With national attention focused on an e-mail sent by a Nashville hospitality executive comparing first lady Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee, Tennessee’s tourism industry has started to feel the fallout.
The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development heard from several people Monday who said Walt Baker’s e-mail had turned them off, costing the Volunteer State some potential visitors.
“This is not what they expected from Tennessee,” said Susan Whitaker, the department’s commissioner. “And I can’t say I blame any of them. We certainly feel this was inexcusable and unacceptable.”
Baker, who until Monday was CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, forwarded the e-mail Thursday night to a dozen friends, including lobbyists, an aide to Mayor Karl Dean and the president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
National media outlets and blogs across the country picked up the story over the weekend and into Monday, heaping scorn on a hospitality leader acting inhospitably to the president’s wife by laughing at a racial stereotype.
They also pointed out this wasn’t the first time Tennessee garnered national attention for a racially insensitive e-mail about one of the Obamas. Last summer, legislative staffer Sherri Goforth sent an e-mail depicting President Obama as a “spook” with white eyes on a black background that ignited a wave of backlash across the country.
The repercussions for Baker and his marketing firm, Mercatus Communications, continued Monday as the hospitality association ended its contract with Mercatus and dismissed Baker as CEO, effective immediately.
“We found it offensive,” said Pete Weien, a hospitality association board member and general manager of Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. “It is not in any way, shape or form representative of our association.”
Another association board member, Tom Negri, said the e-mail was “abhorrent.”
“It was inappropriate, I don’t care who was reading it,” said Negri, managing director of Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. “I’d like to live in a place where we don’t have to look at e-mails like that.”
Weien declined to say what the association had paid Baker and Mercatus under a contract signed in 2005. He said the association’s other four staff members won’t be affected, and the organization will start looking for a new CEO soon.
Baker, who apologized Saturday, said before the association met that he was resigned to whatever happened.
“I fully accept the board’s decision,” he said.
Nonprofits cut off Mercatus
The Metro Arts Commission and the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville also terminated their contracts with Mercatus on Monday. The arts commission contract had a one-year cap of $45,000.
The United Way had employed Mercatus co-founder Phil Martin for 20 years. United Way chairman Gerard Geraghty said the nonprofit planned to continue working with Martin separately from Mercatus.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau dropped Mercatus and Baker on Saturday. The CVB had paid the firm about $11,800 a month since June 2008 for marketing and media strategy, negotiation and placement services, spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said.
State tourism officials received phone calls and e-mails from a few people who were “saying they had planned to come here and now will not if this is the situation they will arrive in,” said Phyllis Qualls-Brooks, spokeswoman for the Department of Tourist Development.
Qualls-Brooks said she couldn’t provide a full count of those contacts.
Whitaker said she wasn’t planning any national media strategy specifically to counter the bad press resulting from Baker’s e-mail. She said most of Tennessee’s $14.4 billion tourism business comes from people who have been here before or have heard about the state’s attractions through word of mouth.
“That, I feel, is the best possible defense against this,” Whitaker said. “But I’m not going to minimize it. Anytime something like this happens, it’s certainly not positive.”