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A year ago, in the midst of racial protests, the U.S. travel industry was pushed to reckon with the reality that the industry remained devoid of diversity at the leadership level. It’s a topic that has remained at the forefront of boardroom discussions, particularly at destination management organizations.

Among the ideas that have emerged is the need to focus on workforce development and create apprenticeship opportunities for diverse applicants interested in a long-term career in tourism. Diversity at the bottom levels of this industry isn’t a problem, as one tourism executive told Skift six months ago, “but who wants to stick around 30 years to move up and see those opportunities?”

That’s actually Marc Gibson’s story. The director of inclusion and engagement at Explore Charleston began his post-college journey 28 years ago, working in the mailroom department of his hometown’s convention and visitors bureau.

Today, Gibson not only heads Explore Charleston’s diversity and inclusion efforts, but he’s also the leader of the tourism office’s first Intern Cultural Enrichment Program (ICEP), launched in May 2021, to “combat workforce and diversity challenges in the tourism sector.” Gibson’s approach: to collaborate with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) to create a pipeline of interns who will become tomorrow’s diverse travel executives.

Marc Gibson, director of inclusion and engagement at Explore Charleston, runs the CVB’s new Intern Cultural Enrichment Program.

The first edition of the 10-week internship program wrapped up at the end of July. Thirteen students primarily from Virginia State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University and Benedict College, completed paid summer positions at participating travel and hospitality businesses in Charleston. These included two resorts — Wild Dunes Resort and Kiawah Island Golf Resort — as well as four boutique hotels and the Charleston International Airport.

“One of the things that we wanted to focus on was making leaders within the hospitality industry,” said Gibson. “We not only wanted to get entry level, but we wanted to groom people that become leaders and teach them about various jobs that exist that they may not have considered to be a hospitality job or may not have considered working in this industry.”

At the pinning ceremony to celebrate the inaugural graduating class of interns, as well as the participating businesses and universities, Gibson agreed that it was like glimpsing into the next generation of Charleston’s tourism leaders.

“You go back in hindsight and say, man, I wish something like this was available when I was coming through, just because you can see the impact that they’re having already.”

It’s About Building Relationships

Over the two decades he spent at Explore Charleston, Gibson said he moved up a “stairway” that led him to work in multiple departments there, from visitor services to marketing, before ending up in the executive department.

Combined with his community volunteering work, Gibson said working across the convention and visitors bureau’s multiple departments allowed him to be in a great position to help Explore Charleston with diversity efforts.

When the idea to look to HBCUs as a pipeline for future tourism leaders emerged, Gibson was challenged to launch the program in time for summer 2021. His efforts to build relationships with the institutions began last Fall.

“We became aware of a consortium that had several HBCUs that we could tap into, and just got a platform that we could explain what our efforts were, what we were trying to do, and they will trust us into exposing them to what we wanted to offer.”

The HBCU Hospitality Consortium‘s president happened to be a lead professor at Virginia State University, so Gibson approached her first for an initial meeting and open conversation on Explore Charleston’s internship program idea and goals.

Growing the pool of HBCUs brought up unique challenges, including building awareness and trust in a Covid year.

“One of the things that we realized is each HBCU had a very unique need or role so it’s not like a cookie cutter kind of thing, where you could go in and give them the same thing,” said Gibson.

“We actually established relationships with your professors and the students, many of the students got to know us and we offered the services our advice on many things that they were interested in, and just wanted to help them regardless of what the return on investment was.”

That open-door approach as a lead in hospitality able to advise students is what helped forge the institutions’ bond with Explore Charleston and Gibson, who said they focused primarily on making the students aware of what was out there for them if they considered careers within the hospitality industry.

A “Sky Is The Limit” Approach

Gibson said it was important for students to think as big as they wanted in selecting from the jobs on offer, and applying for what they were interested in.

“We wanted them to think as big as they want, so the exposure to their jobs and the possibilities to the employees — we didn’t try to refine their search to something that we thought they should apply for. We gave them the pie, the sky’s the limit and whatever they have to offer, you pick it out and if you think that’s a good fit for you, we will help you get into that role and give you the tools so that they would have that interview with you and see if you’re a good fit for that position.”

Explore Charleston worked with both employers and students in connecting them to each other,  while making sure the position was something that the student wanted.

Providing an open path to opportunities involved other practical challenges, Gibson said, adding that one of the major lessons learned is that timing is everything. Because Covid postponed last year’s internships in the area, Explore Charleston’s internship program faced competition from a pool of students who were returning to their postponed placements and who had that locked up a semester ahead.

“So the equity part was huge, that we had the kind of a relationship with employers that we can bring candidates forward that may not have gotten a look.”

Another potential barrier would have been summer housing for students, but Explore Charleston’s relationship with the College of Charleston was a big part of solving that problem.

“Many interns, that is one of the proclivities that prohibits them from traveling abroad or traveling away – ‘where will I live if I take this internship that’s away from home?’”

Gibson said every intern was housed during the ICEP program. “They were just asked just to be the best interns possible.”

Weekly Cultural Enrichment and Fellowship

One of Gibson’s goals in establishing the program was to ensure employers would agree to the students taking part in a once-weekly cultural enrichment meeting, consisting of rotating guest speakers who are business owners and professionals in various areas of the hospitality industry in Charleston.

“We were asking that we meet with the students once a week, and in lieu of just their internship we would talk about things that were culturally important to Charlestonians in the hope that they would one day remember something and consider Charleston as a place that they could see themselves working and living in our community,” said Gibson.

chef kevin mitchell in kitchen talking to students in suits

Weekly guest speakers included Chef Kevin Mitchell, who also teaches at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

“We’ve had Chef Kevin Mitchell, he teaches culinary here in Charleston, Tracey Richardson of Lillie’s of Charleston barbecue sauce, we had a wine owner here in Charleston, tour guide Al Miller and Corey Alston to talk about the sweet grass basket weaving and the Gullah-Geechee corridor down here… so we felt like we’ve given them a lot of history of our culture.”

Beyond the speakers, subjects have ranged from career pathways to financing and revenue management, Gibson said, while also making it personal.

“That’s the most important thing is that we’re getting in that fellowship with them,” said Gibson.

explore charleston interns in conference room

Students and Explore Charleston meet once a week for industry guest speakers and fellowship.

It’s that weekly gathering that Gibson said has been the most rewarding aspect of leading this program.

“Watching how they interact with each other, you can see a difference when the students come together, and someone from the airport versus somewhere from a resort, and someone who works at a downtown property, a boutique or whatever, and they’re coming together and now they have this time that they can share among themselves,” said Gibson. “They can identify with things that they’re going through that me as a mentor can’t coach them up into. It’s beautiful.

A Momentum Changer for Charleston Tourism

With the first Explore Charleston internship cultural enrichment program completed, Gibson said that after some fine tuning, it would serve as a catalyst for the next cycle.

“We’re already making plans and talking to different colleges and setting up, especially the ones who did not hear about what we were doing. But again, what makes it work is the relationships that you establish with the people at the college, and making sure that we’re fitting in with the need that they have so that we’re not offering them something that is not beneficial to their students or to their programs there.”

Some of the interns have received job offers, Gibson said, while others are making plans to stay or are trying to figure out how they’ll make their way back next summer.

“It is exactly what we wanted was just to introduce them, and just let them see what it is.”

Gibson is optimistic that the future Charleston tourism will be more diverse, and that the internship will help emphasize the change that needs to happen for tourism to be more inclusive and holistic in career offerings.

“Having it pushed on different levels, the way we’re doing it within our travel industry as a whole, not just talking about the business but that they need to see faces within our travel industry, has been a momentum changer.”

Photo Credit: The inaugural class of Explore Charleston's internship cultural enrichment program with historically Black colleges and university students, led by Marc Gibson. RK Photo / Explore Charleston