309 | ‘Stay the Course’: Kathleen Bertrand recalls hospitality career focused on growth through diversity

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Kathleen Bertrand, a jazz vocalist, performs in her hometown of Atlanta. Bertrand is a former executive of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, where she helped boost Black travel, mentored up-and-coming hospitality and tourism professionals and established diversity programs.

Music brings people together, leads to change, says jazz vocalist and arts supporter

Despite the coronavirus pandemic that has crippled many business sectors, Georgia’s film industry in 2020 generated more than $2 billion in revenue and saved 40,000 jobs. Including wages, the overall economic impact of the state’s film industry is more than $9 billion.

The state’s film industry feeds into the hospitality sector. In fiscal 2019, nearly 112 million visitors spent more than $66 billion in Georgia.

The Peach State began to attract film makers in 2005 when it passed an industry tax incentive. It updated the law in 2008 and set off a business boom that has only gotten stronger over the decade that followed.

A year later, Kathleen Bertrand of Atlanta took steps to make sure African Americans and other people of color were not left out of the entertainment gold rush.

Bertrand founded the BronzeLens Film Festival, which honors and recognizes Black artists and other people of color in the film industry.

Bertrand served at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau for more than 30 years. She is among Georgia’s African American power brokers who positioned the

state as a place where independent film makers of color can produce works worthy enough to compete for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Oscar awards.

‘STAY THE COURSE’: Episode 309 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Kathleen Bertrand sharing from where she draws her courage, creativity and inspiration and her views of civil and human rights in the 21st century.

During her tenure at the Atlanta CVB, Bertrand developed other initiatives to promote diversity, inclusion and equality in the hospitality industry.

In a conversation with Long Live Lodging, Bertrand shares her outlook about the state of civil rights and cultural affairs in Atlanta and the nation. She also talks about what it takes for Black women to succeed in hospitality, whom she looks to for inspiration and why she is always prepared to promote her hometown of Atlanta.

Bertrand retired in 2015 as senior vice president of community and governmental affairs at the Atlanta CVB. In 2020 she was able to shelter in place with her husband, Andre Bertrand, and with plenty of time to think big thoughts.

Last year, “was challenging and difficult in many ways. And in other ways it has been life changing and inspiring,” she said. “I think that the reckoning with racism in America is long overdue. The fact that this generation has to ask the same questions and be handled in much the same way as my generation or the generation before me is disgusting, disappointing and hurtful.

“It’s hurtful to me as a parent. I have millennial children and I always thought when they were born in the ’80s, that life would be different for them somehow, some way.”

The death of George Floyd last May at the hands of police in Minneapolis, as well as the March police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the citizen’s arrest in Brunswick, Georgia, that led to the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 are just a few of the shocking events that defined race relations in America in 2020.

Though it does, indeed, seem like little has changed since the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, Bertrand said she sees one significant difference now in the widespread public protests for reform – the multi-racial makeup of civil rights demonstrators.

“From the standpoint of what happened this summer, I think it was overdue. But also it’s different in that the people that were marching in the street didn’t all look like me. And that’s the change that is needed,” she said. “Something needed to change when it came to how African Americans and the African American story is perceived and told in this country.

“It is my hope that this grand coalition of millennials and boomers and everybody else of all hues and colors will hold together and will be committed to the work that it takes to make this country better.”

Kathleen Bertrand attends the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, an event she founded to honor African American artists and other people of color who work in the film industry. The festival in 2017 was designated as an Academy Award qualifying event. As an executive with the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Bertrand established several programs to promote the city as a mecca for Black travel and business.

Eventful Career

Bertrand started at the bureau in 1983 as a membership account executive.  Her former boss, William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta CVB, credits Bertrand for positioning Atlanta as a top destination for Black travelers.

She led the bureau’s diversity marketing program; the Diversity in Hospitality Industry Summit and founded Hospitality Industry Professionals, a mentorship program that promotes professional development and prepares minorities for leadership in the tourism and hospitality industries.

She also created the Atlanta Heritage Guide, Atlanta CVB’s first African-American visitor publication.

WATCH: HISTORY MAKER: In a biography about Kathleen Bertrand, The History Makers features videos of Bertrand sharing highlights of her career at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. In this video, Bertrand recalls the creation of the CVB’s Atlanta Heritage Guide.

During her career at the CVB, Bertrand also fulfilled her calling as a jazz recording artist and composer, which entrenched her in Atlanta’s arts and culture scene.

Music Heals

Bertrand believes cultural arts, music and entertainment continue to break down barriers and bring people together to learn about each other and where they come from and thus generate love and respect for one another.

Growing up, Bertrand had older brothers who listened to recordings of jazz artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Every now and then they’d spin a vocalist such as Nancy Wilson.

“It was Albert Ayler, another jazz musician of that age, who said music is the healing force of the universe,” Bertrand said. “I just fully embraced that long ago in my music career because music does heal; it crosses divides; and it brings people together.”

Bertrand has performed throughout the country and the world for all-Black audiences; White listeners; and mixed audiences. “It really just comes down to the music and how people can appreciate a song.”

Bertrand said she hopes the racial unity we’ve witnessed during the Black Lives Matter protests and other demonstrations means we’ve turned a corner in America.

“The young people and the fever behind where they were this past summer is not letting up.

“I think the whole election and the process there has been teaching them how you can have power in a different kind of way. And that power comes through your vote, which is the voice that you have when it comes to the local climate, as well as the national climate.

“And so I think this summer helped to empower a number of people that had just let life pass them by and had not really paid attention to the writing on the wall as it related to the inequality and injustice in our country.

“It is in unity that I think we affect change. Black people alone cannot affect the change that needs to happen in this country. I just hope that they will be inspired to stay the course.”

Kathleen Bertrand is flanked by her children in May 2018 when Spelman College presented her with an honorary degree. Bertrand graduated from Spelman in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English. Her children are Ikechi, Amichi, Chioma and Chinela.

Her Sheroes

As one of few women of color in leadership in the Atlanta tourism industry in the 1980s, Bertrand looked to other women of color for inspiration. At industry conferences, she would be one of few women in the room and usually the only Black person.

“Over the years, I started to see that change. I started to really see the changes at the top. Women that were heads of convention and visitors bureaus; women that were in executive positions within the industry and at the hotels and the facilities.”

Bertrand remembers when the late Ahmeenah Young became director of the Philadelphia convention center and Brenda Scott rose to CEO of the CVB in Mobile, Alabama.

She also points to her friends Erica Qualls-Battey and Valerie Ferguson.

Qualls Battey is general manager at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. In 2018, Marriott International also named her area general manager.

Ferguson held senior executive roles with Loews Corp. before becoming director of lodging experience, planning and integration at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in Orlando.

Bertrand also draws inspiration from the young women she’s mentored. She mentioned Davonne Reaves, who served as president of Bertrand’s Hospitality Industry Professionals organization.

Bertrand said Reaves is a good example of a Black woman who takes advantage of the opportunities the industry presents because that’s what it takes to move up.

The women met when Reaves was a student at Georgia State University’s Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration.

Today, Reaves is 33 and founder of The Vonne Group, a hotel consulting firm in Atlanta. In 2020, she was inducted as a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants and received its Lori Raleigh Award for Emerging Excellence in Hospitality Consulting.  And she recently became part owner of a hotel in Oklahoma.

“She saw the path,” Bertrand said. “She didn’t say, ‘I can’t do this because I’m Black’ and ‘I can’t do this because I’m a woman.’ I’m so proud of what she’s done and the space that she’s making because now there will be people coming along that will look at her.”

LISTEN: Check out the previous installments of Long Live Lodging’s Black History Month series.

Episode 304, “This is Huge”: Choice Hotels International makes history with Black-owned multi-unit deal

Episode 305, “Traveling on Hospitality”: Andrew Young remembers life on the road toward civil rights

Episode 307, ‘A National Story’: Black travel in America evolved with the Civil Rights Movement

Melting Pot

Bertrand is a native of Atlanta, and a graduate of Grady High School and Spelman College, a liberal arts school for Black women.

She recalled the people and events that shaped her world view, including Martin Luther King Sr., father of the slain Civil Rights leader.

She talked about her entry into the tourism industry and how she participated in the city’s transition into the business and tourism hub of the South.

“I came to the convention and visitors bureau and interviewed because of a dare from my friends. I was living in the Virgin islands at the time and they said, ‘Oh, you should go work for the tourist board because all you ever do is talk about Atlanta,’ which was true because to me there was just no other place like it.

“I grew up having Martin Luther King (Sr.) come to my church. Our churches were a block apart and people called him M.L. When would come to the church, it was packed because, of course, he had something significant to say.”

Grady High School in the 1970s was mostly white. Often, Bertrand was the only Black student in class. “Yet Grady was a wonderful experience for me. I had wonderful classmates. Grady was known as a melting pot. We had Blacks, whites, Jewish, Christian, Native Americans, Hispanic.

“That formed my view of how we could work together. I’m a child of the ’60s and the civil unrest of the ’60s is part of my life.

“Spelman shaped me and directed my critical thinking in a way that helped me navigate through the world. And because of those experiences, I was able to come to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and look at this new industry called hospitality that I had never had a part of, but I knew that the city that I was in was very special.”

Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of Atlanta in 1990. Bertrand said that was the beginning of Atlanta transitioning into the “New South.”

Jackson signed laws that required public service contracts and infrastructure projects include minority-owned businesses.

Kathleen Bertrand, right, poses with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was elected the city’s 60th mayor in 2017.

Meanwhile, Bertrand advised her colleagues at the CVB that Black colleges such as Spelman held reunions in the city, so why not go after that business from other colleges? And target Black travelers through other programming.

That led her to create the Atlanta Heritage Magazine to let people know Atlanta is a city that welcomes the melting pot of travelers, particularly African Americans in search of a cultural experience.

“Atlanta has always been this place where African Americans can have great growth. You just had to know what industry it was going to be. And I happened to be in hospitality. It was a place of growth where dreams are possible.”

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