Twenty years ago, industry consultant Andy Ingraham was struck by the paucity of Black executives in the travel industry.
Not only in the ranks of management, but as corporate owners. Black people spent tens of billions of dollars on travel every year, but where was their equity in travel businesses? Why didn't they own car rental agencies, tour operations, airlines or hotels?
"I grew up in the Bahamas," he told me. "My parents didn't want me to consider a career in hospitality because Black people in hotels worked as doormen and maids. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn't lead to the corporate executive suites. Better I should be a doctor, lawyer or priest."
But he was drawn to and succeeded in tourism nonetheless, and as he considered potential entry points for more Black ownership in travel, hotels seemed to be "low-hanging fruit."
"In some ways, it seemed real simple," he said. "The issues were access to capital and information."
The biggest information gap, he discovered, was that hotels were seldom in the consideration set for Black people who wanted to own a business. "I would say to them, 'If you can own a McDonald's or a Dairy Queen, you can own a hotel,'" he recalled.
Andy Ingraham, Nabhood
He saw a desire for education about the economics of hotel ownership, management and development as well as the need to connect potential investors with potential owners. He put together workshops and reached out to major hotel brands for input and connections. He eventually put an organization around his efforts and founded the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers (Nabhood), whose current membership represents around a thousand properties. He is its CEO.
Ingraham also recognized that the dearth of Black hotel ownership was connected to underrepresentation of Blacks in hospitality's C-suites. Once someone understands, at the executive level, how a business is run, one is more likely to have the confidence to make the leap into ownership. Part of his mission to increase ownership, he realized, had to include filling a pipeline of Black hospitality executives.
He assembled a panel of industry veterans, scholars and academics to study the problem, and this year Nabhood released an eight-page position paper titled "Creating More Opportunities and Executive Leadership Positions for People of Color in the Hospitality Industry."
Its subtitle: "An Action-Oriented Roadmap."
The research was revealing. Although Black people make up 17.9% of hotel employees, they hold only 0.7% of CEO positions in U.S. hospitality firms (for Black women, the number is 0.2%).
The panel uncovered some underlying structural issues and devised solutions to correct them. "The barriers are not insurmountable," the executive summary states.
What struck me as I read through the paper was that the issues identified are not necessarily hospitality-specific. They could apply to every sector in the travel industry, as could many of the recommended corrective steps.
Among the problems preventing Black employees from ascending within an organization is "a leaky pipeline." Blacks tend to plateau in middle management. A sense of isolation, inadequate support, the absence of organizational visibility, insufficient mentorship and lack of a clear path upward can lead to frustration, and the employee exits the organization.
Interestingly, Black professionals are often given a shot at leadership during periods of organizational crisis -- particularly women, who are regarded as possessing skills critical for crisis management. But ascending to leadership during organizational turmoil is to step out onto a "glass cliff." Accepting a high-risk assignment is not without clear threats to a career.
Several other issues are identified, and 16 corrective action steps are recommended, with four tagged as high priority. Three of these are specific to hospitality or reference Nabhood programs, but they certainly all have, or could have, parallels in other travel sectors:
- For director or higher positions, commit to ensuring that at least one Black candidate is in the final rounds of deliberations.
- Create or find an executive fellowship program designed not as a management trainee course, but as the last stop before the C-suite.
- Set goals for Black participation in management development programs (the paper specifically refers to grooming property general manager positions).
- Join programs that recognize corporate best practices in the employment and promotion of Black people.
Although the industry is shedding, rather than adding, jobs in response to the pandemic, Ingraham said he believes there is an expectation to increase diversity within corporations that will maintain momentum until the recovery begins.
"There's a desire to define equitable situations and parity," he said. "And with committed executives and boards, the greatest industry in the world will get there."