When the pandemic hit the U.S. last spring, the shift in the travel industry felt seismic. And then in June, another profound shift — Black Lives Matter protests across the country raised an issue with tentacles that reached across many aspects of society, including travel.
Almost a year later, both issues continue to rage. And as the industry wrestles with how to move forward, experts are adamant that any rebuilding of the travel industry post-pandemic has to include real action on diversity, equity and inclusion.
In fact, Black travelers could be what saves the industry economically.
A recent MMGY survey found that Black U.S. leisure travelers spent $109.4 billion on domestic leisure travel in 2019. Black travelers also took more overnight vacations than other leisure travelers.
Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, credits the company’s recognition of the correlation between staff diversity and guest diversity for some of its recent successes.
“I can tell you that the success of [Salamander Resort and Spa in Virginia] in great part lies with people from all backgrounds feeling comfortable because of its diversity,” he said. “So, there is much to be gained by embracing this path from many different angles.”
Unfortunately, in many ways, Salamander Hotels is an outlier.
We, people of color, are not asking for favors that we are not qualified for. We are simply saying to add equity and inclusion to your HR equation.
“A lot of companies don’t realize, or discount the fact, that people of color are leisure travelers supporting their company, and we should at least have representation that looks like us in their leadership,” said Denella Ri’chard, executive producer and host of the television show “Traveling With Denella Ri’chard,” and an industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience.
According to surveys, travel agencies are not doing much better. A recent Travel Weekly study found that 45% of advisors indicate that fewer than 10% of their clients are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). And a TravelAge West survey found that nearly half (49%) of respondents said that their agency does not take any specific steps to recruit more BIPOC advisors, while 45% say their agency does not do anything to reach out to diverse customers.
Pre-pandemic, leaving those potential sales on the table was wasteful. However, failing to recognize its value now could be economically devastating.There is no question that post-pandemic, the industry is best served by a new way forward.
“I think that we can encourage companies to rethink their approach and help companies understand that it’s not only ethically and morally the right thing to do, but that it’s also critical to their future success,” Devadas said.
Experts say doing so will require examining a failure to include Black talent on several fronts.
The Hiring Issue
Before Orlando Ashford was named executive chairman of Azamara, he was president of Holland America Line — and when he took that position in 2015, he was the first Black person to fill that role at a cruise line ever. His decision to diversify staff was as much about doing the right thing, as it was about being competitive and successful.
“A fundamental concept that I believe in is the idea of collective intelligence,” Ashford said. “A group will outperform an individual; and a diverse group will outperform a homogenous group. The reason is that diversity in the broadest sense — different ideas, concepts, perceptions and life experiences — all triangulating different problems will result in better solutions.”
But even companies that publicly state a desire to be more diverse seem stymied by where to begin.
“It’s important that companies start with a 360-degree review looking at the ratio of Black staff at all levels of their company, including board inclusion,” said Shequita Thompson, founder and principal lead at equity consulting firm STR Consulting. “This requires having Black staff represented in non-tokenistic ways at all levels of companies, from senior management through to frontline positions. As companies are embarking on their equity journey, it’s important to audit their employment cycle to ensure it fosters belonging for all staff — especially staff who identify as Black.”
A more inclusive workforce will also require an examination of traditional ideas of “fit” and “culture,” experts say.
“People say things like ‘well, I like them, but they’re just not as strong for the job,’” Ashford said. “But that’s not technical strength. It’s the cultural strength that they are talking about.”
It’s important that companies start with a 360-degree review looking at the ratio of Black staff at all levels of their company, including board inclusion.
“Hiring for ‘fit’ leaves out entire communities because they do not match the comfortability of the organization,” she said. “People like to hire people who they can see themselves hanging out with. If that person is not someone from the same cultural and racial makeup, it often excludes qualified candidates from being considered for positions.”
Instead of falling back on those tropes, Thompson suggests companies audit their entire employment cycle.
“Look at the recruitment, onboarding, training, operations and exit as employees move through each stage within the company to ensure it’s as inclusive as possible,” she said.
And, Ashford notes, leadership intent on changing company culture can start by looking in the mirror.
“When you are on a Zoom call with your friends and family and network, do the boxes on your screen look like a Benetton commercial or ‘The Brady Bunch’?” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with either, but if your network is not very diverse — if your orbit is not very diverse — how are you going to be able to identify and attract diversity?”
One way to change who comes through the door is active mentorship, notes Devadas.
He suggests the industry go beyond the traditional travel and hospitality schools to consider mentorship options at high schools and beyond, as well as creating relationships with the leaders and educators in those diverse communities.
Salamander Hotels currently partners with Temple University in Philadelphia in both its sports management and hospitality schools. A request for Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels and cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, to speak at a graduation ceremony years ago has led to the company being an integral part of that school’s community.
“Our main reason for it was because it is a school located in a city that is very diverse, and the school has a proactive mission to recruit Black students, not just from Philadelphia but from all over the country,” Devadas said. “So that’s a partnership in which we together can really make a difference.”
Companies who do not feel mentorship is the right route for them will soon have another easy option. Stephanie Jones, founder and CEO of the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative, says the group is set to launch an online Black Tourism Talent Directory next month that will act as repository for Black-owned tourism businesses, Black student internship candidates and Black talent at all levels.
“It’s a matchmaking website for the tourism industry to connect the industry with Black talent,” she said. “And when we say job opportunities, we’re not just talking about hospitality, we’re talking about management and executive leadership jobs. This is our window of opportunity, and this is the time for us to reimagine travel and tourism in the U.S.”
Building an Inclusive Workplace
Experts are clear that the commitment to diversity cannot end at hiring. It must include a desire to create an environment where diverse employees can bring their full, authentic selves to work.
Ashford recalls attending a high-level executive retreat where, as an ice breaker, each of the 10 executives was asked to share their favorite movie. As his turn approached, he realized that the films that jumped to mind (including “Boyz n the Hood”) had the potential of alienating him from his colleagues. Either they would not recognize the film, or they might assume the stereotypes of the film applied to him. When it was his turn, he offered up “Casablanca” instead. It was not until he was leading a presentation about diversity and inclusion the next day that he realized and shared his self-edit.
“I was one of the top 10 executives in this 52,000-person Fortune 220 company, and I didn’t feel comfortable telling everyone my favorite movie,” Ashford said. “Think about what was happening to the people two, five, seven or 10 levels below me on all kinds of topics. That’s the problem.”
A key component of building a better comfort level with employees rests with leadership offering internal and external diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, adds Salamander Hotels’ Devadas.
“We have to do it in a proactive and a structured way with regards to our programming and our policies as a company,” he said. “Part of that is being a company that speaks out for diversity, because in my opinion that’s really important to having your staff feel comfortable and understand how valuable it is to the company at all times.”
One way that companies can demonstrate their commitment is through the Destinations International CEO Pledge. The five-commitment document includes a call for support of BIPOC community initiatives, leadership accountability and the intentional development of executive management roles, and it already has more than 100 signatories, including CEOs from across North America.
Thompson, of STR Consulting, says what happens after companies sign the pledge will be imperative.
“This means investing in and having accountability structures in place that ensure that there is zero tolerance for anti-Black racism,” she said. “Accountability also looks like ensuring that people can safely come forward to report this without fear of reprisal — explicit or informal — from peers or supervisors.”
Bringing Equity to the Top of the Company
Before any change can be implemented, there has to be an understanding that it’s necessary, and a recent TravelAge West survey unveiled a disconnect in the industry. Of the nearly 300 advisors surveyed, about 47% of respondents believe the travel industry should take action to increase diversity, compared to 25% who disagreed and 29% who said they don’t know.
Part of the division may be explained by the fact that “diversity” does not have to mean “racial inclusion” (the term diversity is often all-encompassing, with references to gender, ability and sexual orientation) and because many tourism offerings in the industry rely on racialized communities for their lowest-paid positions.
When things are retreating or retracting, the tendency is to go back to the old ways. As quickly as things can change, they can revert back very quickly.
A Travel Weekly survey found that Black representation at managerial or executive levels among the 423 respondents broke down as follows: Seven were owners, one was an executive vice president, two were senior vice presidents, 12 were managers or branch managers and 31 held other management positions. When asked about opportunities for upward mobility, 60% of Black respondents leaned toward dissatisfaction.
Ri'chard says that the call for equity and inclusion needs to focus on removing the glass ceiling that keeps talented Black executives from climbing higher.
“As we ask for equity and inclusion, please do not get confused: Equal rights do not mean extra rights,” she said. “We, people of color, are not asking for favors that we are not qualified for. We are simply saying to add equity and inclusion to your HR equation for people of color in your organization. Ensure your HR teams are educated and trained on the difference, and make an intentional commitment to secure the executive, C-suite and senior leadership talent pool that is available in this industry. Make an intentional commitment that when mass layoffs are required, you have processes and protections in place to ensure that diverse employees and, in particular, people of color are not adversely impacted in your organization.”
The Post-Pandemic Priority
Statistics show that the pandemic hit the Black community harder than others. When the industry sets out to rebuild, there is concern among experts that a focus on post-pandemic economics will once again push racial inequities to the back burner.
“When businesses and organizations are in growth mode, there tends to be room to try something different,” Ashford said. “When things are retreating or retracting, the tendency is to go back to the old ways. As quickly as things can change, they can revert back very quickly.”
This is why racial equity must be a decision that is embedded into the very fabric of travel institutions, he adds.
Jones, of the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative, says it is time for the industry to do away with the notion that a better travel economy and a push for racial equity and inclusion cannot coexist.
“If we’re rebounding, that means we’re trying to build back a stronger industry — and our industry will be stronger when it’s much more diverse and inclusive,” Jones said. “It’s time for people to really step back and say, ‘Hey, how can we do this differently so that when travel is fully restored, it’s more equitable across the board from an executive leadership standpoint, from a board development standpoint, from a business ownership standpoint?’”
“I feel very strongly that we simply should not allow the pandemic to slow our efforts to advance the ball,” he said.
“I think there’s so much work to be done, and we have to approach it in a tireless manner. I’m very focused on looking at what we can do, and on moving forward.”