Black Travelers Matter: So why is our industry so damn white?

The last time I wrote, in May, we were still trying to understand the short- and long-term effects of the global pandemic. We have learned quite a bit since, but with recovery faltering in many places, the overall outlook is still a bit cloudy. One thing I believe we’ve all learned is to expect the unexpected.

But I’m writing now on a different topic. Among the many surprising things to have happened this year is how quickly the issue of race and diversity has burst into our collective consciousness. Of course, racial inequality and injustice have always been a concern, particularly for members of minority groups. But the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May and the protests that followed, first across the United States and then around the world, led to many difficult conversations about racism—and many commitments to finally do something about it.

Along with our struggles with COVID-19, the travel business has been grappling with racial inequality in our own midst. I’ve heard many of our peers acknowledge the industry’s shortcomings, including in a series of roundtables that I’ve co-hosted with Jack Ezon, Founder & Managing Partner of Embark Beyond, a New York–based travel advisory firm. Many of us are unhappy about systemic racism in the travel industry but not sure how to address it. Some are frustrated that making progress in, say, diversifying our workforces, is a slow process that takes generations. A few people were unwilling to speak on the record with me about the subject. Granted, it’s a touchy subject. But this is not a time to be silent. As an industry that prides itself on hospitality, inclusiveness, and respect for each other’s differences, we simply must do better.

It must be said that while racism in America is specific to America and its history of slavery and discrimination, it exists everywhere. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the globe are evidence of that. The dynamics might be different in Asia or Europe or Latin America than they are in the United States, but the imperative is universal: Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in the travel business, and everyone should be made to feel equally welcome as a guest, wherever they come from and wherever they are.

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 with you. Given the complexity and seriousness of the issue, I’ve decided to devote two separate posts to it.

But first some background.

Like many of my white peers, I’ve learned a lot in the past few months about the advantages and privileges that we often take for granted—and the corresponding disadvantages suffered by Blacks. Those range from how they’re treated by shopkeepers and flight attendants to how they’re represented in lecture halls, boardrooms, and advertisements. I’ve learned that health care outcomes are markedly worse for Blacks in the United States, with COVID-19 just the most recent example. And I’ve come to recognize that, in the U.S. at least, racism is inherent in many of our systems and institutions—not just police brutality, but a whole history of discrimination in housing, education, finance, and the workplace. All of those historic injustices affect many generations down the line—which means that we need to do some hard work to repair them.

Looking at the travel industry in particular, it is clear that we have a long way to go. A report released in June by the nonprofit Castell Project found that while Blacks make up nearly 20% of the employees in the U.S. hospitality industry, only 1.5% of executives (director level or above) are Black. For CEO and president roles, the number drops to less than 1%. Among travel agents, only 6.8% of advisors are Black, according to DataUSA. (For reference, Blacks make up around 13.4% of the U.S. population.)

I haven’t seen reports on other segments of the industry, and the studies I’ve seen outside the U.S. focus mostly on gender parity (which is far behind what it should be: for instance, women only make up 26% of senior management positions in U.K. travel businesses). But you get the picture.

If those of us who run the industry are almost entirely white, then it’s that much harder for us to attract new Black talent to our ranks. It’s harder for us to convince Black travelers (a $63 billion market in the U.S. alone, according to a 2018 study by Mandala Research) to stay in our hotels, board our cruise ships, and visit our destinations—and harder for us to ensure that those who do come are treated respectfully. And it’s harder for us to say that we are not part of the problem.

So, what do we do about it? Below I’ll talk about how to create workforces that are as diverse as possible, all the way up to the C-suite, and how to extend that effort to the people and companies with whom we do business. In my next post, I’ll discuss other outward-facing measures that will help to address the issue.

  1. Where Are Our Black Leaders? Hiring, Promoting, and Mentoring
Photo: Chekitan Dev

The overwhelming whiteness of our industry is self-perpetuating: If Blacks and other minorities don’t see people who look like them succeeding as travel professionals, they won’t visualize it as a career path for themselves. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” is how Chekitan Dev, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, put it to me.

Regretfully, due to the pandemic, many of us are going through the painful steps of reducing our workforces now, not expanding them. But when the time comes to hire again post-coronavirus—and it will—think of it as an opportunity to do a reset. Take the time now to audit your workforce, set real goals for diversity, and hold your organization to them. Hilton, for one, has laid off more than one-fifth of its corporate staff, but it has set a goal of 50% diversity for every open position once it begins hiring again, according to Skift. Could your organization commit to a similar ratio?

Now, I’ve heard many people say that there are simply not enough Black applicants in the pool. Tyronne Stoudemire, Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion for Hyatt, doesn’t buy it. “At Hyatt, we lead with an evidence-based diversity strategy using predictive analytics. And looking at the available labor market, internal and external, I think that the talent is there,” he says. Since he joined Hyatt five years ago, the corporate management team has gone from six white men to three men and three women, one of them Black.

Photo: Tyronne Stoudemire

Stoudemire credits CEO Mark Hoplamazian for his commitment to achieving that goal but concedes that it’s only a start. Companies, his included, need to work harder to move more people of color into leadership positions. “You don’t see as much representation as you should,” he says. “It’s not that the pipeline isn’t there, but there are some things stopping women and people of color from moving up the ranks.”

According to a report in June by the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators, and Developers (NABHOOD), this “middle-management plateau” occurs because many Black professionals, despite their years of mid-level experience, “lack the organizational visibility and personal mentorship needed to break into the upper echelons of executive leadership.” Many end up quitting or leaving the professional altogether—what’s called the “leaky pipeline.”

Stoudemire thinks this is due in part to social and cultural factors: If Blacks and whites don’t connect on a personal level, the Black employee may lack colleagues or mentors who will speak on their behalf and advocate for them to advance. “People have got to be culturally curious about each other and dive deep,” he says. “Diversity without inclusion leads to confusion.”

So, we must all take responsibility to change that construct: Build a pipeline. Create mentoring programs. Ensure that your socializing efforts don’t unintentionally exclude certain people. Allow minority employees to create diversity groups and show your commitment by giving them a budget and allowing them to spend time away from their regular duties. Look for outside organizations who can help with career development: NABHOOD, for one, is planning to establish an executive leadership fellows program that will groom mid-career Black managers for leadership roles.

And improve recruitment efforts. If we always go back to the same hospitality schools, whose graduates are overwhelmingly white, the problem will persist. Dev concedes that Cornell hasn’t done a good enough job recruiting diverse faculty or students—resulting in a “closed loop” system that’s incredibly difficult to break out of. But in the meantime, there are other options. Hyatt has partnered with a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to create opportunities for their students and showcase the rewards of a career in the travel industry. On a smaller scale, Singita and Grace Bay Resorts are two companies I know of whose training and education programs help bring local people of color into the industry.

Stoudemire, who is Black, says it’s important to showcase the diversity of your leadership team to potential applicants. “If we only show Black doormen and Latina housekeepers on our websites and commercials and collateral, people in those communities won’t understand that this is a career and not just an hourly job,” he says. “It’s critical to see people like myself in a senior level role to draw people closer.”

Dev, the Cornell professor, mentioned to me what he termed the “elephant in the room”: For many Blacks, a position that they perceive to be about serving other people, particularly white people, is off-putting. In response, he cites Ritz-Carlton cofounder Horst P. Schultz’s famous refrain that while this is a service business, we are not servants. “People of color need to understand that hospitality is a profession,” Dev says.


  • Audit your workforce and set real goals for achieving racial and gender diversity, particularly among leadership. That should include both new hires and promotion from within.
  • Create a longer-term pipeline by widening your recruitment efforts, broadening your search beyond the usual hotel schools.
  • Support scholarships, mentoring programs, and other ways to reach younger Black talent so they see travel as a welcoming profession and a rewarding career.
  • Support your minority employees to ensure retention, and create an empathetic culture that lets everyone thrive, regardless of background. 
  1. It’s Not Just Employees: Who Are Your Partners?

As we work on leveling our internal playing fields, we should also be looking to support minority-owned businesses with our supplier relationships. That includes everything from accounting and P.R. firms to food suppliers and florists. Supporting Black-owned vendors helps create an entire travel ecosystem that is more racially diverse and creates opportunities for everyone. And lean on your existing partners to make diversity a priority for themselves: If it is key to your mission, use your purchasing power to get everyone aligned with it.

Photo: Yana Gutierrez

Consider including people of color when putting together a panel discussion or sending employees to industry conferences—and not just those covering Africa or the Caribbean or diversity. “I would speak at the New York Times Travel Show and I remember being overwhelmed by other people of color in the industry who came up to me afterwards,” says Yana Gutierrez, a longtime Black travel executive who formerly served as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for American Express. “It’s not that I said anything particularly insightful, honestly. They were amazed to see somebody like them speaking.”

If you have an advisory board, be sure it reflects the diverse perspectives of Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ people, and others. I commend Travel + Leisure for diversifying its Travel Advisory Board recently by adding seven new people of color just this year.

Another way to help: Create local experiences that bring Black history and culture to life for your guests. Just as travelers benefit from, say, visiting remote tribes in Bolivia or having a meal with a Cambodian family, they would enjoy visiting local Black historic sites or minority-owned restaurants or bars in your destination. If done in a respectful and authentic way, this does the double duty of supporting minority-owned businesses and exposing Black culture to travelers who may not realize those travel experiences exist.

Photo: Tomiko Harvey

For both internal and external hires, it’s not enough to just bring members of minority groups into the organization: You have to pay attention to what they are telling you. “If you hire someone Black and you don’t listen to them or take their advice, you’re just checking a box,” says Tomiko Harvey, whose blog Passports & Grub generates around 50,000 visits per month, mostly from Black women who are luxury traveler consumers. “Take their advice and let them help you navigate those waters that you just may not know. It’s OK to say you got it wrong in the past, but now moving forward you know what to do.”



  • Make an effort to diversify your vendors, contractors, agencies, and other business relationships. Include businesses owned by Blacks, women, and other underrepresented groups as much as possible, and communicate the urgency of diversity and inclusion to all of your other partners.
  • Ensure the visibility of Black people and other members of underrepresented groups on your advisory boards, and at any conferences or panel discussions that you work on.
  • Create experiences for your guests that bring Black history and culture to life.
  • Be sure to solicit advice and perspective from your Black employees, advisors, and business partners. Listen and learn and commit to integrating their advice. Don’t just tick a box. 

In my next post, I’ll address how we can improve advertising, marketing, and operations to better reflect diversity. And I’ll discuss what it means to be an “anti-racist.” In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. Have you taken any steps to address the issue of racism in your company? Let’s continue the conversation.