One of the pillars of Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM) — an initiative launched in February to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the travel and events industry — is its apprenticeship program.
The program is designed to give diverse candidates 600 hours of paid, hands-on work experience in the industry, and guarantees them a job upon completion. Currently supported by Destinations International, Sports ETA, and the International Association of Venue Managers, the program is split into three tracks — tourism (DMOs, hotels, airport authorities, and attractions), sports (sports commissions, facilities, universities, and professional teams), and events (event companies, associations, and facilities).
Deedra Mills-Hall, TDM’s apprenticeship program coordinator, knows first-hand how important this kind of work experience can be. After graduating with a degree in aviation science and an MBA, she felt unsure of where to start her career. Eventually she entered an apprenticeship at Visit Baltimore through an earlier incarnation of TDM’s apprenticeship program with Destinations International.
That experience led to roles at SearchWide Global, the Baltimore Convention Center, the Lord Baltimore Hotel, and now, her position at TDM.
“If it wasn’t for the apprenticeship program, I wouldn’t have been afforded any of those opportunities,” Mills-Hall said. She emphasizes that the exposure to different jobs and facets of the industry was instrumental in helping her realize her strengths and passions. “I learned a long time ago, if you don’t know where you want to be in the industry, then you’re kind of lost.”
Convene spoke with Mills-Hall about her own apprenticeship experience, why it changed the trajectory of her career, and how those kinds of opportunities are essential to developing a more diverse generation of future leaders.
We’re tourism, we’re talking about people. People come in all forms and colors. In order for the industry to grow, everyone needs to come together, because putting all of that knowledge and power together empowers the industry.”
What was your own apprenticeship like at Visit Baltimore? What was significant about it?
I rotated throughout several departments. I went through sales and marketing, I went through membership, I went through administration, [getting an understanding] of how a DMO really functions. I also had the opportunity to work with two other local partners — Baltimore Marriott Waterfront and BWI Airport Marriott.
Sales and services and marketing stood out to me, because … I’m a people person. I love being in front of people, engaging [with them]. So that was what really drove me. I went through several departments, but that was the one that captured my heart.
What I learned [while getting my degree] in aviation is you don’t really get to touch people as much. When you’re in hospitality, you’re front and center. If you’re the director of sales, you can still touch the client and turn their event into … a massive success. [The apprenticeship program] was a great opportunity to really do something that I would absolutely love.
You’re in a position now where you’re mentoring people who are starting out in their careers. Who were your mentors and what did they say and do that helped you move forward in your career?
Honestly, it was just [how much they cared] and that they had a passion to see me grow. They led by example — they showed how to be a great leader, instead of telling me.
Throughout the [apprenticeship program], I had two people that I really clung to — Allison Burr-Livingstone [then vice president of government affairs at Visit Baltimore] and also Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. We’re still very close friends to this day, and he really played a pivotal role in motivating me and showing me that I could do this too — [that], as an African American, you can be afforded these opportunities. But you have to [lay] the groundwork. So being able to shadow him and then going through several departments, it was just a breath of fresh air to feel like there was definitely hope for me to grow in the industry.
I was able to see #mybmore launch. It was just amazing [to see] what it did for the community. They felt like they were a part of something, and nothing beats that, when the city that you live in accepts you for who you are.
What advice do you have for young people getting started in the industry?
I think the most important thing to do is find a mentor, find a leader in the industry. Reach out to their admin assistants, and say, ‘Hey, can I hop on the person’s calendar?’ A lot of times the executives are very busy, but they’re willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask them, ‘Can you be my mentor?’
[Also, ask yourself], what are you good at? My thing was people — I love to connect. I love to chat. That was what really positioned me, was my passion for customer service and my love for people.
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So, if you’re great at marketing, focus on that. But then also look at what other careers tie into marketing — like, for example, sales and services. You’re still [doing] marketing, you’re still selling a product, so you can advance from either role and [do] what you love to do. It’s just figuring out what’s in front of you, what you have to work with, and then positioning yourself to see what you’re really good at … and what you see yourself doing for a long time.
What advice do you have for those established in the industry who are in a position to mentor others?
Hands-on, it’s all hands-on. Putting that person in the position — make them make a phone call [or figure out] how to tackle or approach that problem. Everything is about solving problems.
If you want to create leaders of tomorrow, you have to take that type of approach [where they are] shadowing, and not just looking, but doing. [They need to] really see what a day in the life looks like for a CEO.
Organizations passionate about driving sustainable changes and creating opportunities to help promote diversity are invited to connect with Tourism Diversity Matters, who is seeking partner organizations for its three apprenticeship tracks.
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.