by Courtnie Nichols

Change starts with tough conversations.

As one of my Black colleagues wrote in a recent TravelAge West article, the travel industry has a diversity problem—especially when it comes to the luxury sector.

There are plenty of conferences, retreats, and key events where, just like her, I am the only Black person in the room. Just like her, I constantly rack my brain for Black-owned suppliers, tour operators, and DMOs that I’ve personally interacted with. The number is embarrassingly low. Why aren’t suppliers like Tastemakers Africa preferred partners, or even featured at all in agent networks?

Pioneers in the urban travel movement like Evita Robinson, creator of NOMADNESS Travel Tribe,  Zim Ugochukwu, founder of Travel Noire, and our beloved Oneika The Traveller from the Travel Channel have been decrying the lack of diversity in the travel industry (especially when it comes to media, employment, and representation) for years, but a lot of their initiatives focus on the content creation/influencer side of travel. This is necessary and important work but it’s only half the battle.

My perspective on this issue is unique in that I’m not only a traveler and woman of color but also a Black travel advisor who owns her own agency. There are still so few Black travel advisors and host agencies in the U.S. today, and those that do exist lack the visibility enjoyed by the white agencies that make up the majority of this space.

the travel industry has a diversity problem, Pangea Dreams, Courtnie Nichols

Agencies like mine put an incredible amount of effort into producing quality content (blog posts, email, social media posts, videos) on the front end to help potential clients make a decision on the back end—i.e. choose the destination and itinerary that will ensure they have an amazing vacation. We do the research, make the site visits, network with suppliers of all kinds and connect them with our clients. I see what travel influencers do in the market and travel advisors are out there doing the same thing, minus the sponsored outfits.

Despite this, the travel industry continues to ignore us, and by “us” I mean Black travel advisors. Not just big brands like Away or Marriott either, but your local CVB (convention and visitor bureau) too. They partner with (again, mostly white) influencers in the hopes that their marketing campaigns will deliver while inexplicably shunning proven results: a.k.a. the sales and business that we deliver year after year. 

Every day, we’re sending people to resorts, hotels, restaurants, and tour operators, even recommending travel products we’ve used and loved ourselves. We’re already micro-influencers for your brand and destination. We’re in your corner. 

Why aren’t you in ours?

An ally and sales team leader for a boutique property that I love said it best: “White people are so used to seeing rooms, ads, and feeds full of other white people that we convince ourselves we are the ONLY viable market and audience.” That’s #facts right there.

There’s no sugarcoating it: the travel industry is abysmally, overwhelmingly white.

Based on most travel brands’ current advertising and marketing presence, you’d think that Black people don’t travel often at all, let alone stay in 5-star hotels like the Four Seasons or Belmond.

People of color in general are not well-represented or seen as an audience worth investing in when it comes to travel marketing. Which is what makes this statistic so shocking:

In 2018, $63 billion was spent by African-Americans on TRAVEL ALONE. (Yes, that’s billion with a B.)

Those numbers don’t lie—this is not a group that you can afford to ignore any longer.

Pangea Dreams - April Peru Retreat

Calling your company “diverse” these days is corporate-speak for “we have one Black person, one woman, and someone from the LGBTQ+ community on staff” (a.k.a. “we checked all the boxes so we’re done”).

This is performative diversity and it’s not good enough. Travel is ROOTED in diversity. It’s about celebrating different cultures, challenging your biases, and broadening your perspective. It’s about planting yourself somewhere new in order to learn, grow, and share.

You can’t claim to love travel while simultaneously sidelining—and worse, appropriating and commodifying—those diverse cultures and perspectives that your business profits from. That is erasure and neocolonialism at its finest.

It’s time for travel and tourism companies to get on the right side of GOOD business. New organizations like the Black Travel Alliance are being formed to dismantle racism in the travel industry by calling for increases in BIPOC hotel employment, better representation in destination marketing content, and the inclusion of more people of color on travel panels. 

Us advisors need to step up our efforts alongside these organizations by pressuring the suppliers we work with to feature more people of color in their marketing, making sure BDMs (business development managers) are reflective of their sales teams, and advocating for space on these companies’ many volunteer and leadership boards. 

Posting a black square on Instagram and promising to do better is too easy. I want to see accountability. We need the help of our white agent colleagues to push for change at the top and resist the urge to shrug this off as an issue that doesn’t concern them.

White travel advisors: this DOES concern you, to the tune of $63 billion dollars poured yearly into your industry and livelihood.

There was another article in which a different colleague of mine pointed out that people don’t even know we exist. Think about that for a second. She’s saying that a Black travel advisor—especially one who handles luxury travel—is an entirely foreign concept to the population at large. We are unicorns.

This is backed by statistics: according to Data USA, the travel advisor industry here in the States is made up of about 65,000 agents, 78% of them white and only 6.8% Black. The diversity issues that plague travel don’t just manifest in whitewashed marketing or a lack of Black faces at travel conferences—they exist on the business side, too.

How can we have a community that spends billions on travel every year while only 6.8% of the industry that serves them actually represents them?

the travel industry has a diversity problem, Pangea Dreams, Courtnie Nichols

Plenty of major travel companies still haven’t #PulledUpForTravel. Travel Leaders Group, which refers to itself as “one of the largest, most diversified collections of premium travel brands in North America and the UK,” has an executive team made up of four white men.

Virtuoso, which considers itself the leading global agency network specializing in luxury and experiential travel, has eight committees of about 12-15 members each. When I did a little digging into the diversity of those committees, I found a grand total of two Black women.

Luxury Travel Advisor, an industry magazine, has not once in their four years of activity featured a person of color on their cover or even written a feature story on one. There are really no excuses for this sort of oversight when you have tons of qualified diversity-in-travel consultants like Martinique Lewis available and ready to help. 

Why is any of this important?

If I send a client another Sandals brochure featuring white people being served by Black men in butler gloves, I am going to scream.

What’s wrong with that image, you ask? So much, on so many levels. Let’s put aside for now the deeply problematic fact that those Black servers are likely of Caribbean descent and that island paradise was at one time the site of horrific white colonial violence and subjugation (a whole other post and history lesson). When you don’t involve Black voices—in the form of content creators, suppliers, stakeholders, and agents—on the industry side of things, you contribute to the perpetuation of offensive and untrue portrayals of Black travelers.

Outdated stereotypes like “Black people don’t swim,” “Black people don’t hike,” and “Black people don’t like the outdoors,” are perpetuated to this day in the travel sector and because of that, Black travelers fall through the cracks of marketing campaigns designed to pass them by.

You’ve heard this before but I’ll say it again: REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

the travel industry has a diversity problem, Pangea Dreams, Courtnie Nichols

You best believe that seeing more Black people living their best lives abroad, consuming more content created by and for us, and interacting with agents who look like we do makes a difference in the industry on every level. More Black people will pursue careers in travel; more of us will view travel as something that belongs to us too. Ignorance withers and dies with exposure—with more Black people traveling, talking about travel, and starting travel businesses of their own, the biases that are currently allowed to thrive in this industry will gradually disappear.

Black travelers are one of the fastest growing demographics in the industry and the tourism revenue they bring in will only continue to rise in the future. Similarly, Black agents direct hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to the same travel brands that, for the most part, ignore us.

How much money would be left on the table if we started refusing to work with the companies that refuse to represent us? Enough for them to feel the sting, that’s for sure.

As things stand now, it’s hard to thrive in the travel industry as a Black-owned business and achieve the same level of success as our white colleagues. Stereotypes that assume a Black agent won’t be as professional or knowledgable as a white agent loom over our heads. We need more support and resources to boost the numbers of Black people interested in agency work.

The media plays a huge role in the agency field’s racial disparity, as well—I never see a Black person quoted as a leading source or travel expert unless that person is a blogger (and even then, it’s rare). I submit quotes to outlets all the time, but these outlets keep going instead to the same faces over and over again, which is frustrating.

the travel industry has a diversity problem, Pangea Dreams, Courtnie Nichols

I’m so tired of searching high and low for Black-owned travel companies to partner with that don’t exist and promoting companies whose marketing materials are blindingly white to my clients. The fact I have to tell some of my Black clients, “Ignore the brochures, you won’t see us in them, but I promise this resort is dope” is ridiculous.

So I’m taking a stand. 

Big host agencies, consortias, tour operators, and supplier partners have to do better. I won’t support them if they don’t change and I’m challenging my white colleagues to do the same. 

We sell travel, which means our efforts are directly tied to their revenue—in fact, travel agents account for one-third of all travel booked in the U.S. And I, for one, refuse to help these companies build an empire when they won’t even give me a seat at the table.

I’m aware that some white agents don’t think these problems have anything to do with them because they either don’t have Black clientele (and therefore mistakenly believe this doesn’t affect their business), or they consider the lack of diversity in travel to be a political issue and don’t want to get involved.

But, as I’ve outlined above, this is about equity, growth, and good business. There is power in numbers. It’s time for everyone to acknowledge the racism that exists in this industry and be a part of the change.

the travel industry has a diversity problem, Pangea Dreams, Courtnie Nichols

What comes next?

It’s easy to just sit here and rant, so I also want to outline some of the things I’m working on along with a few other agents. This plan of action is intended to get the ball rolling on this side of the industry and to start engaging in those tough conversations with the people who need to be part of them.

We plan to:

  • Address lack of representation in marketing with suppliers.
  • Increase representation in industry leadership and business development managers
  • Diversify supplier content to include more offerings aimed at BIPOC travelers
  • Address the lack of representation in panels, committees, and boards belonging to host agencies, consortias, and associations.
  • Put a plan in place to address the lack of education/mentorship and support for BIPOC agents. Let’s move them into the million-dollar seller space and not just have them be ICs forever. Show them how to become agency owners and really run a successful travel business. 
  • Work to create some sort of agent advisory board that is truly diverse.

We know that when we go to leaders, consortias, and suppliers, we must be clear and united in our requests. As I mentioned before, the Black Travel Alliance is doing a lot of similar work on the influencer/media side of things and we don’t want to simply echo their messaging—instead, we want to support them and use what they’ve started as a springboard to address the problems on the back end of the industry as well.

#PullingUpForTravel should not be a trend that fades away once the hashtag disappears. We have the momentum to effect real change now and we can’t afford to waste it.

This is a lifelong journey but I’m ready for the marathon, and I’m glad to see Pangea is too.

Blog post written by Courtnie Nichols, Greece Retreat 2019 Alumna & CEO of TravelBash. Find her on her website, or IG @travelbash.