When former publishing guru and savvy businessman Clarence O. Smith stepped down in 2002 after more than 30 years at the helm of Essence, the country’s premier publication for African-American women that he co-founded, many did not know what new venture he would launch. What they did know was that any new venture of his likely would be a success. They were right. Avocet Travel, based in New York, is Smith’s newest baby. The four-year-old enterprise isn’t merely tapping into the nearly $40 billion African-American travel and tourism industry; it’s hit a gusher in the sector, whose growth shows no sign of waning.
Using about $2.5 million of his own money, Smith started Avocet with a niche-marketing strategy. He branded the agency as offering the only nonstop carrier service from the United States to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s third-largest city and a bastion of Afro-Brazilian culture. Avocet has since expanded its services to other luxury destinations, including Jamaica, Ghana and Puerto Rico. “The creation of Avocet is an extension of my mission to build bridges between all cultures. I want Avocet to become a one-stop shop provider of travel services for African-Americans,” Smith says.
He has added Black churches and other groups that may be planning trips to New York to his marketing outreach. “[I thought], why not enrich their New York experience with [package deals that include] visits to historic spots and landmarks in Harlem; [why not expose] tourists to the cultural excitement of Harlem and encourage them to support Black businesses throughout the city?” he says.
Business Is Booming
Travel is a booming business among African-Americans, and the sector is rife with niche opportunities for entrepreneurs of color. Target Market News, the lead tracker of buying trends among Black consumers, says African-Americans spent more than $4.6 billion on transportation, travel and lodging in 2005, the most recent figures available. Experian Research Services, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., consumer research organization, reports that African-Americans spend on average $500 on travel each year, and that the main reason why most of them travel when not doing so for job-related purposes is vacation.
A recent report by the American Automobile Association shows a significant increase in the number of leisure and vacation travelers in the United States who either prefer to, or have to, travel alone. The association’s study shows that travelers between the ages of 18 and 35 are the largest groups of solo travelers, accounting for more than 35 percent of all single travelers, with the next largest groups 35–49-year-olds (27 percent of solo travelers), 50–64-year-olds (26 percent) and 65+ (12 percent).
Sandra Hughes, the association’s vice president for travel, says the findings also reveal that women and minorities increasingly are traveling alone domestically and overseas, resulting in an upward trend in unique vacation package deals. “There are nearly 90 million single people in the U.S., and this is clearly a market that the travel industry has been focused on in the past few years,” Hughes says. “Girlfriend getaways and other [gender- or ethnic-specific] vacation package deals are becoming increasingly popular,” she says.
States on Alert
State tourism bureaus are closely following the new demographic trends with an eye toward injecting desperately needed cash into their economies. New Jersey is one example of states on tourism alert.
In late March, the New Jersey Travel Industry Association, in conjunction with the New Jersey Commerce, Economic Growth & Tourism Commis-sion, sponsored the New Jersey Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Atlantic City, N.J. The Garden State generated more than $37 billion last year in travel and tourism, and officials are on a mission to attract even more visitors, using as bait the famous Atlantic City boardwalk, casinos and beaches, and close proximity to the metropolitan hubs of New York and Philadelphia.
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who was a keynote speaker at the three-day conference, says he is proposing a plan to spend more than $10 million on tourism in fiscal 2008, the same amount spent in 2007. The governor concedes that he would like to increase spending and promote New Jersey’s beaches, casinos and historic landmarks, but acknowledges that the “budget is a little tight in Trenton.”
Black History Month (February) has become a marketing hook in New Jersey’s outreach to African-American travelers. The state features such activities as jazz, dramatic plays and family fun or an afternoon with the kids. “New Jersey takes great pride in its cultural legacy,” Nancy Byrne, executive director of the Office of Travel & Tourism at the State Commerce Commission, said in a press release. “New Jersey’s African-American community has roots not only in urban centers but old rural towns such as Whitesboro, whose history is documented with the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society,” she said, noting that the African Art Museum of the Society of African Missions in Tenafly is one of the few museums in the country dedicated solely to the art of sub-Saharan Africa.
According to a report by Global Insight, an economic consulting firm that studies travel and tourism in New Jersey, the state’s tourism revenue has increased four years in a row. “Not many states can lay claim to that,” says Kenneth McGill, the firm’s executive vice president. “New Jersey attracted scores of visitors from New York and Pennsylvania,” he says.
Harlem Hot Spot
Michael Roberts, along with his brother, Steven, runs The Roberts Companies, a real estate, media and telecommunications empire based in St. Louis. Together, the brothers are the largest African-American property developers in the Bahamas. Last year, they began to make forays into the U.S. tourism and lodging industry by purchasing several luxury hotels across the country. Michael, who is the group’s chairman and CEO, traveled to New York recently to discuss a deal involving the construction of an upscale hotel in Harlem. His company is on the short list of developers being tapped for the multimillion-dollar project. “Harlem is a hot spot right now. Tourists need a great place to stay and we want to be here to accommodate them,” he says.
Market opportunities for African-Americans also exist in domestic hot spots that are home to sizable Black populations. Hotwire Travel Value Index’s recently released annual list of the “Best U.S. Places for Value Vacations for 2007” includes such destinations as Atlanta; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; Chicago; and Washington, D.C. International delights include Africa, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Jamaica.
This year’s vacation hot spots for African-Americans and women are island getaways with salsa music and an exotic flair, says Andria Mitasakos, president of a Florida public relations agency that specializes in the travel and tourism industry. “A spa getaway in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) is what women travelers are choosing this year,” she says.
Back From 9/11
The fall-off in overseas travel by African-Americans in the first years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center appears to be history. Indeed, in a sign that the post 9/11 fear of flying has all but vanished, the Registered Traveler program, formulated by the Transport-ation Security Administration shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, is finding few takers. The program was designed to quickly move passengers through security checkpoints at U.S. airports—provided they were willing to submit to an in-depth security background check and provide biometric information, including fingerprints and a list of distinguishing scars, to the T.S.A.
“Privacy concerns may be to blame for the lack of interest,” says Adam Weissenberg, Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure section leader at the New York offices of Deloitte & Touche.
Smith of Avocet Travel sums it up best. “Travelers want to be comfortable when they travel,” he says.
By Glenn Townes