An African-American friend and I stood in the corner at an industry event recently. We both surveyed the crowd as we conversed, and he suddenly changed the subject. "Where are the black people in the travel industry?" he asked.
"Think about it," he continued. "If it were reversed, and you were one of three or four white faces and everyone else was black, you would think that was equally odd. Wouldn't you wonder about that?"
I said that I had indeed wondered about the industry's homogenous nature, and that I had thought it was especially peculiar because so many Americans who are drawn to the industry are attracted to it because they're curious, open-minded people who enjoy traveling great distances to escape the feeling of being surrounded by sameness and the familiar. International travel is frequently driven exactly by the desire to experience cultural diversity.
Additionally, the very nature of the industry demands business relationships with people of all races, religions and ethnicities. Generally speaking, it's an industry where intolerance is not tolerated.
"Then why are we so homogenous?" he asked. "Why aren't we seeing that same diversity in this room?"
Chimes began to ring, and we were moved along to our assigned seats at separate tables. But we agreed to continue the discussion the next day, so I rang him up the following afternoon.
"To begin, I think it's important to say that I'm not pointing fingers at anyone," he said. "I've been in the industry my entire career, and I've never felt unwelcome or that a door was closed to me. I do not believe [the lack of diversity] is by design. I just don't think it registers with people that there isn't a lot of diversity in the travel industry, particularly once you get above service levels. It just doesn't occur to people. It's more an oversight than intentional."
Other factors that work against a more integrated industry might stem from the expectations of African-Americans when they look at career options, he said. "Within the black community, I think we have a very traditional view of professions. If you want to be a professional, you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, work on Wall Street, be a scientist. Being in management in, say, hospitality isn't something you would strive for."
It's also his observation that some of the African-Americans who ended up in travel didn't begin there. Some were on the investment side and learned about the industry and what an attractive place it is to work, because a travel brand was in their portfolio.
"And in any case, you don't see a lot of people in hospitality management who have worked their way up from service positions," he observed.
But the bottom line, he said, is that the underlying benefits that would accrue to the industry by being more reflective of the clientele we serve would be significant. The industry has much to gain by finding proactive ways to be more inclusive.
"We're leaving talent on the table," he said. "We could get further, particularly in terms of potential consumer insight, if we more accurately reflected the makeup of our society."
But how does that happen? I reminded him that he mentioned that doors are not being intentionally closed.
"I'd be curious to know what it is that attracts young people of color to other fields," he said. "Is there something that our industry could be learning? Is it compensation? Prestige? A clear path for career advancement over the long term? What are other industries doing that we could emulate? I brought this topic up last night because I feel we have an opportunity to evolve and become more sophisticated."
My friend's observations contain much to contemplate. Most striking to me is the apparent disconnect between who we are as individuals and the collective "look" of our industry.
It's also mystifying because the component pieces, the various sectors that make up the travel industry, could not be more inclined to be welcoming. After all, "hospitality," as practiced by professionals, is really just the refinement and codification of various cultural notions of being hospitable.
Likewise, almost every tour operation was sparked by a desire to share the profound experience of steeping in an environment where everything is different.
Travel counseling requires, as a core competency, sensitivity to both the needs of clients and the subtleties of the lands to which they're sent.
And guests on certain cruise lines look far more reflective of the American population than any other industry segment I can think of.
I agree with my friend that no industry is better positioned to benefit from a workforce that, at all levels, reflects the makeup of our own society.
I also agree that our homogenous appearance is not intentional or by design; we're just, for the most part, oblivious to it.
So, if you've made it this far into this column, you're no longer oblivious.
What's the next step?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.