Several factors are playing out in the United States right now, which, when combined, are to make for a politically charged debate. The pandemic continuing rage across the country, the staggering unemployment and global economic crisis creating much concern and the upcoming presidential election being contested like no other before, are all factors. And now the issue of race and diversity has burst into our collective consciousness.
I’ve spent some time the past few weeks speaking to experts on diversity and racism, asking for actionable steps that we can take, particularly in the luxury travel segment. The conversations have been eye-opening—sometimes even upsetting—but incredibly illuminating. I want to share what I’ve learned and how I believe diversity and inclusion may help save the travel business.
First, I would like to discuss what message your advertising is sending.
To put it bluntly, if your advertising, social media feeds, and website imagery only show white people, it sends a message that your brand only welcomes white people. That means hiring models and influencers of various races and backgrounds (but especially Blacks) and ensuring that a similarly diverse mix of journalists is invited on your press trips.
Why? Because Blacks (and Asians and Latinos) do buy luxury travel, and their purchasing power is only increasing.
Elliott Ferguson, President & CEO, Destination D.C., who also serves as Chairman of the U.S. Travel Association, says that diversifying your marketing efforts makes good business sense—as does diversify the teams that work on the marketing itself.
Yana Gutierrez, a longtime Black travel executive who formerly served as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for American Express, recalls sitting on an advisory board for a major luxury cruise company and previewing its new ad campaign.
That complacency is what Travis Levius (@misterlevius on Instagram), a travel journalist and photographer who contributes to Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, and others, hopes the renewed attention to race in America will address. “That’s just the way things have been, so why try to rework the formula?” is how he characterizes travel marketers’ thinking. “But studies show that people of underrepresented communities would likely buy from a brand where they can see themselves. So, if you’re not showing people of different races, then you’re really losing out.”.
That’s an imperative echoed by Glenn Jones, the interim CEO for the Bermuda Tourism Authority, which made a concerted effort to include Black models in its advertising and set a goal of doubling Black visitors by 2025.
“Representation is obviously important,” he told Skift recently, “but it’s also important to extend the invitation. I’m a Black traveler and I certainly respond well when I feel I’m being invited to a destination.”
What you can do
Make a concerted effort to include more Black models and influencers in your advertising, social media, website, and other marketing imagery.
- Instruct your agencies to do the same. Consider creating a diversity handbook for your agencies to follow, as Hyatt has done.
- Be sure that your marketing teams and agencies are themselves diverse, to ensure a range of insights and perspectives on the audiences you are trying to reach.
- If much of your Instagram feed features user-generated content—and most of those guests are white—even things out by including mostly people of color in the original content you produce.
Experience across the travel chain
In the luxury travel business, we pride ourselves in making every guest feel valued. But the Black travelers I’ve spoken with—despite an overall positive experience—can all recite instances in which they felt a less-than-warm welcome. “Be sure that you have training and conversations about implicit bias, particularly for employees with frontline roles,” says Gutierrez. “People of color sometimes might be standing in line to board first class and a gate agent comes up to say, ‘You realize this is for first class, right?’ The assumption is that because you’re Black, you can’t afford a first-class ticket.”
Travel advisors, who work with Black clients, should be aware of how they might be treated differently in various destinations. Gutierrez and Levius both recount the anxieties of “traveling while Black,” not being sure how they will be perceived or treated.
Just as many travel brands have rethought their operations to accommodate the growing Chinese travel market, Hyatt asked its Black employee resource group to look at how it could better fit the needs of Black travelers. As a result, it is exploring ways to enhance the experience of Black guests, including bathroom amenities that are better suited for their hair and skin. “Those may be small changes, but they’re impactful for the people experiencing them. You’re not minimizing—you’re accepting and leveraging those differences to support that market,” says Hyatt’s Stoudemire. “And at the same time, you’re helping suppliers, engaging with a community, and driving revenue and loyalty to the brand.”
What you can do
- Provide training to your frontline employees that address implicit biases and the behaviors that may make some guests feel less than welcome.
- Be aware of how cultural differences may impact Black and other minority guests—positively or negatively—in a destination and communicate those to alleviate any anxiety.
- Learn about the needs and concerns of Black travelers and consider how even a small adjustment in operations can make them feel appreciated—and thereby build loyalty.
There is a lot we can do in the travel industry to combat racism and undo its many negative effects. Some are hard, others are much easier. Some will have an immediate impact, while others may take years to be felt. What’s important is that we really commit.
Companies in the travel business
Perhaps your company is quite small, or your board or executive committee has just a handful of members. If whoever is leading your company is all white, it is still your responsibility to look around and see that if there’s something not right and it needs to be fixed.
Arnie Weissmann, Editor-in-Chief, Travel Weekly and Executive Vice President and Editorial Director of Northstar Travel Group, shared with me recently that Northstar has been focused on diversity and created a Black Travel Advisory Board to help guide them as a company and, through their platforms, the industry, to a better place. “One of the issues that arose was the lack of Black visibility in advertising and marketing, and the luxury sector, in particular, was called out,” Weissmann said. I also commend Travel + Leisure for diversifying its Travel Advisory Board recently by adding seven new people of color just this year.
We can’t let the complexity or sensitivity of the subject get in our way. “We can’t be afraid of talking about it anymore,” says Stoudemire. “Be curious, learn more about another culture. Have the courage to enter into conversations when they see an injustice. Challenge yourself to go beyond the status quo and ask yourself the question: By not diversifying, what opportunities are we missing? What money are we leaving on the table?”
I recognize that many of us are struggling right now to save our businesses outright, and that diversity may not be one of the top priorities on the list. But I contend that diversity is also good for business. Ferguson backed that up, citing a McKinsey report showing that diverse firms consistently outperform non-diverse ones. “If you’re in business to make money, it’s not politically correct to hire people that don’t look like you,” says Ferguson. “It’s good for business.”
What you can do
- Don’t wait for someone else to address the problem. Commit your company, and yourself, to working proactively toward a more egalitarian and just society and take stock of policies and operations that may unintentionally have a racist outcome.
I know that racism is a difficult and controversial subject, but I do feel passionate about addressing it. Silence won’t fix the problems: The topic must be discussed—and not just by companies based in the U.S., but by anyone around the world that is looking to improve their business. It’s just good business sense.
Peter J. Bates is president and founder of Strategic Vision, a global marketing communications consultancy for the luxury travel, hospitality and publishing industries, with such clients as Accor, Ponant, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Food & Wine, The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board & Film Commission and Virtuoso. You can reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.