colleges and their bands compete.

By organizing such theme cruises for groups, Haymore sold more than $700,000 in 2001; like Jones, about 95 percent of her clientele is African-American. By banding together, minorities can also increase awareness of specific problems they face.For example, Haymore said cruise lines have only recently begun producing brochures that show African-Americans aboard ships.

Formation of an association for minority travel professionals was discussed at the end of the conference, but that seems unlikely anytime soon due to the time commitment required.

But Haymore and Jones do plan to reach out. The first order of business: compiling a minority travel agent directory.

And they are already planning next year’s conference, tentatively set for April 21-25 again at the Doubletree in Denver.