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The promise and the peril – African American colleges and universities’ hotel and conference center ownership

Filling the Black Hotel & Conference Center Ownership Void:
Tuskegee Has High Hopes; Clarke Atlanta Moves Slowly; Howard Throws in
the Towel!

African Americans have struggled to gain a foothold in any
industries, and the fact that they have failed to do so in the hotel
and lodging business has been a sore point for many years. Blacks own
anti manage few hotels — a fact pointed out by the recent announcement
of a boycott by the NAACP of several hotel chains.

The experience of three historically Black colleges and universities demonstrate the promise and perils of the business.

Tuskegee University

When Bernard Simmons attends the National Coalition of Black
Meeting Planners’ upcoming meeting in Mobile, Alabama, this April, he
hopes to lure a busload of the group’s members to historic Tuskegee,
Alabama. Simmons who is director of sales and marketing at the Kellogg
Executive Conference Center at Tuskegee University, believes the
meeting planners would find the historic city and university a
compelling location for African American organizations seeking to hold
regional and board meetings.

The airfield, Moton Field, where the famed all-Black Tuskegee air
fighter squadron trained during World War II and the George Washington
Carver history museum on the university campus would likely generate
interest among African American groups, according to Simmons. Tuskegee
University was founded by Booker T. Washington, one of the most
influential African American educators and leaders in American history.

“There’s a lot of history in Tuskegee,” Simmons says.

Like Simmons, Tuskegee University officials are also hoping the
Kellogg Executive Conference Center, being one of the few conference
center/lodging complexes owned by a historically Black college and
university (HBCU), will have special appeal to African American meeting
planners who represent groups with a predominantly Black membership
base. School officials, who recently took over direct management of the
three-year old facility, are venturing into an arena where few HBCUs
have much experience.

Tuskegee University officials are eager to point out that the
stately conference center and 110-room hotel provides an elegant
setting that meeting planners would find equally as compelling as the
city’s and university’s historic significance. The $20 million center,
which opened in February 1994, is one of ten such centers in the United
States and England to be largely funded by the W.K.Kellogg Foundation.
It is the only Kellogg Center at a historically Black institution.

Among the highlights of the facility are a 300-seat amphitheater, a
500-seat ballroom, a teleconference studio with uplink and downlink
satellite operations, a computer laboratory, an executive board room,
and 19,000 square feet of meeting space. Over the past three years the
center has hosted student conferences, high school and family reunions,
professional workshops and Symposia regional and state conferences. and
professional and civic meetings according to university documents.

Simmons, an eighteen-year veteran of the lodging industry, says one
of the strong points of the conference center is that its location in
Tuskegee provides little distraction to out-of-town organizations.

“Groups looking for a place to find a quiet retreat would
appreciate our center. Planners and group leaders have a lot more
control over their people in Tuskegee than they would at a meeting in a
large city,” Simmons said.

Simmons said that while African American and regional organizations
represent a significant market for the Kellogg Center, he expects to
market extensively to federal and state agencies to persuade them to
hold training sessions at the center

“We see continuing education and organizational training as an
important source of business,” Simmons said. The previous management
left no records, so Simmons was unable to say how many people had
stayed at the center in the past year. However, he estimated that about
thirty groups — mostly nonprofit groups and continuing education
efforts, with some corporate training and retreats — used the facility
last year.

Clark Atlanta University

In another effort to capitalize on the value of African American
history, Clark Atlanta University purchased the famed Paschal’s Hotel
and Restaurant in Atlanta early in 1996 and renovated it to develop
graduate student and university guest housing. Clark Atlanta purchased
the hotel/restaurant for $3 million and spent an additional $800,000
renovating it.

The facility, known widely as a meeting place for the nation’s top
civil rights leadership during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s,
is also used as a conference center by the university, according to
Getchel Caldwell II, associate vice-president of Clark Atlanta
University. The restaurant, which was opened by the Paschal brothers in
Atlanta in the late 1940s and became highly regarded for its fried
chicken, remains open to the public.

“We made a commitment to leave the restaurant open to the
community. Paschal’s is still known as `Little City Hall.'” Caldwell

Caldwell said the renovated restaurant/conference center attracted
national attention last October when President Bill Clinton attended a
teleconference and meeting for African American clergy leaders. It was
the first time a sitting U.S. president visited the Paschal’s Hotel and
Restaurant facility, according to Caldwell.

Howard University

While Clark Atlanta and Tuskegee are relatively new to the business
of managing conference/lodging centers, the experience of Howard
University reveals the riskiness of such ventures. Late in 1995, Howard
University closed the 150-room Howard University Hotel on the school’s
campus in Washington, D.C. After nearly fifteen years of ownership by
the university, the hotel was closed because it was losing money,
according to Howard officials.

Howard University ceased operations at its Howard University Hotel
on October 30, 1995. “Over the years, the hotel has struggled to make
itself a profitable enterprise, while providing hotel, restaurant,
meeting, entertainment, and other hospitality services,” according to a
statement released by the university that announced the hotel’s closing.

Howard University purchased the Harambee House Hotel in 1981 from
the federal Economic Development Administration for $1.3 million.
According to Howard University records, the Harambee House Hotel opened
in 1978. The Washington Informer newspaper in Washington, D.C. reported
that a restaurant known as the “Ed Murphy Supper Club” had originally
opened at the hotel site as early as 1964.

The facility, which is currently under renovation, now houses
office space for Howard University faculty and staff, according to
Howard University spokesman Alan Hermesch.

Gwynette Lacy, chair of the School of Management at Howard
University School of Business, recalls some of the hotel’s history
after the university acquired it in 1981. Lacy said Howard officials
believed the school could improve the hotel operations and allow it to
become a teaching resource for the School of Management’s Hospitality
Management program.

According to Lacy, university officials managed to turn the hotel
from a money-losing property to one that had several years of
profitability during the 1980s. She also said that school officials
expanded the hotel’s marketing efforts to target national organizations
and tourists coming into Washington from around the country.

“I thought the marketing team did a pretty good job,” Lacy said.

Despite some success, the failure of the Black community in
Washington, D.C. to support the hotel became a significant factor in
the demise of the hotel, according to Lacy. “It was a lack of support
from the community,” she said.

Lacy also said it became difficult for the hotel to draw a
competitive share of tourist business as more and more hotels opened in
the Washington area during the 1980s. At graduation times the hotel was
booked to capacity. “It was the time between the special events that
the hotel had trouble filling its rooms,” Lacy said.

Lacy said hospitality management students, who were required to
satisfy a portion of internship requirements at the university hotel,
now fulfill all their hotel training at other facilities around the
Washington area.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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