Educating the Cruise Industry: Magic Johnson speaks about minority travelers

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Magic Johnson was known for his uncanny vision on the basketball court, finding open players and easy to store chances, almost at will. Now, as a businessman with a stake in the travel industry, Johnson has set his eyes on another opportunity: To make the leisure industry more accessible to minorities and tap into their spending power. At 6 feet 9 inches, he was the tallest person in the room as he spoke to a group of cruise industry members and travel agents at the cruise3sixty conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the end of March.

“When you think about minorities, yes, we’re traveling, but we had do it even more often if we have more minority buyers and sellers in the industry,” he said. “We need more minorities selling travel.”

A former all-star point guard, Johnson, through his Magic Johnson Travel Group, has created a network of home-based travel agents who serve minority customers. His goal is to bring more jobs and money into minority communities by attracting more minority travel agents into the leisure industry. He said Hispanics and Blacks have a combined spending power of $1.9 trillion, but much of that spending is directed outside their communities, which need capital to build or improve homes and businesses.

“In general, that (travel) market is underserved and should grow,” said Lynne Biggar, senior vice president and general manager of American Express Consumer Travel Network USA. “There’s a lot of untapped opportunity.”

Johnson has built successful businesses by bringing consumer opportunities to urban markets where minorities live. He has joint ownership in 108 Starbucks coffee stores, owns movie theaters and has formed a partnership with 24-Hour Fitness. “Everybody thought they could not make money in urban America and that is wrong,” Johnson said. “You just have to know how to speak to that customer.”

Johnson clearly realizes that the cruise industry is a growth industry. Only 16 percent of Americans have taken a cruise, according to an industry study, and with 33 ships being added in the next four years, the industry needs to spur demand to keep up with the increased capacity of some 80,000 berths by 2011. Ships have grown in size and are offering more diverse on-board activities, such as rock climbing and surfing, and more unique destinations, from Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai, China.

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, said earlier this year that cruise lines must find a broader base of travel customers by targeting specific groups, such as minorities, in marketing efforts. “When I look at some of these ships and some of these trips, and the ships keep getting longer and bigger and taller, this is what minorities want—a chance for a trip of a lifetime,” Johnson said. “You just have to take it to them and explain to them how wonderful a time they are going to have.”

To do just that, Blue World Travel Corp., creators of Festival at Sea, the country’s first African-American theme cruises, is partnering with African-American entertainment, sports, political and media personalities who can help them reach new niche markets. The new “honorary captains“ will host various events on and off ship. “The opportunity for African-Americans to experience the best in luxury travel is unique and uplifting. Blue World Travel’s Festival at Sea also provides a way for our travelers to enjoy themselves, have fun and give back through various fund-raisers and activities,” says Terrie Williams, founder and chair of The Terrie Williams Agency and BWT’s first honorary captain.

BWT’s onboard auctions and other events have raised funds for the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. Travelers also have donated thousands of children’s books to the Caribbean Children’s Book Drive.    

Salome Kilkenny added to this report.