Phoenix was a lot more colorful than usual last week. Thousands of members of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine 2013 Annual Imperial Council, many in colorful outfits reflecting their chapters from around the world, filled downtown. This African-American wing of the Shriners held their annual conference in Arizona for the first time, from August 14-23, 2013. The African-American Conference on Disabilities was held in Phoenix in March; but conferences held by diverse groups have been scarce in Arizona the past few years.
Ethnically diverse conferences used to be much more common. The Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) actively courted people of color. During its heyday, from 2001-6, its Phoenix Multi-Cultural & Arts Foundation was active in organizing FAMs (familiarization trips for convention planners from other cities), and holding workshops on how to attract multi-cultural tourists. At one point, the group was acknowledged as having brought $100 million worth of economic impact to Phoenix.
Phoenix was also anxious to encourage Phoenix students of color to pursue careers in hospitality. During the early 2000’s, The Hospitality Pipeline (HOP) and The Bureau Excellence in Student Training (BEST) Program focused on encouraging young African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native Americans to study with the goal of management careers, instead of the manual labor positions to which minorities had been restricted throughout history.
Attitudes, and priorities had changed in Arizona, and the crusade for cultural tourism had waned by time the passage of SB 1070 in 2010. The law, which was the strictest anti-immigration law at the time, was seen as discriminatory by many people of color, and led to a boycott of Arizona by many groups. It is estimated that Phoenix lost $141 million in convention business the first year after the law was passed. A poor economy got poorer. National media images of militia members, raids on local businesses, etc. continue to portray Phoenix in a negative light.
There are small efforts to attract gay tourists, and ambitious efforts from groups, like Local First Arizona, to get Arizonans to frequent local tourist sites. But there is little institutional emphasis on trying to recapture some of the billions of dollars of buying power of ethnically diverse Americans throughout the US. Phoenicians need to decide whether to let big conferences, (e.g., the Shriners’) remain endangered species or to actively and collectively strive to bring make downtown Phoenix conventions more colorful.