By Maura Keller

Black, indigenous and persons of color (BIPOC) employees and leaders are vastly underrepresented in the travel and hospitality industry. In an effort to create more leadership pathways for people of color, Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, in collaboration with Tourism Diversity Matters, an industry resource for diversity expertise, launched the Diversity Apprenticeship Program (DAP).

Experience Columbus President and CEO Brian Ross was first inspired to bring the program to Ohio’s capital city after discussing it with Mike Gamble, founder of Tourism Diversity Matters and co-founder of SearchWide Global, a full-service executive search firm.

“Our team then collaborated with the city of Columbus, the Columbus Foundation and Franklin County to secure funding for a two-year period,” says Shannon Jones, Ph.D., director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Programming at Experience Columbus. “I was brought on by Experience Columbus at this time to oversee the venture. The program officially launched in August 2021.”


The Diversity Apprenticeship Program provides paid, hands-on, on-the-job experience for people who identify as BIPOC to work across multiple departments (i.e., guest services, event planning, marketing, sales, finance, etc.) in travel industry organizations. Upon successfully completing 600 working hours, over a period of six months, the apprentice(s) are offered a full-time, manager-level position or higher, at one of the participating partner locations.

The DAP is a way that Columbus is committing to actionable change to increase diversity in the hospitality industry. “Residents and visitors alike can and should expect hospitality workers to reflect themselves,” Jones says.

The apprentices in the program are assigned to at least one host organization and work across its multiple cross- functional departments (i.e., marketing, administration, guest services, sales, finance, event planning) for 600 hours during the six-month apprenticeship cycle.

As Jones further explains, the apprentices are assigned a host site as it relates to tourism, hospitality, events, venue or sports career paths that align with their professional career goals. Some tracks include time at multiple organizations, while the majority are with one organization for the full six months. The 15 host organizations include:

  • Cameron Mitchell Restaurants
  • Center of Science and Industry (COSI)
  • Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Columbus Regional Airport Authority
  • Concord Hospitality Enterprises
  • Experience Columbus
  • Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
  • Greater Columbus Convention Center
  • Greater Columbus Sports Commission
  • Hilton Columbus – Downtown
  • Hilton Columbus – Easton
  • Hyatt Regency
  • Levy Restaurants
  • National Veterans Memorial and Museum
  • Sonesta Columbus Downtown

“Applicants must be 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or GED, submit a background check and self- identify as BIPOC,” Jones says. “Interviews are held with advancing candidates after the application window closes. The Diversity Apprenticeship Program is held at least twice a year, with the exception of the inaugural class and Experience Columbus is currently in the process of selecting its fourth cohort.”


As with any new program, the DAP has faced its fair share of challenges during the program’s establishment and ongoing implementation.

“The Diversity Apprenticeship Program launched at a time when the hospitality and tourism industry was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. Visitors, from both meetings and conventions as well as leisure, were slow to return,” Jones says.

While the DAP’s participating host organizations faced their own setbacks, the DAP began at a pivotal moment in industry history.

“On the other side of the COVID-19 recovery, a more equitable and resilient tourism environment has emerged,” Jones says. “Companies became intentional about who they were hiring as they worked to recover from employment losses.”

Another challenge of note, the program apprentices, unlike interns, often have no background in the industry.

Jones works closely with the program’s host sites to plan out a curriculum-style approach that allows for a smooth onboarding process.

“I also meet with apprentices weekly, and communicate with host sites regularly, to ensure seamless operations,” Jones says. “Apprentices are given opportunities outside of their work settings to get involved in local industry events, such as Experience Columbus’ Annual Meeting, the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association’s Annual Conference and more.”


So far, 18 apprentices have completed the DAP, including the third cohort with seven apprentices who graduated from the program on April 26.

Prior to joining the Diversity Apprenticeship Program with Experience Columbus, former apprentice Alicia Norman, who now works as an event specialist at Experience Columbus, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and her master’s in Public Administration from Villanova University. She then returned to Columbus, Ohio, and began working in the financial services sector. Although hospitality is new to her, she has always had a passion for event planning and was excited to learn and grow in a new industry.

“As most of the world reflected on change during the COVID-19 pandemic, I, too, did some serious introspection about what I wanted my personal and professional life to look like,” Norman says. “While at home as a remote employee in the financial services industry, I decided my position was no longer a fit for my career aspirations. I was inspired to seek new mentorship, learn new skills and make an immediate impact in my community. That’s when I came across Experience Columbus.”

—Atheer Shalash

As a Black woman, Norman says that she immediately understood the importance of an operation like the Diversity Apprenticeship Program, even though it was only in its inception, and she was unfamiliar with the hospitality and tourism sector.

“I could see myself in the role of event coordinator, and I could see myself reflected in the company after interviewing with Shannon Jones,” Norman says. “It has been tremendously rewarding to observe people of color become better represented in the tourism space, in real time. The connections, both through mentorship and networking, that apprentices can make in Greater Columbus are invaluable.”

People beyond Ohio are even starting to notice the impact this is having. While at a conference with the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals (NCBMP), other attendees and DEIA experts would tell Norman how they were blown away by Columbus’ convention and visitors bureau (CVB).

“Experience Columbus’ Diversity Apprenticeship Program has laid the foundation for my professional career, and I am confident that my peers have had similar experiences with their own host organization sites,” Norman says.

Atheer Shalash is among the most recent group of graduates to complete the program and now works full time as a ticket sales consultant for the Columbus Blue Jackets. She is a Columbus native as well as a second-generation Palestinian immigrant with a passion for working in the community. Atheer has been involved in her community for years, where she has served as a client relations coordinator at a local food pantry, as well as participated in student organizations highlighting social justice and human rights causes throughout her college career.

Before joining the Diversity Apprenticeship Program, she also worked as a social media and marketing manager at The Ohio State University (OSU). Shalash received a bachelor’s degree in Public Affairs, Leadership and Management from OSU in May 2022.

“I‘ve cheered on Columbus sports teams all my life, but I never imagined myself beyond the sidelines. It wasn’t until joining the Diversity Apprenticeship Program that I truly saw a professional future for myself in athletics,” Shalash says. “There are a few reasons for this.”

One, Shalash pursued a public affairs degree at OSU before graduating in the spring of 2022. Two, her previous work experience had been completely unrelated. And three, sports are strongly dominated by white men. As a visible, Muslim woman of color, Shalash says she had not seen herself represented in that space before.

“That is one of the many amazing qualities in DAP: It presents opportunities that you would never know are possible. I was fearful of the unknown before becoming an apprentice,” Shalash says. “I questioned if I could be successful in sales without any prior knowledge, and I wondered if my team would accept someone who looks like me. I couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed to the Columbus Blue Jackets team.”

Now, Shalash loves how it feels to make a sale.

“I’ll never forget my first sale. After giving a tour, I sold a family one of our best season ticket passes. My whole team celebrated this milestone with me over lunch,” Shalash says.

During Shalash’s apprenticeship, she’s gained hands-on experience, explored multiple departments and learned from professionals who have decades of wisdom to share.

“I look forward to graduating in April and taking on more responsibilities within the organization,” Shalash says. “I hope other professions can take inspiration from what the hospitality and tourism industry is doing in Columbus. I would love to see every workplace better reflect the world around us.”

Maura Keller is a freelancer writer from the Twin Cities who writes for a number of meetings and convention publications across the country.