Tom Ross: It's OK to base minority outreach on profit motive

Ski industry plans deliberate steps toward meaningful diversity

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The slopes of the Steamboat Ski Area haven't been as white with snow as we might have hoped this winter. However, in matters unrelated to precipitation, the entire winter resort industry is too white for its own good. In short, diversity is noticeably lacking in the snow sports industries.

Ski and snowboard resorts have ample incentive to reverse this situation, and that's part of the reason Ski Area Management Magazine and the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. hosted the Mountain Resort Diversity Forum here last Wednesday through Friday. Ski area executives from California to New Hampshire attended. What's at stake?

Multiculturalism is desirable simply from the standpoint that diversity equates to strength, across society as a whole and within the workplace. However, one of the best opportunities winter resorts have to increase their bottom lines in the first quarter of this century can be realized by attracting more minority members to skiing and snowboarding. Dean Lalia Rach of New York University laid it on the table during a speech here Wednesday. Coincidentally, Rach wasn't in Steamboat to speak to the diversity forum, but instead to a gathering of executives from airlines that fly into Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Rach told her audience that by the year 2025, two decades from now, 40 percent of Americans will be members of a minority group.

Clearly, the winter resort industry needs to take deliberate steps to reverse its failure to connect with minority groups if it hopes to grow. Isn't it improper, maybe even unethical, to pursue minority business simply because resorts want to improve their bottom lines? Not hardly. The message at last week's diversity forum was that it's OK to put a profit motive to use to increase diversity within an industry. In fact, "It's beyond OK," Rodney Ruffin told me. "It's not about feeling warm and fuzzy and holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' It's about return on investment."

Ruffin is supplier and business diversity director for AMTRAK -- the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

Ruffin said he would much rather see a diversity program that is tied to the bottom line, because the chances that it will enjoy longevity are greater that way. "Five years from now, the diversity programs that remain will be those that are tied to the business case," Ruffin said. Ruffin said diversity in the winter resort industry is about more than attracting vacationers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It's about recruiting employees, and it's about working with business suppliers that represent diversity.

"What's wrong with helping to make a minority-owned business more profitable?" he asked.

Ski Area Management's Olivia Rowan said the ski industry is plotting a deliberate strategy to help it reach out to minority travelers. Ski area operators will leverage their relationships with larger corporations outside the resort industry to learn how they capitalize on the opportunities diversity represents.

Sponsors of the forum included American Express, Anheuser-Busch, CGPR public relations, Pepsi, Sprint and United Airlines.

Tammy Edwards, director of global diversity for Sprint, said winter resorts need to begin advertising in publications that they previously haven't considered, such as "Black Enterprise," or for that matter, "Business Week," to reach affluent urban residents, who might consider a ski or snowboard vacation if they felt welcome.

Frank Tansey, national account sales manager in the entertainment industry for Pepsi, said he's worked hard to build a relationship between ski resorts and the Mountain Dew soft brink brand. He unabashedly points out that if he can bring more minority members to the slopes, he can grow his resort sales.

Tansey and Rowan say the next step for the ski industry is to reach out to a diverse customer base by hosting focus groups to ask consumers questions. The question is, "Why aren't young black people (for example) taking ski vacations?" And what needs to be done to encourage them? Reginald Jones, the former commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Clinton Administration said that the winter resort industry needs to change its approach.

"You'll always get what you always got, if you keep on doing what you've always done," he said with a hearty laugh.

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