Diversity and Inclusion

Workplace Bullying Allegations Roil Tourism Diversity Matters

Greg DeShields, former executive director of Tourism Diversity Matters, speaking at The Collective Experience 2023

Skift Take

The nonprofit Tourism Diversity Matters faces a scandal involving workplace bullying – its executive director has been fired, and the organization's founder and president has stepped down.

Greg DeShields, the former executive director of Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM), a nonprofit focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, was dismissed in February after seven women signed an open letter accusing him of workplace bullying. 

In the letter, the women claim a “pattern of abuse” that included berating, humiliating, and disparaging women both in private and in front of others for at least ten years while at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he headed its PHIL Diversity effort since 2014, and TDM, which he joined as executive director in 2021. 

In addition, TDM’s Founder and CEO, Mike Gamble, stepped down. Gamble is also the co-founder of executive recruitment firm SearchWide Global.

Skift Meetings contacted DeShields about his termination. He responded, “I appreciate your inquiry. I respect the decision of the board. However, as this concerns personnel matters, it would be inappropriate for me to further discuss specifics. My focus remains on our common goal of promoting tourism and attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am looking forward to continuing this important work in my future pursuits.”

As a result of the shakeup, the organization is not taking on new projects. “TDM is honoring all of its outstanding commitments but will not take on any new engagement,” said Adam Burke, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board and interim chair of TDM. He was elected chair for a full year at a TDM board meeting on Friday. “It’s time to take a step back. We are looking at this as an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and listen, ensuring we are providing the right work to support the DEI movement.”

No Leader Beyond Recourse

Chiriga “Zoe” Moore, a DEI consultant who has worked with TDM, is one of the women who signed the open letter against DeShields. “What you do in the dark will come out in the light,” said Moore during an interview with Skift Meetings. “To lead an organization in DEI, you have to be a person of principle and practice.”

She stresses that her intent in signing the letter was not for TDM’s DEI work to stop. Instead, she wants this behavior addressed and DeShields held accountable for the harm he caused. If the progress that has been made is reversed, everyone will get hurt, she said.

Elliott Ferguson, II, president and CEO of Destination DC and TDM’s first board chairman, was shocked when he learned about the accusations. “When I read the letter, it was a painful pill to swallow. To have this happen at an organization that is focused on making sure employees are empowered,” said Ferguson. “The key thing for us right now is to focus on the victims and to make sure that we as the board are having soul-searching conversations about what we need to focus on, what the missing links are, and how we move forward.”

The Work of Tourism Diversity Matters

TDM was founded in 2021 during a time of social unrest. In a statement to Skift Meetings, Gamble explains, “It was born out of a desire to do better and be better during a tragic and turbulent time. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the deep uncertainty of living through a global pandemic, a group of travel industry leaders came together to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion through a collective impact model.”

Founding partners included the ConferenceDirect Foundation, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, and SearchWide Global. Stakeholders and board members include the biggest organizations in the meetings and events industry. 

Since its inception, TDM has worked with many tourism organizations. An example is the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA), which hired TDM to conduct a comprehensive evaluation, executed mainly through structured surveys and collaboration with senior leadership.

“Our work with TDM has been completed, and the insights have been instrumental in shaping our DEI initiatives, notably leading to the appointment of our first-ever director of DEI and community engagement,” said Julie Coker, president and CEO of SDTA.

In October 2023, TDM held its first DEI conference, “The Collective Experience.” It attracted approximately 260 attendees, including the heads of destination management organizations from cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., as well as representatives from academic institutions.

Burke says there are no plans to hold a conference this year. Instead, TDM is looking to combine its events with those of other organizations in the DEI space. 

Women Speak Out

On January 15, 2024, Dr. Brandi Baldwin, TDM’s board chair, sent an open letter to the board detailing allegations regarding DeShields’s conduct. According to Burke, this was the first time the board was made aware of the situation. Included in Baldwin’s email were letters from a former TDM staff member and intern voicing similar concerns.

TDM hired Jaffe Dickerson, an employment and labor attorney, to investigate these allegations, and DeShields was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. Dickerson did not respond to a request for comment from Skift Meetings.

“Greg yelled at me, was abrasive, cut me off when I tried to speak,” Baldwin explained to Skift Meetings. “When I decided to leave TDM, I knew I had to speak out to help those coming up behind me.”

Several others contacted Baldwin about their experiences, and on February 15, “An Open Letter to Leaders in the Tourism ​& Hospitality Industry was released by ten women, including a former TDM executive assistant, apprentice, and consultant, a former PHLDiversity Philadelphia CVB coordinator, and an intern. The letter details allegations regarding their interactions with DeShields. 

On February 16, TDM’s board of directors convened to review the results of Dickerson’s investigation and the additional allegations in the open letter. “During that meeting, the board voted unanimously to terminate DeShields’ employment with immediate effect,” Burke said. 

“I speak for the whole board when I say it is deeply disturbing that anyone would have these types of experiences with anyone at TDM,” says Burke. “A good reminder of why the work is so important is this instance, as it takes courage to come forward. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the women who have spoken out.”

Ferguson agrees. “There’s a lesson tied to making sure that if you’re in a work environment and you are feeling marginalized or you are — any of the things that were articulated in the correspondence — then you should feel very comfortable speaking up because we can’t respond to what we don’t know,” he said. 

Now that the investigation is complete, Burke says TDM reached out to the original three women who spoke out, hoping to engage in dialogue. “We are a learning organization and want to understand the root causes that allowed this to happen,” says Burke. “It’s our hope that Dr. Baldwin will re-engage with us as the only way to learn is by having open dialogue. That’s how you heal, reconcile, and move forward.”

Baldwin responded, “After witnessing the inner dynamics of TDM, board member alliances, and prioritization of fundraising over adding tangible value, I’ve come to the conclusion that re-engaging with them to assist in their progress might not be the most effective course of action. The seriousness of their commitment to DEI wasn’t evident to me; however, if they’re committed to moving forward with sincerity, I hope they will reflect on missteps and build a strong foundation for sustainable DEI work.”

The need for more progress in the DEI space has many frustrated. “Years ago, the industry’s Unity Team researched best corporate inclusion practices to serve as models. A book was produced from the research and left on shelves never to be used,” says Joan Eisenstodt, a hospitality and meetings industry consultant and trainer. “The cited incidents are too reminiscent of the sexism and ageism I experienced as an MPI delegate to the EIC (Events Industry Council). Though not a woman of color, the rephrasing of my comments and demeaning of my ideas stayed with me. The harm done to the signers is not fixed with an apology or ‘we didn’t know.’”

Solid Governance Needed

The Open Letter also criticizes TDM’s “absence of a formal governance structure, particularly an absent secretary, vice ​chair, or publicly listed treasurer on their website for years.” In addition, the letter states financial transparency ​remains elusive, with neither DeShields nor Gamble providing board members with a ​single financial report in 2023.

Burke explains that TDM was founded as a 501c3. An attorney advised a switch to a 501c6 the following year. “When we went to file, we learned the attorney apparently didn’t file them properly, and we are waiting for the IRS to reclassify,” says Burke. “We are awaiting a determination letter from the IRS and are 100 percent committed to financial transparency, and our tax returns are freely available.” TDM’s tax returns for 2021 and 2022 are available online.

Burke says the organization is financially solvent, but it’s important to remember it’s a start-up in its early stages. He recognizes that solid governance must be put in place as TDM becomes more established, so it is turning to the Association Governance Institute (AGI) for help. Launched by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), AGI is focused on navigating the complexities of governance. Achieving mission-related goals and maintaining transparency and trust with stakeholders are at the heart of AGI. 

In addition, the executive director role is being eliminated. A search committee is working on finding a new CEO.

At Friday’s board meeting, TDM’s 2024 officers and committee chairs were approved and include: 

  • Chair – Adam Burke, President & CEO, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board
  • Vice Chair – Leah Smiley, President, The Society for Diversity & Institute for Diversity Certification
  • Secretary – Lynette Montoya, President & CEO, Latino Hotel Association
  • Treasurer – Stacy Ritter, President & CEO, Visit Lauderdale
  • Governance Committee Chair – Sherrif Karamat, President & CEO, PCMA
  • Finance Committee Chair – Stacy Ritter, President & CEO, Visit Lauderdale
  • Search Committee Chair – Erika Broadwater, President & CEO, National Association of African Americans in Human Resources