Nation of Islam Schedules Huge L.A. Convention
By DEBORAH BELGUM
In an unexpected economic burst for Los Angeles but also one that is prompting extra security safeguards, as many as 12,000 to 20,000 Nation of Islam delegates will be coming to Los Angeles in February for the group’s annual worldwide convention.
It’s the first time that the Nation of Islam has held its Saviours’ Day conference outside of Chicago where the group is headquartered.
The arrival of delegates from as far away as Switzerland and Ghana is expected to pump at least $2.8 million into the local economy.
Conventioneers from the Nation of Islam, which is led by Louis Farrakhan, will be staying at seven hotels around the Los Angeles International Airport area. Another delegation, including Farrakhan, will be staying at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
“We are thrilled about the impact this is going to have on the eight hotels where they will be staying in two parts of the city,” said Bill Buckley, executive vice president of sales at the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has been helping the Nation of Islam set up its conference.
Because of the controversial nature of the group and because of anti-Muslim sentiment following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security will be high at the hotels, as well as around the Los Angeles Convention Center where the conference will take place.
The Nation of Islam’s local representatives met last week with Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, Deputy Chief J.I. Davis, head of police operations and police precinct captains. They also met with Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca and L.A. city council members Alex Padilla, Nate Holden and Jan Perry.
“In light of what has happened with Sept. 11, we will be doing some extra deployment,” said LAPD spokesman Lt. Horace Frank. “We are going to be aware of what is going on and arranging security around the hotels.”
Nation of Islam representatives also plan to meet next week with the full L.A. City Council to answer questions about the event, said Tony Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s Western regional minister.
The Saviours’ Day convention begins Feb. 14 at the convention center and ends Feb. 18 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where Farrakhan will deliver his main address.
The decision to select Los Angeles for the annual Saviours’ Day, which is the anniversary of the death of group founder Elijah Muhammad, took many city officials by surprise.
Cory J. Abke, who is in charge of hotel sales around LAX and books mostly religious and spiritual groups for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, received a call about the event on Sept. 10. Two weeks later he had breakfast with a local Nation of Islam representative at the Biltmore to discuss details of the conference.
“This just came out of the blue,” he said.
There were several reasons Los Angeles was chosen. First, Farrakhan will be giving a violin concert on Feb. 13 at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center. Often, the religious group’s meetings follow Farrakhan’s schedule.
Second, the religious group wants to concentrate on its message of world peace, said Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.
“Los Angeles is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country,” Muhammad said. “There is a lot of fighting among young people called gang members. The minister (Farrakhan) wanted to speak to that pain and hurt between the black and the brown to get gang members to resolve their conflicts.”
The religious group will be dispatching 3,000 to 6,000 “peace ambassadors” to walk the streets in L.A.’s high-crime areas to shake hands and resolve differences.
“Because of the nature of the Nation of Islam, they do tend to take a more stringent security approach, making sure that anybody that goes into the meeting halls are registered,” Rakis said. “We know what to expect.”
In the hotel industry, they are known as SMERFs, or Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal groups. And while L.A.’s hotel industry has been walloped by a decline in business travel, SMERFs are not only traveling as much as before, but have slightly increased their meeting activity.
“Thank goodness for the religious and fraternal groups,” said Jon Kimball, general manager of the 740-room Westin Los Angeles Airport. “They seem to want to be together more now than ever.”
SMERFs have become the economic backbone of any convention hotel or meeting hotel that depends on large groups to stay for four or five days at a time. They tend to be volunteers or members of a fraternal organization who pay their own way and don’t depend on corporate decisions to determine whether or not they travel.
Hotel managers around Los Angeles say inquiries are up among these groups concerning meeting rooms and hotel space. Also, many that had meetings scheduled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks kept to their schedule.
“To whatever extent the hotel industry has gotten through this economic slump, it has been through individuals and consumers who have helped. That includes groups like the SMERFs meeting,” said Bruce Baltin, executive vice president of PKF Consulting, a hotel consulting firm.