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After George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter went mainstream, catalyzing an international reckoning on matters of race. This powerful movement addresses systemic racism toward African American and Black individuals across all societies, industries and organizations. And it has no reason to pardon the travel industry, either.
In fact, the Black community is starkly underrepresented in just about every aspect of tourism, from the racial makeup of conference speakers and attendees, to marketing campaigns for print, digital, television and more. The travel advisor workforce, too, has a diversity problem: According to a 2018 report from Data USA, a mere 6% of travel advisors in the U.S. are Black.
No matter how glaring, these disparities likely have not crossed the minds of the masses, and such apathy is one privilege of many that has never been afforded to Black people. However, numerous tragic events are calling attention to the inequalities that the Black population faces every day, and it’s clear that members of the travel industry also need to change racist behaviors and dismantle inequitable systems.
The Realities of Traveling and Selling Travel While BlackKamala Cummings, a travel advisor and an independent contractor (IC) with In the Know Experiences (ITKE), says that there exists a strange misconception that Black individuals have different expectations and desires when it comes to travel.
“Everything should be neutral,” she said. “The African American traveler, or whatever the person of color is, doesn’t want anything ‘special.’ If they book the presidential suite, they want all the amenities and care that comes with that. If they read about a train experience in Peru, they want that exact experience. But it can be rough when we are in those hotels, and the only people of color (POC) we see are employees working in the back of the house. In 2020, that is a problem.”
Currently based in Troy, Mich., Cummings started her luxury travel career in 2008. At the time, she worked at Dumars Travel, a former American Express office in Birmingham, Mich. Her very first booking at the travel agency was a $165,000 multigenerational trip for about 65 people to Rosewood Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands. Since then, Cumming has worked with several major agencies, including Brownell Travel, Altour, SmartFlyer and now ITKE, where she specializes in high-end sports and entertainment travel.
“The highest compliment I can receive from my clients is ‘When I was there, I felt your presence,’” Cummings said. “This means that things were in order, whether it’s sending [the hotel] a photo of their kids and having it framed in the room, or having their favorite foods available. I never look at my job as being a travel agent; I look at it as being my purpose to help people create balance in their lives.”
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This defined objective probably resonates with anyone in the travel agent profession. However, Cummings’ day-to-day experience as an advisor greatly differs from agents who are not Black.
For one, all of her clients — who have been gained through word of mouth — are also Black.
“I don’t have the answer to why I only have Black clients,” she said. “It’s definitely not because of my own choosing. I would like to have clients of other races. But, for example, if [a traveler] is looking on Instagram, which is now the tell-all to everything, and they see that I am African American, nine times out of 10, they’re going to keep scrolling until they see someone who isn’t African American. The harsh reality is that they might not think I have the necessary knowledge, relationships or any of that — which are all untrue.”
Meanwhile, Nik Morales, also known as “The Travel Goddess,” has more than 25 years of travel industry experience and is the CEO and founder of The Travel Agency. With employees in Los Angeles, New York City and London, her Los Angeles-based company specializes in entertainment travel. Planning all components of travel for touring clients is The Travel Agency's primary focus, but the agency plans luxury leisure travel, as well. (Morales’ client list includes high-profile entertainers such as Solange; Ilana Glazer; Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino; Kelly Rowland; Ty Dolla $ign; Toni Braxton; and many more.)
Though the racial composition of Morales’ customer base is somewhat diverse, it’s mostly Black. She says she first travels to places to see how they treat Black people, so she can effectively advise her clients on what to expect.
“Expectation is the killer of joy,” she said. “If you are expecting to have one experience and it turns out to be a different one, it can ruin your whole day. Due to the market I deal with — entertainment travel — I do not have the luxury of my clients having an off-day. They bring joy to the world, specifically to their fans; so, if they’re in a mood, that can throw off a show, and it becomes a domino effect.”
Morales says she often invests her own money to shadow clients, especially if she hears grievances about a particular ground operator or greeting service.
“I will test out the service myself,” she said. “A lot of the time, if my Black clients are making the complaints, it’s not taken as seriously as when my white clients make complaints. But it’s my job to set everyone up for success.”
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Her discoveries are not always positive. Morales says she has had “amazing experiences, embarrassing experiences and flat-out racist experiences.” One discriminatory event occurred at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. A VIP service airport greeter — with a company that Morales had hired ahead of her trip — declined assistance until she checked Morales’ passport and boarding pass. Afterward, the employee continued with poor service: avoiding eye contact, spending time on her cellphone and refusing to carry Morales’ bag.
This incident, unfortunately, is not an isolated one. Yet, no matter how frustrating an exchange can be, Morales still has to maintain a calm demeanor — simply because she is a Black American.
“I can’t go off in an airport; I would have police officers on me, whereas someone who doesn’t look like me can show that she is disappointed in something,” Morales said. “Everything has to be coated in humor. Black people have to monitor their voice modulations and make sure they don’t go above certain decibels or even have the appearance of any type of aggression.”
Everything has to be coated in humor. Black people have to monitor their voice modulations and make sure they don’t go above certain decibels or even have the appearance of any type of aggression.
Morales adds that escalation will ultimately distract from the intended goal: She wants to get from point A to point B, without any extra attention or commotion.
“I don’t even argue,” she said. “I have to call my vendor and let my vendor be my mouthpiece.”
According to Courtnie Nichols, CEO of TravelBash in Gainesville, Fla., fellow travelers can pose difficulties, too. She recounts a situation during a stay at a luxury property where another guest misidentified her as a hotel employee.
“They thought that I couldn’t be vacationing there due to the cost of a stay, and then got upset about it,” she said. “I was wearing cut-off shorts. I clearly didn’t look like someone who worked there.”
In general, traveling to countries without a large Black population can be unnerving. For starters, Morales explains that there is a common lack of consideration for personal space.
“People are very interested in who Black people are,” she said. “They’ll take pictures, sit at their table during dinner and ask questions. It can be interesting, but Black travelers are not always in the mood to entertain someone. It’s a fickle line.”
Domestic travel is significantly different: People in the U.S. are less likely to be overtly racist, but are more prone to perpetuate covert racism, Morales says.
“We’re everywhere in America, so Americans are not shocked to see Black people, outside of places that are truly homogeneous,” she said. “But I do know that my Black clients tend to visit domestic destinations that are more accepting of Black culture, including major markets such as Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.”
For example, while she has put together fantastic ranch experiences for her clients, ranches are typically set in smaller and rural towns — which can cause apprehension in Black clients.
Personally, Morales loves traveling to destinations in the Caribbean and Africa.
“There is so much of me represented,” she said. “The billboard ads have Black faces, the business owners have Black faces, the homeowners have Black faces, the rich have Black faces, and the poor have Black faces.”
ITKE’s Cummings adds that, unfortunately, there’s not much the travel industry can do about the actions of the general public.
“That’s on them, and we just hope that they, too, take this time to re-evaluate their own mindsets,” she said. “However, we can hold travel companies accountable.”
Indeed, this type of prejudice even occurs during fam trips where Black advisors are present.
“I’ve been on fam trips where I meet hoteliers, and they ignore me because they don’t think I have the clientele and don’t think I can sell their product,” Nichols said. “But I send people there all the time, and I know that resort from front to back.”
Nichols says that during one fam trip, she was constantly overlooked despite being an active participant and asking questions.
“I was traveling with one of my independent contractors (ICs), and [the hotel partners] greeted her with ‘You must be Courtnie,’” she said. “They automatically assume that I’m an IC and that I couldn’t have my own business.”
When chronicling her experiences of traveling while Black, Morales reiterates that none of the discrimination is new.
“This is something I’ve been dealing with my whole life,” she said. “At some point, you can either live your life very angrily, or you can turn that anger into something more productive.”
However, Black travel advisors should not have to fight bigoted systems alone. Allies — who have long held privileges — are crucial to the lengthy, complex process of undoing racial biases.
“People with white privilege automatically have a seat at the table, and I do not,” Nichols said. “When people who don’t look like me are advocating on my behalf, it speaks volumes.”
People with white privilege automatically have a seat at the table, and I do not. When people who don’t look like me are advocating on my behalf, it speaks volumes.
So, how can all travel professionals step up and be allies for their Black peers? There are several tangible items that can be addressed within the industry itself.
For starters, advisors can commit to having ongoing discussions about race and racism within their own communities.
“There are uncomfortable conversations that I don’t want to have, either,” Cummings said. “Even as a Black woman, I haven’t had experiences that some of my Black friends have had. These experiences can be unique based on where Black people grew up, where they went to school and everything else that makes a difference in life. But I want to make sure that I reach out and help others. Let’s keep talking about what’s ugly. We can’t sweep it under the rug anymore.”
Workplace PracticesThe Travel Agency’s Morales emphasizes the importance of racial diversity in the workplace, from recruiting and hiring to mentoring and promoting. She says that major travel companies have reached out to her for guidance, but when Morales asks if they have brought on, supported and mentored Black agents, and if there is space on their management and C-levels for Black employees, “the answer is unequivocally ‘no.’”
According to Morales, the issue is that these companies are not actually ready to make changes, and these efforts have to be intentional.
“You know that you can be anything you want to be based on what you can see,” she said. “For example, a white man knows he has a higher probability of being president because he sees white, male presidents. As a white man, or a white woman, you know you can open up a business because you see those examples. I have said on several occasions that even if President Obama did nothing good for Black people — whatever your consideration of that president is — what he did for me, as a Black woman, is give me the audacity to hope. Because I saw him and his wife and his family in that position of power, it gave me the courage to step out and open my own business, with no business background and nobody around to show me or train me.”
Simply put: Black people deserve a stronger presence at the top levels of companies and, at the very least, an equal opportunity to get there.
“You cannot continue to keep us at the bottom level of the travel company — only as the people who generate the revenue,” she said. “It’s the slave/master mindset. We are OK to pick the cotton, but we’re not OK to run the cotton business. If all I see is me on the bottom level, how will I be inspired to actually reach for something bigger than where I am?”
It’s the slave/master mindset. We are OK to pick the cotton, but we’re not OK to run the cotton business. If all I see is me on the bottom level, how will I be inspired to actually reach for something bigger than where I am?
Fam TripsNichols asks that fellow travel advisors make it a point to address diversity when evaluating fam trips. They also should be firm in their demands for equal treatment toward POC.
“They can tell the supplier, ‘Hey, I would love to go on this fam trip because this is my area of expertise, and I can help — but who else have you invited?’” she said. “’Are you inviting people of color? Have you considered creating minority-specific influencer trips? Because I want to work with a brand that welcomes diversity.’”
Travel Industry Media, Marketing and EventsLikewise, the lack of Black representation in travel publications, across marketing campaigns and on stages at tradeshows and conferences is problematic.
For instance, when deciding which suppliers to book for her clients, Morales evaluates marketing material: Are there Black couples, families and friends portrayed? She turns to the internet to assess the supplier’s staff, as well.
“How diverse are their C-levels, their board members, their sales force?” she asked.
Morales also attends travel conferences, and like most POC, she usually finds herself to be one of few — if any — non-white attendees in the room.
“And I never see a person of color on any of these panels,” she said. “Where is the representation? Where is the diversity there? Photographers have literally moved me out of frame when they were taking pictures, so that I do not show up in event coverage. You wouldn’t even think I was ever there.”
Nichols, too, has noticed the homogeneity of events, and she frequently wonders, “Do I even belong here? Is this for me?” And while she feels heartened by travel brands now making an effort toward inclusivity, Nichols still has her doubts.
“If it was important to travel brands in the beginning, they wouldn’t wait until situations like this,” Nichols said. “If they had been this way from the start, I would be able to advocate on their behalf during this time.”
Still, she hopes to be part of the meaningful progress, and believes that travel companies — including consortia and suppliers — should hire Black consultants for guidance on how to support diversity in a genuine and impactful way.
RELATED: An In-Depth Look at Why Travel Agents Should Promote Diversity
Tokenism Through every effort toward true diversity, however, it is crucial to steer clear of tokenism. Tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort.” Essentially, it is an empty gesture to give the appearance that people are being treated equally in order to avoid criticism.
Nichols points out that although there may be a handful of Black agents in the industry spotlight, they also comprise the same individuals who are repeatedly used as a resource or recognized in some way.
“They’re like the Martin Luther King Jr. of the travel industry,” she said. “A lot of people are going to quote MLK or Rosa Parks, because that’s what they have learned. But there are a ton of other Black people who have contributed to society, and people do not know because they haven’t had to know. They have not done their research and actually learned about Black history and culture. It’s the same thing with travel advisors — besides the same five people who always win the awards, speak to media and have those relationships, there are 100 other people who are just as good.”
Though she understands that people tend to talk to others within their own circle, Nichols questions how many white people actually know Black people. And she’s not referring to the one person that someone knows from high school or met at a conference — “because that doesn’t count,” Nichols says. Instead, she is referring to the conversations and interactions had on a daily basis with the Black community.
“The greater variety of voices we have, the more diverse stories we’ll have to tell,” she said.
An Equal and Fair Travel IndustryUltimately, it comes down to wanting the same respect that is given to everyone else.
“I love this industry, and I love all people,” Morales said. “It’s time to move into a space where being Black, or a person of color, is not something that takes away privileges. I hope we are headed to where I have the opportunity to pursue with tenacity every dream I may have.”
Though Morales goes by Nik Morales for the sake of her travel agency business, her first name is actually Nikia.
“I found that Nikia did not get the response I was looking for [from suppliers],” she said. “When I changed my name to Nik, my company exploded. A lot of doors have opened because of that name change — Nik Morales implies that I might be Argentinian, or I might be European. But once I am in the door and my vendors realize I’m a Black woman, I see how vendors treat me. If they are dismissive, I probably will sell away from that particular supplier.”
Given a possible turn of the tide throughout the travel industry, Morales is considering the possibility of changing her business-facing name back to Nikia.
“All of this actually gives me hope that I will be able to authentically live my business life as authentically as I live my personal life,” she said.
The DetailsCourtnie Nichols (TravelBash)www.travel-bash.comwww.instagram.com/travelbash
Kamala Cummings (In the Know Experiences)www.intheknowexperiences.comwww.instagram.com/luxtravelgirl
Nik Morales (The Travel Agency)www.thetravelgoddessnik.comwww.instagram.com/thetravelgoddess