Being a ‘Part of the Solution’

Visit Baltimore President and CEO Al Hutchinson is grateful for the opportunities he has had in the travel and tourism business. At the same time, he’s seeking ways to make CVBs — and the communities they serve — more equitable, diverse, and inclusive.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Al Hutchinson

“My mom told me as a kid — you’re going to have to do the extra things. Is that right? Is it wrong? It really doesn’t matter. It’s the way it is” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “And you have to accept that and be willing to go out and do great work.”

Editor’s note:PCMA Groundbreakers is an initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity. Conceived by PCMA’s Black Lives Matter Working Group, the honor helps to create a living history of pioneers in the business events industry.

In 1992, Al Hutchinson responded to a newspaper ad for a job at the CVB in Richmond, Virginia, his hometown. He had been working in the financial services industry for five years and for five years before that, as a sales manager at Xerox. Although he had no background in travel and tourism, he “got very fortunate and the Richmond CVB took an interest in my resume,” he told Convene, thanks to his Xerox sales training background and life experience in Richmond. Before he was hired by the CVB, Hutchinson said, “I had no idea that there was an organization or an industry that will pay you to sell your city.”

It didn’t take long before he “fell in love” with that industry. “It wasn’t difficult for me to pick up what was needed in this business,” Hutchinson said. “People first, loving people, loving your community, and wanting to be a change agent. That’s the way I approached it.” Six cities and 29 years later, Hutchinson is still doing the work he loves, serving as president and CEO at Visit Baltimore for the past five years.

After his first CVB stint in Richmond, Hutchinson moved to Charlotte, then to Pittsburgh, and back to Charlotte to work in the hotel industry. He then spent 13 years at the Virginia Beach CVB, where he said he learned a great deal about the industry and developed important relationships, preparing him for his first president and CEO position at the Mobile CVB, where he worked for two and a half years before making the move to Baltimore.

Selling different destinations wasn’t difficult for him, Hutchinson said, although he said it does take a while to understand how to navigate around the local political entities and key stakeholders in each community. But the “personal navigation has been much more challenging for me than the professional navigation,” he said. “If you have a spouse or you have kids like me — uprooting them, moving to cities where you don’t have any family connections or friends — that’s challenging.”

That’s not to say that as a Black man Hutchinson hasn’t experienced any obstacles in the destination marketing community. But it’s not something he dwelt too much on, until May 2020, when George Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide uprising and prompted Hutchinson and 20 of his colleagues at CVBs across the country to publish an open letter reflecting on systemic racism in the travel industry and providing a set of questions for organizations to think deeply about to advance equity.

Hutchinson reflected on his career, that initiative, and what kind of contribution he hopes to make, in this Convene interview.

Were some of those moves you made around the country a result of particular challenges you experienced advancing in different CVBs as a Black professional?

That’s a great question. And I always try to approach it from a very individual standpoint — as Al Hutchinson who can’t really speak for any other African Americans in the industry. But in my experience, wherever you live and work, in a lot of cases and especially in this industry, there aren’t a lot of opportunities that pop up all the time for you to grow professionally. There are a lot of folks in this industry who love it like I do, and they remain in their job for a long, long time.

I think also sometimes as an African American in this industry, you can become pigeonholed. My first responsibility was selling to the SMERF market — I was marketing to African American meeting professionals, and religious meeting professionals and a lot of them happened to be African American. But I wasn’t in the national association market. That’s where my white colleagues were. I think a lot of folks who got into the industry back in the late 1980s, early 1990s, if they happened to be African American, that’s where you were put. That was the job they hired you for. If you did not perform well in that space, number one, you wouldn’t stay in the industry, but if you did well, you wanted to grow and show your talent in other markets. I think the challenge was how do you demonstrate to your managers, your direct reports, that you can bring more to a destination than just selling to the Black association market.

What helped me was I was very active and involved in committees and on different boards in the industry early in my career. That helped me to get my personal brand into the marketplace and to demonstrate to other folks that perhaps Al is a person who we can invest in and look at him for other opportunities.

I will say that being an African American in this industry, sometimes I had to do a little bit more than my white counterparts to be seen, to be looked at as competent. Some of my white colleagues didn’t have to serve on committees or be on boards, and they still got elevated. And because there were not a lot of jobs and not a lot of movement, I had to move across the country, to uproot my family to progress in the industry. I don’t think in all cases that a lot of my white colleagues had to do some of that movement.

I don’t think the travel/tourism industry owns that outcome. I think, unfortunately, that’s an American story — in most industries you have very few people of color who are CEOs. You look at any industry — across the board, it doesn’t matter what it is — it’s limited. And I think in our space, there have been very few who have been able to crack the C-suite level.

No doubt we have to work harder, but that’s not news to me. My mom told me as a kid — you’re going to have to do the extra things. Is that right? Is it wrong? It really doesn’t matter. It’s the way it is. And you have to accept that and be willing to go out and do great work. Not lose who you are but do good work and be a good human at the same time.

Can you identify specific obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

Let me start by framing that I’ve been extremely fortunate in this industry, meeting good people who had a sense that I bring some value to the industry regardless of race. The industry has been good to me and I’m grateful for that. I think if there’s been any obstacle that’s been put in front of me, I think it’s that it has taken a long time for me to get to the level that I’m at, right? You know, it took me 25 years to become a president and CEO of an organization. That’s a long, long run. When you compare that to some folks, they may have gotten there in three years, five years. That’s been the challenge looking back, but I also look at it like you are where you are and you’re at your place in life because that’s where you’re supposed to be. I believe in a Creator that doesn’t put more on you than you can bear and you should be prepared for any opportunities that present themselves. I have no regrets — it has been a really great 29-year-run for me. I look at everything as an experience and I’ve had some really good success in this industry.

How did you and your colleagues get together last year to pen that open letter to the industry about racism?

I think one thing in terms of the social injustice issue is that the pandemic meant that we’ve all been at home. Once we saw right in front of our eyes what happened to George Floyd, several of us African American males in the industry, we just organically said, “Hey, we need to have a conversation.” We were obviously upset about what we’d seen — it wasn’t the first time we knew about the mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of a police officer. We’ve seen that throughout history. But I think as a country, we were all at home. We saw it on TV. And as a group of seven to eight guys, we said, “Look, let’s just start talking to each other and see what we can do to help each other heal.”

That’s really where this started from. We didn’t enter into it like, “Let’s go pen a letter.” It just started with, “Let’s lean on each other. What are you dealing with in Minneapolis? What are you dealing with in D.C.? What are you dealing with in Louisville?” We started having a weekly conversation and other situations happened in the country, and Breonna Taylor happened. We looked at our industry, where we’ve all been very fortunate to advance and have had opportunities, and we should now use our collective voices and experience to speak out and begin to challenge the industry on how we should get better.

All eight of us on that call have a lot of experience in the industry — we’ve served on boards and committees, we’ve chaired boards and committees. We put a lot of equity into this industry and we felt it was an opportunity for us to use some of that equity, some of the experience we have, our brand, and try to bring the majority community together to have a broader conversation and see what can we do together. Because what was happening was not a Black issue — it’s an American issue. We wanted to partner with our white friends and colleagues to see if we could put some processes in place to try to help move our industry forward.

What has been the response?

A number of associations like PCMA and all the alphabet soups in the industry, they were doing their own individual work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, which they should be applauded for. Destinations International has been an important partner in this, with a DEI taskforce created a few years ago and several positive initiatives that have been developed with many DMOs and business partners. We convened a meeting in September of 2020 with the leaders of the industry associations and [decided that perhaps] the best place for this initiative is with the Events Industry Council [EIC]. To [EIC CEO] Amy Calvert’s credit, [we put together] an equity task force to see if we can come up with some good outcomes.

EIC has been leading the charge and doing some great work in that space. I serve on that task force and they’re beginning to get some real output, as well as Tourism Diversity Matters, founded by SearchWide’s Mike Gamble. I think the good news is there are a number of other organizations that are very focused on this and want to make a difference. This is an issue that we sign up for knowing it’s for the long haul — it’s not a short race, it’s a marathon.

Al Hutchinson

“I think allyship is really the fundamental that we all have to accept, because again, this is a human issue,” Al Hutchinson said. “If we see some injustice, someone who’s not treated fairly, someone who’s discriminated against, allyship means we should be a partner to condemning that and to bringing it down.”

You spoke about partnering with your white colleagues. How important is allyship in this effort?

I think allyship is really the fundamental that we all have to accept, because again, this is a human issue. And allyship means that [whether you are] an African American man, a white female, a gay man, a gay woman, a Muslim person, or Christian, we’re all connected. And if we see some injustice, someone who’s not treated fairly, someone who’s discriminated against, allyship means we should be a partner to condemning that and to bringing it down. They don’t need to look like me, but if they’re not being treated well, or they’re not being assisted to progress in their job or are being disrespected in a conversation, then allyship means we speak to that. We don’t turn a deaf ear to it, but we align with our brother, we align with our sister because we’re all part of the human race.

Which is a good segue to another social challenge facing all of us, but disproportionately affecting minority and underserved populations: climate change. How are you approaching that crisis in your role?

We all should be keepers of the Earth, right? Fortunately, here in Baltimore, our convention center staff is very committed to sustainability and diverting waste from our community — 75 tons of waste were diverted in 2018 because of processes the Baltimore Convention Center put in place. It’s very intentionally done. It’s not a check-the-box for us. It’s a part of our DNA. Diversion by donation is really, really important to us as a community.

As we host conventions and conferences, we don’t want to be wasteful of food, so we partner with organizations, including the Maryland Food Bank, [to donate leftover meals from events]. And as we have furniture in the building and other supplies to donate at the end of a show, we partner with a nonprofit called Second Chance that hires people back into the workforce who have been incarcerated. As part of the travel and tourism business for us moving forward, if we’re really going to do our jobs well, we have to be connected to making our community better.

We’ve been talking about equity or inequity when you’re looking at job opportunities or partnering with other people of color in the industry. But along this line, environmental equity is extremely important as well, especially in a city like Baltimore, which is a minority majority city — a 63-percent African American population. It’s a segment of the African American population that is underserved. We want to do better, to help eradicate a lot of the issues in their communities and help them by cleaning up neighborhoods and providing broadband service so they are connected.

We need to be our brother’s keeper and make sure that if we can help improve environmental equity in communities, then hopefully some of the younger generation will in turn be able to go to work. Maybe the travel and tourism industry becomes a place that they can find a great career progression. I believe destination marketing organizations moving forward will have a much bigger mission than just booking a hotel, booking a convention. That’s extremely important and will always be important. But I think it’s also important for us to change the lives of people in our communities, provide them with opportunity, give them hope and show them that our industry could be a way that they could change their family’s legacy moving forward.

That’s a pretty tall order for DMOs, but I love the idea of that, right?

We’ve got one shot at this, and we can’t do it by ourselves — destination marketing organizations should be at the table with economic development, with housing, with the arts and cultural community. All of us should be really in this together to change the outlook of our citizenship. We want them to see that where they live, where they work, and where they play, they have hope and opportunity. I’m hoping that my destination and marketing organization friends and my association friends will embrace that and be a part of the solution.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

Editor’s note: Renowned anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said of the climate crisis, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” With that in mind, we are dedicating the November/December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. Find stories from the Climate Issue here, and read our cover story, “A ‘Watershed Moment’ for Events — and the World.”

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