3 California Tourism DEI Leaders Who Are Making a Difference
Always ahead of the curve, California is taking a leading role in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the tourism and meetings and events industries, with educators and DMO leaders making DEI a top priority.
Here are three Golden State tourism and education leaders who are blazing the way to a more equitable future for all.
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3 California Meetings and Events DEI Leaders
President & CEO, San Diego Tourism Authority
A longtime DEI advocate, San Diego Tourism Authority’s (SDTA) President & CEO Julie Coker is championing DEI in the Southern California city she’s called home since March 2020 after a career in the hotel industry in Chicago and Philadelphia, where she led the Philadelphia CVB.
“My background in diversity really started back at Hyatt,” she said, adding that she was one of the first female general managers for the major chain. “In the mid-’90s they created a diversity council. The council reported direct to Doug Geoga, the president at the time. He was very intentional about it reporting directly to him, and it had measurable goals; one was to promote one person of color into a position of higher responsibility.
“I was at a smaller hotel,” Coker continued, “so what we did was create goals that allowed the general managers to create mentoring programs for minorities with high potential, and also show measurable goals to show minorities were progressing through Hyatt.”
Coker said that her DEI experience was amplified after joining the Philadelphia CVB in 2010, where then-president Tom Muldoon created the PHL Diversity effort.
“I really give a lot of credit to him,” Coker said. “When I was president, it really allowed me to delve into supplier diversity and education.”
Coker brings this experience to San Diego, where she is now president and CEO of San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA). Under her leadership the SDTA hired Tourism Diversity Matters, the top tourism DEI advocacy organization, in June 2022 to provide an assessment of the destination’s DEI progress. The assessment includes interviews with more than 100 stakeholders and board members. Coker said the next step for the SDTA will be a VIBE survey—which collects feedback from those surveyed—of its entire staff. Results will be revealed in May and will lead to a gap analysis and recommended actions to address weaknesses.
Coker said the SDTA is also looking to create a diversity council with leaders from inside and outside of the local hospitality industry to identify best practices and courses of action.
San Diego Tourism Authority’s biggest DEI program is its Tourism Accelerator Cohort, with the 2023 program granting 10 businesses a year of mentorship, valued at more than $14,000.
“We made a commitment that coming out of Covid we would be supportive of small businesses and give them a bigger share of the pie in the tourism economy,” she said, adding that the program benefits businesses owned by minorities as well as women and veterans. “Our goal is really to give them wraparound services—membership in the SDTA for a year and access to senior staff, board members and [the SDTA’s marketing agency] The Shipyard. We’re also coaching in the areas of finance, risk management and real estate, and we’ve also got folks that know general operations, so we can partner them, [for example], with another restaurant that has much more experience.”
The University of California San Diego is also offering a $500 voucher for cohorts to take a business course and the San Diego Business Journal is offering free advertising. Cohorts from the 2022 class, the first year of the program, will also be available to advise current cohorts.
“I’m very proud of the program,” Coker said. “I’ve always said that DEI efforts need to be intentional. This is an intent to make sure we’re supplying a diverse product to those visiting the destination, but also growing diverse businesses that operate in San Diego.”
Dr. Alana K. Dillette, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, San Diego State University, L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management; Co-Director, Tourism RESET
Another San Diego-based tourism DEI leader, Dr. Dillette specializes in what’s dubbed the “Black Travel Movement,” as well as broader DEI efforts.
“We know from research and experience that the travel industry hasn’t always been the most inclusive space,” she said. “Just thinking about socioeconomics, it’s really only been available for people of a certain status, who had a certain expendable income. But we also know, based on segregation laws that really aren’t that old here in the U.S., it’s prohibited specifically Black Americans from moving around freely.
“So, because of that, we saw a lack of diversity in travel marketing,” she continued. “We saw certain cities and countries not being as welcoming as others. And so, in response to that, there were groups of people, mostly in the millennial generation, who decided, ‘You know what, if the big brands, the big hotels, the big events aren’t going to care about us, then we’re going to sort of create our own lane.’ And that’s where the movement, if you will, started.”
Dr. Dillette is also co-director of Tourism RESET, a collaboration of researchers and industry organizations that are focused on race, ethnicity and social equity in tourism.
“It’s an extra space for academics like myself to find other like-minded people to do research projects, get access to data and really do some meaningful work,” she said. “As academics, you kind of get stuck in your silos, so if I’m at SDSU, it’s hard for me to connect to somebody at, say, UNC Chapel Hill. So that provides a space for that, specifically around that research area.”
While she instructs her students on issues of DEI in the tourism industry, Dr. Dillette recognizes that she is also learning from them.
“I love teaching, because students always have insights and ways of thinking that inherently are different than mine. I always joke that as I get older, all my students stay the same age,” Dr. Dillette said. “Specifically, in our program, our students are predominantly female, but we have continuously seen, and we point out to them, that we’re still seeing the highest levels of our industry as predominantly male. There’s a gap between middle-level management and management, so we definitely try to open that conversation of what are the reasons, once you get into higher positions, what are things that you can do to make sure that you’re providing an inclusive space. We discuss this with all genders of students, all races of students, so that everybody has that on their mind.
“So, I really do think that when this generation of students, in the next 10 to 15 years, are starting to climb the ranks, my hope is that we’ll start to see more and more different decisions being made because they’ve been brought up to think about equity. It’s ingrained in who they are,” she continued. “I always say that, ideally, by the end of my career, I don’t even want to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion anymore, because I’m hoping that it’s not a topic that we need to talk about. I’m hoping that it’s just ingrained in who we are, that we want to create inclusivity.”
President & CEO, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board
When talking to Adam Burke, who leads the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (LATCB), about DEI in the tourism industry, one immediately recognizes the passion, dedication and resolve he brings to the table.
“One of the things that we’re really fortunate about in Los Angeles—for 30 years my adopted home—is its incredible diversity. Angelenos come from over 140 countries and there are over 220 identified languages spoken. It’s something that infuses every aspect of our community,” Burke said. “There are certainly challenges, but as a starting point we’re really fortunate that diversity and inclusion has really been a part of the DNA or our community.”
Burke’s dedication to DEI even takes front and center on his LinkedIn profile, with a quote by Arthur Chan at the top of his “About” section: “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome.” He is also on the executive committee of Tourism Diversity Matters.
For Burke, the very mission of tourism marketing organizations has changed in recent years to focus on improving the lives of the communities they operate in rather than just brining in visitor dollars.
“What has been an incredibly important movement over the past few years is that tourism boards cannot just view themselves as a promotion organization,” he said. “You really need to be stewards of our community, so I view it more as a destination stewardship organization. Over the past few years, our mission statement is to improve the quality of life of all Angelenos through the economic benefits of tourism. That really has been a starting point for our work in DEI.
“We didn’t want to have the hubris that we had all the answers, because this is so complex—this is going to be a lifetime of work because we’re working with centuries of systemic racism,” he continued. “This has to be a foundational pillar in everything we do. DEI really is one of the throughlines of everything we do. Every business decision we make provides an opportunity to increase equity and inclusion.”
To engage the local community, the LATCB formed a 30-person community advisory board that has heavy representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members.
“They really hold us accountable,” Burke said. “One of the things we observed early on is there’s a foundational challenge that there are so many marginalized communities that not only have to deal with systemized inequalities, but for some reason they have to be the one to recognize those inequities and push that rock up hill.”
Burke believes that he and people like him are obligated to take a major role in DEI efforts.
“It’s really impossible to have a constructive conversation about systemic racism without recognizing white privilege is a thing, which makes some people uncomfortable,” Burke said. “Because I was born in the U.S., straight, white and male, without trying to do so intentionally, I have been the benefit of privilege. And whether you try to intentionally leverage that or not, you still are the beneficiary of that system. White privilege is a thing, but what that means is that we should use that privilege to champion for those who do not have that privilege, so we should be the one pushing that rock up hill.”
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Like others serious about DEI, Burke believes that delivering measurable results is the only thing that matters, and said that the LATCB had a 2022 goal of increasing the representation of women and members of diverse communities on its board by 33%. By the end of last year, the board had increased its diversity by 55%.
Another pillar of tourism DEI is increasing the number of diverse suppliers and members of organizations such as the LATCB.
“The city of Los Angeles has a [small-business contracting] portal called RAMP, where you can do a keyword search by veteran-owned, diversity, etc.,” Burke said. “We taught our team to use the city portal and we were shocked to find we were not finding an extensive list of diverse suppliers. The community advisory board, particularly from the Black and Hispanic communities, said ‘We are not at all surprised.’ With red-lining, the lack of capital, the bidding process…a lot of diverse businesses think they don’t have a shot at earning these contracts, so the reality is most diverse business owners never try to get certified by the city because they don’t want to go through all the bureaucracy it entails if they don’t think it will advance their business.”
To help remedy this, the LATCB used the destination’s most high-profile event, the 2022 Super Bowl, to formally invite diverse-owned businesses to apply.
“This is now standard for every event in Los Angeles,” Burke stressed. “And for every diverse business that applied, we offered two years of free membership in the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. We’ve also empowered every member of our advisory board so they can nominate a business, so in the last six months we’ve added more than 150 new diverse businesses to membership and the supply chain, which is a 15% increase in our total membership.”
The third pillar of the LATCB’s DEI strategy is workforce development, which is an issue that has impacted the industry nationwide. Burke also recognizes that success in priming the workforce pipeline is a long-range undertaking.
“Workforce development is not overnight,” Burke said. “We had significant issues with the workforce before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated the pace. Right now, we don’t have the talent pipeline to maintain our business. We’re in the process of forming a visitor industry workforce coalition. No one’s going to do this on their own—it’s a heavy lift.”
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One unique program created by Doane Liu, executive director of the City Tourism Department, and which operates in tandem with the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC), is the LACC Career Academy, which allows high school students from underserved areas to attend conventions in order to get a feel for the industries that are holding the events as well as see how the meetings and events industry works.
And while some may find it ironic that a straight, white male such as Burke is considered a leader in tourism DEI, he believes it’s a natural, if not necessary, fit.
“It may be ironic for a white executive to talk about the lack of diversity in our industry,” Burke maintains, “but I argue that that’s exactly who should be talking about it.”
This article was produced in partnership with Visit California