Celebrating Black History Month With San Diego Tourism’s Julie Coker, AIA’s Emile Davis and Visit Baltimore’s Al Hutchison

February 28, 2024

Taking place each February, Black History Month is an ideal time to honor and celebrate the achievements of Black trade show and event industry professionals and renew our commitment to continue fostering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

We want to recognize and highlight Black industry leaders and share their experiences. This week, we are featuring Julie Coker, president and CEO of San Diego Tourism, Emile Davis, managing director, business development for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Al Hutchison, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. Find out how their organizations are supporting the Black community, what challenges Black event professionals are currently facing and how all of us can champion racial equality and DEI in the events industry. 

Julie Coker, President & CEO, San Diego Tourism

What are you most proud of in terms of the ways your organization has been supporting the Black community?  

I am pleased with our collaborative efforts and support of the San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce, which is a resource in the community for Black businesses. During COVID, we launched the first ever Tourism Accelerator program, which is targeted at San Diego businesses that are operated by women, LGBTQ+, veterans, people of color and people with disabilities. Now in its third year, past Tourism Accelerator participants reported an increase in business opportunities, with 65% experiencing an increase in revenue and 45% creating new jobs, and in some cases, expanding their footprint. This year’s cohort includes “six” Black-owned businesses.

What tips would you share with fellow event professionals and the industry at large to champion DEI? 

DE&I work is a journey and not a sprint that requires commitment and intentionality. With that said, my tips would include: 

1. Always be intentional

2. What gets measured gets done – all DE&I work should have an ROI and the results should be measurable and sustainable

3. DE&I work is not just work for people of color, the work should be inclusive and have a variety of stakeholders at the table to ensure buy-in

4. Passion without funding is just that, a passion – DE&I efforts must be resourced both with staff and funding for programs. The funding should be dedicated funding and not an afterthought in the budget

5. Effectively communicate the DE&I strategy and, more importantly, the results. Don’t assume DE&I work is fully supported by everyone; sharing results that tie back to growth and ROI can’t be argued

6. Lastly, stay committed. Although we have made great strides over the years, there is still work to be done. Hopefully one day we get to a point where the work is no longer newsworthy because it is mainstream and a part of our everyday conversation. 

Emile Davis, Managing Director, Business Development, American Institute of Architects (AIA)

What is the most significant challenge facing Black event professionals today? 

Black event professionals have played a crucial role in shaping and advancing the events industry. To propel this growth further, seeing more qualified Black professionals in executive roles and on boards is imperative. Their diverse backgrounds and wealth of knowledge will greatly benefit the industry’s leadership. As industry leaders, it’s also our responsibility to coach, mentor, recruit and attract the next generation of diverse professionals. Having started in this industry as an intern more than 25 years ago, I’ve made it my mission to coach and inspire the next generation about the significance and impact of our industry on the global economy.

What advice would you give to individuals who want to be allies in the fight for racial equality and justice?

Being an ally is an ongoing commitment that requires humility, self-awareness and active engagement. To start, educate yourself. Find time to learn about the experiences of marginalized communities and historical injustices. Second, practice active listening and empathy when conversing about race, and try to see the situation from their perspective. Third, continuously reflect on your own biases, privileges and actions. Be open to feedback and willing to unlearn harmful beliefs and behaviors. Finally, use your voice and platform to speak out against racism and discrimination, both publicly and in your personal circles.

Al Hutchinson, President & CEO, Visit Baltimore

What are you most proud of in terms of the ways your organization has been supporting the Black community? 

At Visit Baltimore, we believe Baltimore can and should be a top destination for a diverse array of travelers, and our team wants the world to know that our city is committed to supporting and embracing diversity, equity and inclusion in hospitality. As part of this important work, Visit Baltimore launched its Warm Welcome program, which aims to foster a welcoming and inclusive community for all travelers, regardless of race, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, disability and more. The program encourages local hotels, restaurants, attractions and other businesses to sign an online pledge committing to train their staff and stakeholders to use supportive, affirming language; inspire proactive allyship; encourage productive dialogue about race, accessibility and bias; and foster active listening and learning. 

In addition to Warm Welcome, we also have made it easy for travelers to locate and visit Baltimore’s Black Owned Businesses through our Black-owned Business Directory. The list features Black History and cultural attractions, restaurants, retail shops and transportation services, and works in conjunction with the Visit Baltimore digital BoP Pass, which unlocks special discounts to Baltimore’s Black museums, restaurants, shops and other cultural and historical attractions throughout the city. 

What tips would you share with fellow event professionals and the industry at large to champion DEI? 

The biggest thing I think we can do from an industry standpoint is to build a workforce pipeline for people of color to thrive in senior leadership positions within the industry. Over my years in the hospitality industry and various cities I worked in, I have noticed a major lack of BIPOC talent at all levels of the organization, specifically a lack of representation in senior-level positions, and have worked to bridge this gap through workforce development programs and scholarships for young people of color. As we continue to build a workforce of BIPOC talent, we will show the community that the workforce is a place for all people to grow and build a long-term career, as well as show travelers that our destinations are a warm and welcoming place for all.


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