Exploring different parts of the world, discovering new cultures, trying new cuisines and meeting engaging people… when you think about the intrinsic nature of travel – its real meaning, if you like – then you’ll see that diversity and inclusion is at its heart. But, while many of us in the industry like to talk about the best ‘local’ events, rewarding ‘give-back experiences’ and unique ‘authenticity’ – essential buzz words among travel writers and editors – if you delve a little deeper, perhaps we should acknowledge the uncomfortable truth about what’s going on behind the scenes. For, while these ideas – which are tied up in diversity and other people’s cultures – are desirable on the page, they are not reflected in quite the same way in the travel companies and travel media which purport to be passionate about the world around us. In short, it is obvious that the representation of people of colour is lacking across the board, behind the headlines and in the images.
With recent events, following the death of George Floyd, challenging everyone to think more, look at themselves, their businesses and their practices and promoting thought around how they can – and need – to improve, it’s clear that the UK travel industry has some work to do. After all, the same voices bring the same narrative – and this is not reflective of the real world around us – it’s time to change up the whitewashed view of a world that is, after all, multicoloured.
The good news is that there are new initiatives springing up to challenge – and help – those businesses wanting to improve. Launched in March 2020, the US-based Black Travel Alliance, for example, was formed to support true diversity across the travel industry, from increasing hotel employment to calling for more representation in destination marketing content.
In the UK, meanwhile, Women in Travel CIC, launched in 2014 to focus on gender diversity, is also raising awareness. Its arm of BAME Women in Travel has recently launched a new Corporate Partnerships scheme, which will help committed organisations create tailored solutions to increase the level of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) inclusion in the workplace.
Here, exclusively for Forbes, I talk to Jamie-Lee Abtar (JLA), the executive director of BAME Women in Travel, and Alessandra Alonso (AA), founder of Women in Travel CIC, about the work they are doing to cultivate understanding around issues, such as what racism means, how to improve representation of black leaders, writers and employees in the travel sector, and how to attain positive progress in these areas as a business.
What prompted you to launch the recent Women In Travel ‘Corporate Partnerships’?
AA: Women In Travel CIC – the UK based social enterprise that utilises travel and tourism as a force for good to empower underrepresented and vulnerable women – has long recognised the need for greater BAME representation in industry, which is why in 2018 BAME Women in Travel was launched as a separate initiative.
Our corporate membership stems from the desire to support industry in moving forward from theoretical support into practical action, by providing a number of outcomes organisations can work on and regularly measure.
What would you say are the main goals you want to achieve?
JLA: There is a growing awareness that racial diversity in the workplace is an area in which travel companies need to do better. Implementing practical measures that can be made in this area, and highlighting the many reasons why more travel businesses should make them, are our next steps.
In the next three years our goal – which we are calling Vision 2023 – is to drive change and ensure travel businesses attract, recruit, retain and develop BAME talent through a leadership focus, alignment with business strategy and tracking against targets. Our community is at the heart of BAME Women in Travel and we will continue to create a space and platform for women of colour to grow their networks, tap into resources, and share their unique skill-sets, which will only amplify their voices in the larger marketplace.
This space is not exclusive, rather, it is inclusive of all women seeking to expand their footprint within the travel and tourism industry, especially for those who’ve felt marginalised or overlooked.
What can corporate partnerships do immediately to help improve diversity and inclusion within the industry?
AA: The first thing we give each partner is a free, virtual workshop to help staff understand what the issues are. There is still a lot of misunderstanding around what constitutes racism and how BAME communities are dealt with, in the context of and by the travel, tourism and hospitality industry, so this is the first steps towards changing things. To ensure everyone is on the same page.
JLA: Cultivating diversity and inclusion in the workplace often requires a culture shift, which is not always easy or immediately attainable, especially if you are a larger brand. As a standard inclusion with our corporate partnership we host an internal session with a leadership focus, which is an open conversation and discussion around D&I in your workplace. It’s important that we create an encouraging environment where people care about diversity and inclusion while recognising its value is critical to a successful business. Diversity and inclusion is a journey and we are here to act as a critical friend.
How many companies are doing well when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
AA: Ironically, I think this is a relatively ‘new’ topic for many companies in the travel and tourism industry, at least in this part of the world. We have spoken about gender equity, diversity and inclusion for many years, but truly it is only in the last three years that we have seen genuine engagement by many.
Equally with BAME specific issues, some of the largest and most international companies have been doing training and measuring outcomes for some time, but it would appear that they are a small minority. It is time to make diversity and inclusion overall a mainstream topic in the sector!
It is ironic that within the travel industry – which should be intrinsically diverse – that diversity is often lacking. However, do you feel that this is improving?
JLA: The travel workplace still has some way to go if it is going to take full advantage of the benefits that come from a truly diverse and inclusive culture. A 2019 report on diversity and inclusion in the travel industry by TTG Media and PWC suggests there is still a significant gap between company’s intentions and what they are actually achieving. We need now to move from diversity being less of a buzzword and more aligned to business strategy. Boosting diversity and inclusion is an opportunity for travel brands to truly connect with their customers, by creating a workforce, leadership and culture that reflects and understands the people you serve in all their diversity.
While there are no quick fixes, what could travel companies do to improve their image and messaging, in the short term, to portray true inclusion and diversity?
AA: As mentioned before, questioning your own understanding and biases is key. In terms of how the companies portray inclusion and diversity to the outside world, a good place to start is to look at your imagery both on and off social media. How inclusive is your marketing? Are your clients’ diverse communities represented? What statements are you putting out there and how are they received? Have a dialogue with your customers if you do not know!
When it come to the travel media, how can more people from a variety of backgrounds be heard?
JLA: Mainstream publishers still aren’t investing in writers of colour despite, according to Mandala Research in 2018, that Black Millennial spend some $63 billion annually on travel. There is still little to no representation within travel marketing and public relations agencies, campaigns, commercials, ad spends and even press trips.
Through communities like The Black Travel Creators, The Black Travel Directory and our very own community of BAME Women In Travel Creators there is no shortage of professional and capable talent to choose from. But the only way we will achieve a more varied and inclusive set of stories and narrative is when brands address the internal racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious, in newsrooms and PR agencies.
There has been some criticism of some companies who have remained silent over recent tragic events which Black Lives Matters are shining a light on – is this justified? Should companies speak out to make a statement or is it more important to get ‘their house in order’ first?
AA: I believe that both areas you identify are important. Naturally, if you all you do is putting a black square on social media and then betray that statement through poor internal practices, you will attract criticism. The truth is that we can all do better and we should all strive to do better and, as long as you are honest about it, and if necessary, seek help, people in general will support you. We all have to start somewhere!
What would you say is the biggest problem, when it comes to race and diversity, in the travel industry?
JLA: Travel brands need to truly become more inclusive in their hiring practices and marketing campaigns. Only one in 33 leaders in the travel, hospitality and leisure industries identifies as being from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, according to a report published in 2019. The lack of diversity in leadership positions play a big role in creating impressions, shaping the customers experiences and connecting to other travellers from varied backgrounds.
We don’t want companies to just ‘tokenise’ but we want real change and for brands to be accountable – how can they do this properly?
AA: I very much believe that you cannot get done what you cannot measure. So setting some clear targets and performance indicators, and by monitoring this activity on a regular basis, is critical. First, though, as a company, you must acknowledge the issues and your leadership must send a strong signal about the importance to address it. You can then sign up for our corporate membership and begin the real work at that point.
In the USA, the new Black Travel Alliance is holding the industry accountable through its ‘score card’ among other things. Are you working with the Alliance or thinking of introducing anything similar for the UK?
JLA: We support the Black Travel Alliance in their mission to hold the industry accountable. One of our core goals of the BAME Women In Travel Corporate Partnership is to increase the level of BAME representation through setting targets and KPIs and supporting leaders in organisations to not only step up but to commit to racial and social justice and equality in their companies. We believe that in order for progress to be sustainable, diversity needs to become part of the cultural DNA, along with the performance objectives and appraisal of all levels of management, including the board. Our BAME Women in Travel Corporate Partnership Committed Logo also highlights those travel brands who have publicly acknowledged that diversity and inclusiveness are a company priority.
Do you feel we are at a junction of change ahead? Are you both optimistic for the future?
AA: I have no doubt that 2020 is a watershed year for the travel, tourism and hospitality industry, in more than one respect. Diversity and inclusion are, in my mind, closely intertwined with sustainability and the social impact of tourism. I have huge faith in the sector’s ability to act as a force for good. I believe that, also due to shifting customers’ perspectives, we need to grab the opportunity to rebuild the sector, not simply ‘back’, but actually fixing and changing what wasn’t working well. Diversity and inclusion are key to the sustainable future of tourism and will only make the sector stronger going forward.
JLA: What better timing than now, as the travel industry rebuilds and reimagines in a post Covid environment? My hope is that travel brands take this as an opportunity to create an inclusive an energising environment that encourages individual excellence, drives innovation, creativity and competitive advantage.
For more information about Women in Travel and BAME Women In Travel, visit womenintravelcic.com