Last May, the tragic and untimely death of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter movement as protests spread across the U.S. and eventually the world. With these demonstrations also came individuals, businesses, and entire industries showing their support through social media posts and company-wide pledges.
Many months later, some important questions remain: How much of what we saw last year was virtue signaling and nothing more? In the case of the travel industry, which saw calls for diversification, inclusion, and active anti-racism work, how much progress has actually been made?
“We saw a lot of performative posts and movements last year from brands who honestly just didn’t want to be dragged through the media during a very racially charged moment in history,” says Danielle Pointdujour, a travel and lifestyle journalist and Condé Nast Traveler contributor. Many travel brands, she says, “are doing the bare minimum to appear diverse and inclusive, but at their core, they still cater to the only audience they feel matters: white travelers.”
For Wazha Dube, a manager at global hospitality consulting firm Index Select who specializes in selling travel across Africa, this problem stems from companies that pledged their support for Black Lives Matter, but then didn’t take the time to do an audit that would actually address their own diversity issues.
“They had the best of intentions,” says Dube. “I give them credit for that, but they weren’t really in it for the long haul and this is because a lot of these companies don’t even have Black staff. They’re not in the fight.”
Dube, who has worked in the travel field for more than 10 years and is also the industry relations co-chair of United Voice in Travel and Hospitality, has also notice a shift in attitudes, describing how people in the industry are making more of a conscious effort to work with companies that reflect their values. At the same time, companies are also openly pushing their social values to the forefront in a way previously unheard of. Although there were many other cases of injustice against the Black community that could have sparked this same reaction, Dube describes Floyd’s death and its aftermath as a “flash point.”
“Before May, when we talked about social values, we weren’t talking about race,” he says. “We were talking about conservation. We were talking about saving the children. Social justice was not something you discussed. It was almost a faux pas to bring it up.”
Martinique Lewis, a diversity in travel consultant and president of Black Travel Alliance, also notices this change in attitude within the industry. When Lewis, who is a member of the Condé Nast Traveler advisory board, first started her work in 2018, she offered her help for free in hopes of creating a more diverse and inclusive environment in the travel industry. Even then, many companies and brands were not open to these conversations and even avoided her calls. Although her business picked up steam in 2019, she’s seen an even bigger spike in inquiries since last summer. “Everybody’s knocking down my door now,” she says. At first, Lewis was skeptical of the sudden interest in diversity but decided to take advantage of the teaching moment that came with the changing tides.
“We just couldn’t believe that these same people who don’t hire us, who don’t listen to us, who want to hire us for less pay than our white counterparts, who only wanted us during Black History Month, had the nerve to post that black square.”
And her work, along with that of countless other figures in the travel industry, seems to be paying off. Beyond shifting attitudes, both Dube and Lewis have noted some tangible changes in the travel industry such as increased hiring of Black and brown people; implementation of diversity and inclusion training in the workplace; an effort to contract more Black-owned tour operators; and the hiring of more Black travelers to speak at conferences. On that last point, Dube hopes that event planners will also tap Black travelers for speaking on topics other than race and equality.
“Lots of companies have come out and said they want to make impactful change, but they’re the minority,” Dube says of the few companies that have actually taken steps to address diversity and inclusion. But before applauding too many of them, Dube says he’s waiting to see how these changes are implemented in the long run.
He does, however, point to Delta Air Lines as an example of a company making strides. Late last year, the airline joined OneTen, a coalition of CEOs and major companies across several industries dedicated to hiring and promoting one million Black Americans within 10 years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. It’s just one of several initiatives Delta has recently implemented.
While parts of the travel industry may be more open to change, many in the Black travel community remain skeptical and have decided to join forces to champion themselves in new ways.
“[The Black Travel Alliance] came out of our frustration with #BlackOutTuesday,” says Lewis, who founded the organization in June 2020. “We just couldn’t believe that these same people who don’t hire us, who don’t listen to us, who want to hire us for less pay than our white counterparts, who only wanted us during Black History Month, had the nerve to post that black square.”
Lewis and the founding members of BTA decided it was time to do something about these issues they had been aware of for years. Now, BTA advocates for Black travel professionals to get the same treatment, payment, and opportunities as their white counterparts, while also using qualitative research to hold the industry accountable.
The organization that Dube works with—United Voice in Travel and Hospitality (UViTH)—was also created in response to the sudden interest in diversifying the travel industry. It took the efforts of multiple organizations across the country and combined them into one collective.
“This is what UViTH is really about: helping and supporting the existing travel industry of Black and brown folk but also bringing up the next generation and showing them that the opportunities in this industry are vast,” Dube says, adding that the organization will focus heavily on educational and mentoring programs starting in the coming months.
Though Black travelers and industry figures are stepping up to advocate for themselves and pioneer much of the progress that has been made, ultimately the rest of the travel industry must also get involved to enact long-lasting change. Dube and Lewis agree that there is much room for improvement, emphasizing representation in marketing and hiring as the most important starting points.
And the travel industry would benefit from such efforts. A recent study by MMGY Global in partnership with BTA shows that 54 percent of U.S. Black travelers indicated that they are more likely to visit a destination if they see Black representation in travel advertising. Lewis adds that part of the lack of representation in marketing stems from the same absence of diversity in the workplace. The internal teams don’t reflect their true clientele, she says.
“You’re never going to be able to grow your customer base because you don’t understand what people are going through if your internal team all looks one way,” Lewis says. “The solution is to hire more people of color and to be more inclusive in your hiring process.”
This doesn’t mean hiring for tokenism, Dube warns. “Hire the best people based on a meritocracy, based on their skill. There are tons of talented Black travelers out there that should be getting jobs in travel.”
While Pointdujour agrees with the need for more representation in marketing and hiring, she also notes that “an indication that true progress is being made will be when we don’t have to have these conversations. When seeing and working with Black people in the travel industry is normalized. When the diversity and inclusion doesn’t need to be singled out because it’s there every day.”
With the travel industry continuing to face enormous challenges due to COVID-19, both Dube and Lewis note that it might be a while before more wide-scale changes and progress are made.
“People don’t have money to do what they need to do,” Lewis says. “I can’t expect you to hire people when you’re going bankrupt this year, but when we do get back to normal, these are the things that I expect to see.”
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