Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable — this was the narrative of a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Travel Association on the issue of Race and Racism in Travel. The webinar illuminated stories from four Black leaders who faced racism and discrimination in their careers. Too often people of color have internalized and kept uncomfortable truths from colleagues, coworkers and managers.
But uncomfortable for whom?
The first perspective surely was shocking to the more than 2,000 attendees. A well-respected Black CEO of a prominent tourism board detailed the painful reality of how racism stripped him of the dignity and benefits that his white counterparts otherwise enjoyed while he was an operations executive for a major global hotel chain early in his career. The other three panelists proceeded in sharing equally troubling stories. The experiences of individuals almost 20 years his junior reflect the lack of progress made in our country and our industry.
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While these stories were difficult to hear, they were not difficult to relate to. I am no longer surprised when I am confused for a service worker or a valet parking attendant at the many conferences and functions I attend. It is not lost on me that due to my skin color and my Chicano lilt — and save for my education and professional experience — I do not appear different from the service workers who sustain the hospitality industry in this country.
I am no longer surprised when I am confused for a service worker or a valet parking attendant at the many conferences and functions I attend.
Stereotypes are born from prejudice, and deeper yet, from a lack of inclusivity, and a failure to diversify our society.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. Blacks and Latinos are suffering and succumbing to the disease, as well as economic and educational disparity, at drastically higher rates than whites. Racism is the cause of rampant homelessness rates for Black people in Los Angeles, where I live. As the tragic murder of George Floyd shocked the nation, the ensuing resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began to grow across this country. And our industry was woefully unprepared to react or respond — COVID-19 notwithstanding.
Noting the spending power of Black travelers at $63 billion in the U.S. alone, the Black Travel Alliance (BTA), a group of Black activists proposing greater diversity and Black voices in the travel industry challenged brands to do more than simply post black squares in support of BLM. By June 19 — the date that celebrates Juneteenth, a significant African American holiday — BTA had demanded a series of metrics from the industry. The #pullupfortravel campaign revealed that with the exception of small companies, many were painfully lacking Black and people of color in their staff, executives and marketing.
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The truth as revealed by BTA is that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are not well-represented at the executive level. They are also missing from marketing and communications, conferences, travel websites and marketing campaigns. When pressed to respond to the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd on outwardly facing channels, many brands found it challenging to formulate an authentic or helpful response — often because BIPOC are absent from the organizational structures that could work to address diversity. This must improve.
In late 2019, I approached my own organization with a plea and proposition. As the sole ethnic minority at a senior level, and often the only person of color in client pitch rooms, client board rooms and conference panels, I related to agency leadership how we could do more to advocate for better diversity in travel — and why I wanted to be the person to help do it. I am proud of our Leadership Team for embracing the idea. Doing better would start with the research that MMGY Global produces on behalf of the industry.
Our own organization’s research methodology and reports could be better to provide significant differentiation that can help marketers understand the BIPOC traveler. We had not done enough to reveal nuances in preferences and behavior that could equip marketers, salespeople, travel advisors or anyone else with any real insight and direction to effectively speak to a BIPOC consumer. All this had to change. And, I am proud to say, it is changing.
Still, our industry is a noble one. We build cultural bridges, and we promote the ideals of connection to those who are different from us. The ultimate symbol of pride? The billions of dollars of economic impact that trickle down to local communities in jobs because of travel.
During the record-setting growth of domestic and international tourism preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. tourism industry championed reforms to funding mechanisms and support systems, yielding larger marketing budgets, global reach and prioritization of international markets as the future of growth. Headlines in annual tourism reports often boasted about the production of more local jobs. Meanwhile, the individuals and systems driving destination planning, community engagement and marketing investments severely lacked diversity.
There exists a significant missing link in our industry between those who sit at the executive level devising plans that are supposed to drive socioeconomic impact, and those on the front lines delivering the actual travel experience.
The uncomfortable truth is that until BIPOC themselves sit at the executive and decision-making level of organizations, the notion that tourism benefits all in local communities cannot be accurate.
The uncomfortable truth is that until BIPOC themselves sit at the executive and decision-making level of organizations, the notion that tourism benefits all in local communities cannot be accurate. The need for transformational change is urgent. A new generation of diverse travel and tourism leaders will serve as champions, role models and mentors to those who fuel our industry, and the youth who join the ranks of tourism and hospitality as they find their way to better livelihoods. Without these leaders, travel will not contribute enough to prevent the discrepancies in disease and poverty rates, homelessness and education.
Without research and metrics that accurately depict the consumer spending power of BIPOC, our preferences, and behaviors, there cannot be a genuine approach to creating opportunities and platforms for these communities to connect with travel brands in ways that make travel accessible for all.