I watch a lot of TMZ and MSNBC and anything else that starts with a letter. But all jokes aside, the reality is, we are looking a little further out than what’s happening right now. There’s two ways of looking at it. We can all lament as to where we are now, or we can focus on how do we envision a recovery. We look at where the American people are: They’re ready to get on the road, they’re ready to travel. They’re sick and tired of being told what they can’t do. And although this is not the time to not pay attention to the protocol of wearing a mask and being safe, there are going to be opportunities for us to be able to attract those visitors to Washington, be it because we have so many free things to do, and when individuals’ economic status might have changed, they’re looking at getting out, but how do they get out at a discount. They’re recognizing the fact that right now; hotel room rates are very favorable because everyone’s going after the same visitor. And how do we attract the drive-in market — the 50 million people that live within four hours of Washington, D.C. — to opt to come to Washington, because there’s not going to be a lot of consumer confidence about getting on a plane. People are going to say: “We want to go somewhere, we want to do something. Let’s go to Washington. They’ve got all these amazing free things to do. Hotel rooms are going to be at a discount because of the recovery efforts. And now more than ever, we can really probably get some great deals.”
You’re looking into the future. For those of us stuck in what we might think is a depressing present, is the future you see a happy one?
We're already seeing people coming to the city. We're seeing an increase of calls of people wanting to ask what's open now.
You are one of relatively few Black men to have reached your pinnacle in the travel and hospitality industry. Can you talk about why that might be and what that’s been like for you?
There are over 700 destination management organizations, and there are less than 10 that are [run by] Black males and females. We’ve been dealing with and tackling the issue of the lack of diversity within this industry, the lack of opportunities, and then digging in a little deeper and really dealing with the Black Lives Matter movement.
You tell a story of having received an award at an industry event, and either before or after you were on the podium, someone assumed you were a waiter.
The reason why we tell those stories is because it’s very difficult for the White community to understand the impact and implications of a murder such as George Floyd. Because the perception is George Floyd is a bad guy because he [allegedly] tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and this is what happens when you do bad things. And the other part of that is to recognize the fact that you see me in a suit and tie or a tuxedo or whatever, and you say, “Yeah, he’s one of the Black guys who has done well.” You know, all the things I have heard: “credit to his race,” “speaks well,” “he’s not like the rest.” But no matter how poorly you articulate how you perceive me as a Black person, if you see me walking down your street at night, the same Elliott, and you don’t know it’s me, you’re just going to automatically go into this place that we’ve seen time and time again. I could be a George Floyd. I’m just a Black guy who is going to face some inappropriate level of force that as a White person, you probably will never have to deal with. These are the conversations we’re having, so that White people won’t automatically make these assumptions that bad things happen to bad people. No, that’s not true. And if you’re Black, it’s even worse.
You’ve said that leaning into this moment is not simply an issue of diversity and inclusion, that we need to talk about slavery and Jim Crow and systemic racism because those are not simply issues from the past. Why is it important to insist that these things aren’t passed?
Yes, slavery has been over theoretically for 155 years. But what happened after that, and what are the residual effects of what happened after that? Jim Crow segregation may have happened in most people's opinions years ago, which it happened, technically, in my lifetime, but the residual effects, the redlining in terms of how economic opportunities existed for the Black community and Black districts, still happen today. The fact that the school systems in the Black community receive less funding, and therefore you did not have the same educational opportunities. And from an institutional perspective, institutional wealth in the Black community is nonexistent because the first generation that arguably could really get a college education, and that was not easy, would be my parents, my mom, born in 1945. And even of that generation, not even 50 percent actually were able to get college educations. So the question is: How do all these things play a role? And I think that if I get folks to understand, namely the White community to understand, how and why that still plays a role — you know, I'm not expecting you to say, "Hey, I'm sorry that my great-great-grandfather was a racist." Just recognize these things, have conversations about them, and do better.
Are you heartened by the movement that is rising up now and trying to force these conversations?
This is not the first time you saw Black, White and other races coming together to march on racial inequality and injustice. What’s happening that’s different this time is that at the end of the day, it all boils down to corporate America. Well, it boils down to more than that; it boils down to mind-set and other things. But when you see that corporate America is taking responsibility and looking at these things, — [saying] we’ve got to do better and make changes — that’s a good sign. Because at the end of the day, politically speaking or not, it’s all about economics. We need to hold corporate America accountable. And they won’t be held accountable if we don’t have people in place that make this a priority, and if folks like myself get to places like I am now professionally, if I’m not willing to speak up more and be more vocal.
This interview has been edited and condensed.