Addressing microaggressions in travel

For industry professionals and their clients who are people of color, the possibility that the travel experience will be marred by racial bias is very real.

Addressing microaggressions in travel

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

For industry professionals and their clients who are people of color, the possibility that the travel experience will be marred by racial bias is very real.

By Christina Jelski
August 15, 2022

Despite having racked up countless frequent flier miles throughout his illustrious 30-year career as an executive leader, Orlando Ashford sometimes still finds his top-tier airline status called into question.

Sometimes it happens at the gate, when Ashford, who is Black, queues up to be among the first to board the plane. 

“There have been a number of times that people have cut me off or stopped me, telling me, ‘Hey, they just called first class,’ said Ashford, a former Holland America Line president and current chairman of Azamara. “And the assumption is, ‘That can’t be you. So let me cut in front of you,’ or ‘Why are you moving up to the front of the line?’” 

Even simply standing outside a hotel can occasionally lead to an uncomfortable interaction.

“There have been multiple times when I’m standing in front of a building or a hotel, and people have assumed I was the valet,” Ashford said. “They drive up, throw me their keys and walk away.”

While incidents such as these generally don’t escalate into a more overt racial confrontation, they remain downright demeaning. Ashford characterizes them as clear microaggressions.

“I feel like I’ve earned all these perks, but when I try to enjoy that perk and get on the plane first and sit down and have a drink, and get hit with a microaggression, well, then I’m upset or mad or saddened,” he said. “And that’s certainly not the intention behind giving me that status. Microaggressions become things that really detract from the entire experience.”

‘Microaggressions really detract from the entire travel experience.’
Orlando Ashford
Orlando Ashford

Notoriously insidious, racial microaggressions can manifest in myriad ways. They can be verbal or non-verbal. They can be intentional, but sometimes they can be unintentional. They can occasionally be the product of unconscious bias. And they are, at times, subtle in nature, making it even more disorienting for those on the receiving end.

How pervasive are  they for BIPOC individuals -- even travel professionals, like Ashford -- when moving through travel industry experiences?

 According to Gloria Hobbins, a travel industry veteran and owner and president of New Jersey-based agency Global Village Travels Inc., being confronted by microaggressions while traveling for work or on vacation is far from a rare encounter.

“I’ve traveled all over, and sometimes you think it’s your imagination,” said Hobbins. “But then you talk to someone else, and they’ll tell you they had the same experience. To be honest, as a Black person, at some point you just can’t get bogged down by it every time, because it happens so frequently.”

Hobbins has found restaurants to be a particular sore spot when it comes to the potential for microaggressive behavior.

To prove a point to a friend, who is white, Hobbins recently conducted an experiment. When the two met for lunch at a restaurant, which was far from packed, Hobbins asked the friend to go in and request a table first, while Hobbins waited outside. The friend was seated at a prime table. 

Hobbins followed three minutes later, spoke to the host and also requested a table. She ended up getting seated in the back of the restaurant, next to the kitchen’s swinging doors.

“I don’t know that the maître d’ consciously did that [intentionally], but that’s the problem, that microaggressions can be subconscious,” said Hobbins. “So, what I do now at restaurants is I say, very calmly, ‘I don’t want to sit near the kitchen or the bathroom.’ And the staff may look very puzzled when I say it, but that usually [ensures that I] end up getting a good seat.”

Mary Phillips, owner of Ohio-based Phillips Travel, has similarly found herself having to find ways to minimize the potential for microaggressions, sometimes on behalf of her clients of color.

She cited a recent incident that involved a Black client who had been issued a voucher for his transfer from the airport to his resort in Jamaica, with that voucher expected to be presented to the property upon arrival. The transportation company, however, mistakenly took the voucher, leaving the client without that document at check-in. 

“To make a long story short, they would absolutely not let him check-in,” said Phillips. “But I knew for a fact that they already had his name on their list. And he had his passport with his name. I ended up having to fax another voucher to them, but I thought that was ridiculous.”

After that situation, Phillips began making sure all her clients travel with two sets of such documents.

“Even though you know that the actual issue was probably the color of his skin, you still try to adjust your approach, so something like that can never happen again,” said Phillips.

Phillips has also found that some hotels and resorts may initially take grievances made by Black clients less seriously than those made by non-Black clients. 

When Phillips had a Black client report that his resort guestroom was dirty, missing toilet paper and appeared to have a mold issue, the property did nothing to resolve the problem until Phillips escalated the complaint to management herself. 

“I was very upset,” said Phillips. “I said, ‘If I have to come down there myself, I’ll come down there.’ And it was only after that that they moved him to a much better room.”

Both Phillips and Hobbins highly encourage their clients of color to contact them or speak to a manager if anything during their travels feels “off.”

“I always tell my clients that if they encounter anything to say something and simply talk to the person who’s in charge,” said Hobbins.

‘I tell my clients, if they encounter [bias], simply talk to the person in charge.’
Gloria Hobbins
Gloria Hobbins

Even Black business travelers attending professional industry-related events may find themselves singled out. During the last meeting of the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS), a contracted security guard challenged the credentials of a Black attendee while letting his white colleagues pass through without more than a glance.

ALIS is produced by Travel Weekly parent company Northstar Travel Group, and when Northstar was notified, in addition to meeting with the delegate and apologizing, it took steps to lessen the chance that such an incident could happen again: It discontinued its relationship with the security company that employed the guard and will ensure that event contractors in all areas of its conferences have had training to minimize the likelihood of another such incident.

How restaurants, hotels, airlines and other travel suppliers respond to complaints around microaggressions, however, can vary widely.

Heather Dalmage, a sociology professor and director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has done extensive research on racism and racial confrontations within the travel sphere, with a particular focus on the treatment of interracial couples and multiracial families.

As part of a 2018 digital analysis of the online review platform TripAdvisor, Dalmage discovered that travel operators and companies frequently respond to racial complaints in a highly defensive manner, which Dalmage asserts “ultimately denies racism entirely.”

“Research shows that negative reviews do impact a business, so it’s in their best interest to respond,” said Dalmage. “But it was a rare instance where a business simply said, ‘Thank you for pointing this out. We’re going to do better.’ Instead, there were responses at the other end of the extreme, like, ‘How dare you call us racist; we have a Black nephew,’ or ‘I remember your family, you were very conspicuous. This is how you behaved at our establishment.’ 

“They’re not addressing it effectively online, and that is an insight into what’s happening in the real world,” added Dalmage. 

Amid efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the board, however, some travel and hospitality companies are aiming to better address microaggressions and unconscious bias.

Marriott International, for example, has deployed a variety of training tools designed to combat microaggressions at both the corporate and property levels, including one called the Respect For All series. According to Apoorva Gandhi, Marriott’s senior vice president for multicultural affairs, social impact and business councils, the Respect For All platform includes scenario-based videos that showcase various situations that could occur on property, and gives staff guidance on how to best respond in an inclusive manner. 

“The videos bring up the fact that unconscious bias, microaggressions and things like that can impact service, so the first thing we do is build awareness and understanding of these topics,” said Gandhi. “We want folks to feel like they belong.”

‘Microaggressions can impact service. We want folks to feel like they belong.’
Apoorva Gandhi
Apoorva Gandhi

Of course, attempting to stamp out microaggressive behavior becomes infinitely more complex when approaching it from a global perspective.  

Marriott, however, has long made investments in teaching what Gandhi describes as “cultural competence” across its international portfolio. In 2014, the company launched its Culture Day program, offering immersive training experiences across eight different countries. In response to demand from individual properties and corporate customers, the initiative was expanded to cover additional destinations and cultures in 2018 and remains active today.

“Through our Culture Days program, which we’re very proud of, we’ve educated our on-property teams on different customer cultures,” explained Gandhi. “For example, in 2018, we went to Japan to present on American culture. We absolutely understand that diversity, equity and inclusion look different around the globe.”

According to Ashford, more travel and hospitality suppliers should be approaching the issue of microaggressions as “an opportunity” for innovation, with robust employee training also a key part of the solution.

“Traveling is about enjoyment, about luxury, about connection with people and family and all these other wonderful things,” said Ashford. “Microaggression impacts that negatively. If companies can figure out how to minimize it, then it actually elevates the travel experience for all people, and especially people of color.”

‘So many industries function with a lens that white people are more valuable than others.’
Heather Dalmage
Heather Dalmage

Dalmage, however, worries that material progress on the microaggression front could remain elusive, unless the travel industry can commit to making lasting foundational changes.

“And it’s not just the travel industry,” added Dalmage. “The travel industry sits among so many other industries that function with a lens that white people are more valuable than others. There is this assumption that white people deserve more. And to solve the issue will require a an upending of a whole entire colonial history.”