Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference to Focus on Diversity

When the single-largest gathering of Michigan’s tourism industry convenes March 27-29 in Grand Rapids, it will be more than an opportunity to network and sharpen knowledge.

The Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism will shed light on diversity – a topic top-of-mind throughout business and society. And in hospitality and tourism sectors, diversity is a discussion that needs to occur more, said Deanna Richeson, president and CEO of the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association (MLTA), which presents the annual conference in collaboration with many sectors of the tourism and hospitality industries.

“It does need to become more prominent and I think what we are looking to do is enlighten and enhance people’s understanding of where strengths in diversity come from,” said Richeson. “Diversity not just based on ethnicity or race, but also … generational diversity, diversity of preferences, values, spending patterns, geographic diversity and diversity within the segments of the tourism and lodging industry.”

Kicking off the conference at the Amway Grand Plaza will be keynote speaker Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, an online social community and urban travel movement representing thousands of travelers of color from around the world. The group’s members collectively have more than 100,000 passport stamps, live in more than three dozen countries and are predominantly female and African-American, “shattering the myth that people of color don’t travel,” says the organization’s website.

The organization has done international group trips, launched a web series, created a travel apparel line, crowdfunded for projects, and had partnerships and sponsorships with many companies.

Also in line with the title of this year’s conference – “Diversity: Better Together” – will be keynote speaker Sarah Sladek. She is founder and CEO of XYZ University, an international consulting firm that helps organizations engage the next generation of employees, leaders, members and consumers, as well as tap current workers’ knowledge and skills. For the tourism industry, engaging and retaining young professionals in particular is a challenge, said the MLTA’s Richeson.

“We have room to grow in our understanding and appreciation of what it takes to attract and retain leading talent,” she said. “We have a fairly high turnover rate in our industry, and that can be an opportunity for our employers to understand younger generations, what they are looking for, what they value. It means we may have to do business a little differently, for employers.

“And these same ideas translate into what our guests are looking for, our tourists are looking for, how we attract them as well.”

Sladek is also slated to lead two limited-attendance conference workshops that will focus on talent generation. The workshops will provide participants with strategies and tactics, “things they can do when they get back to their organizations that will make a difference,” Richeson said.

It’s important for the travel industry to be seen as a career path that welcomes a diverse workforce, said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan and a conference speaker.

“It’s just so very obvious to me … that we really need to reach out and encourage multicultural engagement within the industry,” he said. “I’m hoping that with this conference, that we’re going to be able to introduce some concepts that many people in our industry may not have thought about before.”

Lorenz will keynote a Travel Michigan update session, and one topic he plans to discuss is the need to look at and utilize the travel marketing office as a developer and curator of travel industry knowledge, imagery and content that can benefit all.

“We need to start thinking about our organization in a different way, and the industry needs to see us in a different way, as more than a marketing agency, but as a holistic travel industry advocate,” Lorenz said.

He also plans to present insights from national and Michigan-specific research; touch on international marketing efforts and collaborations, including Traverse City as a prominent practitioner and partner; and address the next iteration of the industry-wide Michigan tourism strategic plan, under discussion by the Michigan Travel Commission.

The Grand Rapids agenda includes “edu tours,” an opportunity for conferees to experience local pieces of the city’s fabric, and discussions on topics including “delivering the Pure Michigan” bike trail experience, technology and innovative tourism collaboration.

New this year are “shirt sleeve sessions,” peer-to-peer small-group interactions aligned by career discipline and aimed at networking, sharing experiences and issues and solving problems.

“Somebody from Escanaba and Traverse City and Detroit and South Haven could end up in the same room with much different perspectives” about an issue or topic, and share a best practice, Richeson said.

The sessions include: executive leadership; emerging professionals; human resources/workforce; sales; rooms operations; information technology; facilities/engineering; food and beverage/catering and event management; public relations/crisis management; and social media/marketing.

The conference will again offer a career fair matching employers and job seekers, and will close with a pitch by the next year’s destination: Traverse City.

Traverse City Tourism will highlight all that’s happening in Traverse City, which is “always evolving, adding new benefits,” said Trevor Tkach, the organization’s president and CEO.

The conference typically draws about 1,000 attendees and will be held in spring 2019 at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Details are yet to be determined, but Tkach said showcasing the local winemaking scene and agriculture and agritourism in general would be among unique opportunities that Traverse City could offer conferees.

And a benefit to having the conference in Traverse City, instead of a metropolitan area, is the conferees’ attention, Tkach said.

“When you pull in people away from their desk, away from the day to day world … you see a higher level of participation … when you have a little distance between the home office and the conference destination,” he said.

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.