Diversity perception and reality

A Travel Weekly survey reveals a wide gulf between how Black and white travel professionals see inclusion in the industry.

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

Is the travel industry diverse and inclusive?
It depends who you ask.

Of the 423 industry professionals responding to a recent Travel Weekly survey attempting to gauge perception on the topic, 53% agreed or strongly agreed the industry is diverse and inclusive, 22% were neutral, and 17% disagreed. Among white respondents, the percentage who agreed or strongly agreed was 61%. But among the 15% of the respondents who indicated they were Black, the same percentage — 61% — disagreed or strongly disagreed that the industry is diverse and inclusive, while 23% indicated a neutral position, and 15% believe it is.

That’s quite a disconnect.

There were some signs the industry recognizes the need to be intentional in addressing the issue of diversity and inclusion. Among respondents who are on an agency staff (as opposed to independent contractors), 37% said the company they worked for had implemented a diversity and inclusion program and 36% indicated there was not one, with the balance indicating they didn’t know, or didn’t answer.

A separate survey went to the large agencies on the Travel Weekly Power List, who all have gross travel sales of $100 million or more. Of those respondents, 8% indicated they were at work on creating such a program, and 57% said they had a diversity and inclusion program in place. Among those who do, all indicated they were “not yet satisfied with the outcome of their policies.”

Indeed, it would appear that the programs have not yet moved the needle. “African American travel agents, managers, executives and vendor reps are few and far between,” commented one Black respondent.

It would appear that diversity and inclusion programs, even if they are in place, have not yet moved the needle in the industry. 

One Black 25-year industry veteran commented that, for the 10 years that she worked for a large corporate agency, “I was the only Black agent in all the Southern California branches. When I was promoted to agency manager, I had the opportunity to hire several Black agents, but we were still grossly underrepresented in my company. In the area of leadership, Black representation was even worse.”

“I don’t see any people of color in my work, and I don’t see any in management, period!” wrote another.

On the question of representation specifically, 46% of Black respondents indicated they were “very dissatisfied,” 27% indicated they were somewhat dissatisfied, and 12% indicated they were somewhat satisfied.

Black representation at managerial or executive levels among the 423 respondents broke down as follows: Seven were owners, one was an executive vice president, two were senior vice presidents, 12 were managers or branch managers and 31 held other management positions. When asked about opportunities for upward mobility, 60% of Black respondents leaned toward dissatisfaction.

The problem can go deeper than underrepresentation. “I left a brick-and-mortar agency because it was a hostile environment,” one Black agent wrote. “The more expensive trips were referred to other agents, I experienced microaggressions frequently and witnessed other agents being abused.”

“My experience is that luxury upscale fams and information are not equally shared,” said another.

On the question of professional treatment within the industry, 40% of Black respondents were dissatisfied, 33% were neutral, and 25% were satisfied, including 8% who were very satisfied, compared to an aggregate survey response of 10% dissatisfied, 28% neutral and 60% satisfied, including 33% who were very satisfied.

Another concern that came up repeatedly in comments had to do with the lack of people of color in sales collateral or advertising imagery. Among the comments:

  • “Few advertising media display persons of color despite the fact that much of their revenue is derived from this group.”
  • “Marketing and advertising for leisure travel overwhelmingly caters to and features white travelers.”
  • “Especially with upscale and luxury suppliers, marketing assets are not diverse and inclusive. Representation is sparse.”

The consequence of near-homogenous white imagery in promotional media is that it makes sales to Black travelers more difficult. “It’s hard to imagine or desire to go somewhere where no one looks like you,” one advisor wrote. “We have been forced to make connections between suppliers and our community to help them see the value of traveling. It’s an uphill battle.”

‘My experience is that luxury upscale fams and information are not equally shared,’ one Black agent commented.

These feelings were widespread among Black respondents, with 52% indicating they were very dissatisfied and 25% “somewhat dissatisfied” with representation in promotions. Among respondents as a whole, 51% indicated satisfaction.

When Black respondents were asked to identify other areas where the travel industry can improve on inclusiveness and diversity, the following additional issues were cited:

  • Trade shows/conferences/webinars. With regards to onstage representation, 48% of Black respondents are very dissatisfied, and only 10% said they were somewhat satisfied with Black representation onstage at industry conferences. For respondents as a whole, 49% indicated satisfaction.
  • Recruitment and training.
  • A sense that the community of white travel agents is cliquish.

Taken as a whole, the survey indicates general dissatisfaction among Black travel professionals, compared with other races that feel generally satisfied, about the level of inclusiveness and diversity in the industry.

The findings also suggest that if the industry is going to increase Black representation and foster an environment of diversity and inclusion, there must first be the recognition that there’s a gap in perceptions between white and Black travel professionals about the impact of the problem within the industry. How does the industry alter the perception among many white professionals that the status quo is good enough while also laying a groundwork that can cultivate an environment where Black individuals feel visible and valued?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but three agencies have embraced models that illustrate possible paths toward a more diverse and inclusive industry: Flight Centre, the $16 billion dollar international powerhouse that employs almost 20,000 people and ranked No. 6 on the 2020 Power List; KHM, a $278 million agency that has 79 employees, hosts 4,900 independent contractors and ranked No. 40 on the Power List; and CrushGlobal, an agency owned by a Black woman whose trips foster feelings of inclusiveness and support Black-owned enterprises.

Sydney Harris, SH Research

Sydney Harris, SH Research

Sydney Harris, SH Research

Sydney Harris, the researcher who conducted the survey on behalf of Travel Weekly, came to this conclusion: “It’s apparent that the need to improve Black representation requires immediate attention. For those companies taking necessary steps to ‘be the change,’ the remainder of this year and into 2021 can be a major marker for shifts taking place. 

“There’s a need to implement new strategies and practices to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. In addition to mindful and inclusive practices at the company or corporate level, the travel industry as a whole must pay attention to its collective approach to address these issues. An intentional call to action can make all the difference in how Black people feel understood, valued, respected and visible within this industry.”


Diversity ambassador wants Flight Centre’s makeup to reflect society

Flight Centre Travel Group-the Americas senior account executive Mpuuga Rwabutara has taken on an additional assignment with the giant Australia-based agency: diversity ambassador.

Mpuuga Rwabutara, Flight Centre

Mpuuga Rwabutara, Flight Centre

Mpuuga Rwabutara, Flight Centre

Rwabutara, who works for the corporate arm of the company, manages travel requirements of startup-to-midmarket clients on the East Coast. He is also spearheading Flight Centre’s new diversity and inclusion initiatives. His responsibilities include crafting programs internally and identifying room for improvement in training; recruitment, job postings and hiring; and assessing whether corporate practices are fair. His recommendations go to the company’s senior executives.

But he also looks outward for inspiration, leveraging his existing industry and customer relationships and cultivating new ones. “It has been a fantastic opportunity for me to speak to clients about the diversity initiatives that they have done,” he said. These relationships provide additional insight into potential ways his company and the industry can move toward more inclusion and diversity. “As a business, it’s important to be sure we’re searching for, attracting and promoting the best talent,” he said. 

The response, internally and externally, has been positive in part because of opportunities opened by a broadening awareness of diversity and inclusion. In this current climate, Rwabutara believes, opportunity for change is present. “We are a part of the journey, and I’m aware of the lack of diversity in the travel industry. But it’s the topic of conversation in many industries — not just travel -— and we have the opportunity to build on it faster due to individuals in the industry being world travelers. They have a passion for traveling, which is a huge help.”

Internally, several committees have been formed around diversity. But Flight Centre, like many travel companies, is finding that the impact of changes in hiring practices toward a more inclusive approach is on hold; few in the industry are hiring at this time. But meaningful conversations about why and what will happen going forward are taking place, Rwabutara said. A company needs to retain “an experienced spine to hold the fort together,” he said, but at the same time, “new hires are integral for our growth in all brands.” They can bring new ideas to the table, and when hiring begins again, the makeup of the company will, he expects, move to better reflect society in general. 

For now, Rwabutara has identified objectives with five pillars in mind: 1) Emphasizing the value of diversity in the workplace. 2) Improving diversity and inclusion practices. 3) Identifying areas of opportunity and providing direction. 4) Enhancing the sense of belonging and human relations. 5) Minority employee support.

When asked what the leisure travel industry needs to do to enhance diversity and inclusion, Rwabutara mentioned conversation and training and the need to “be honest about missing the mark in certain areas.” Given that the downturn in travel has provided time to reflect, Rwabutara’s aim for Flight Centre is to build a cohesive environment where people can continually prosper, having regular discussions on the topic so that perspectives are shared.

“I want to make sure that what I’m aiming to build is successful and paves a way for everyone, not just one or two people. And I hope that, in time, people can look at our company and see that in addition to people of color, LGBTQ employees and disabled employees, we are a reflection of society. That is the destination. We need to make sure we are as balanced and as diverse as society itself.”

—Sydney Harris


KHM Travel Group is building on its commitment to diversity and equality

As social justice issues jumped to national headlines this past summer, the subject of Black representation, diversity and inclusion came into focus for many companies, prompting some to reevaluate their existing policies and practices.

At KHM Travel Group, a 15-year-old host agency based in Brunswick, Ohio, the headlines only reinforced the commitment the company had made when it launched its DE&I Initiative (diversity, equality and inclusion) in 2017.

Rick Zimmerman, KHM Travel Group

Rick Zimmerman, KHM Travel Group

Rick Zimmerman, KHM Travel Group

The company’s CEO, Rick Zimmerman, notes that one of its core values is “people first.” To him, that not only underscores KHM’s commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion but also equity, i.e., ensuring that opportunities are present for everyone to rise.

KHM’s business optimization executive, Craig Freeman, said several internal committees focus on DE&I and, in addition, the company has established a partnership with Travel Professionals of Color, which had caught KHM’s attention for its role in supporting people of color in their businesses. “It was a natural fit to become allies and support one another,” Freeman said. “Members from both organizations serve on committees and become intimately involved with each other’s progress.”

Craig Freeman, KHM Travel Group

Craig Freeman, KHM Travel Group

Craig Freeman, KHM Travel Group

For Freeman, a rewarding part of the DE&I Initiative has been “the open, heartfelt conversations we’ve had in our general body meetings,” he said. “Members of our committees and their leadership have labored on this journey to make a change because it’s the right thing to do.” 

He said that the fact the initiative started three years before the increased awareness of social justice issues in 2020 is a testament to the progressive hearts and minds of KHM’s corporate team and those travel advisors who became involved.

Freeman said they have been contacted by enterprises outside of the travel industry that were interested in how they structure their diversity programs.

The company also hosts a Diversity and Inclusion Awards program that recognizes suppliers who have demonstrated sensitivity around these issues, including in their advertising. 

“One of our suppliers told us they would not participate in the awards, acknowledging that, internally, they were not diverse enough, and that had impacted the external materials they produced,” Freeman said. “They said they would be working on their internal D&I and hoped to participate the following year. Taking ownership like that took guts, and we are proud to partner with a supplier who is willing to listen, adjust and take action.” 

Zimmerman and Freeman both recognize there is still opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion within KHM. They have reached 10% racial diversity on the company staff and 26% among their hosted travel advisors, and they plan to build on that. 

Equity, as defined by Zimmerman, “is really looking at everyone, giving everyone the same chance, the same opportunity.” For KHM, he added, it’s important to “help people be successful no matter their age, race or where they come from.”

Zimmerman said programs like the DE&I Initiative can make a big difference. “As consciousness is raised across the whole industry, you will see much more diversity.”

—Sydney Harris


CrushGlobal is on a mission to amplify Black voices

“Diversity is such a trendy word right now,” said Kristin Braswell, “but what it really means to me, as a business owner, is that I have a responsibility to make sure that any person enlisting CrushGlobal feels seen, safe and heard.”

Braswell started her agency in Los Angeles in 2016, with the aim of making travel more inclusive, intimate and experiential for clients. Work as a travel journalist had inspired her to find a way to “connect people in ways that will impact them positively for the rest of their lives,” she said.

CrushGlobal is committed to working directly with local businesses around the world, tailoring experiences to a client’s budget and interests. With so many borders closed to Americans this year, she changed her focus to domestic travel and has designed road trips from her base in Los Angeles up the California coast as well as through the South. Working with Black- or LGBTQ-owned businesses is as much a priority as ensuring that Covid protocols can be followed throughout the trip.

Braswell highlights the importance of amplifying Black voices beyond those related to Black oppression, civil rights or culturally specific themes.

She credits much of the success of her business to the support of Black women. She notes that even with a diverse clientele, Black women in particular have always shown up and supported her initiatives. “Anything I do will always be for the benefit of Black people, who are so often left out of travel narratives and marketing. It’s beyond time for tourism industries to value the Black dollar. We travel, we want to learn, we want to connect, just like everyone else.”

—Sydney Harris



One survey was sent to individuals who had previously opted in to participate in Travel Weekly research, and a link to that survey was also posted on TravelWeekly .com. A separate survey was sent to the companies on Travel Weekly’s Power List, comprising 52 businesses with sales of $100 million or more. This survey asked about corporate diversity and inclusion policies and the makeup of their workforces. The surveys were initially fielded on Oct. 19, and the period for responses closed on Nov. 11.

Of the 423 respondents to the first survey, 38% are independent contractors, 22% work at a single-location brick-and-mortar agency, 17% work for a multi-office agency, and 14% are home-based employees. (Because the pandemic distorts the number of people working at home, respondents were asked where they were based in 2019.) Respondents included advisors, managers, sales directors and executives with the titles vice president, president, CEO and chairman.

The ethnic breakdown of participants who indicated their race is white or Caucasian, 70%; Black or African American, 15%; Hispanic or Latino, 4%; “other” or mixed race, 4%; Asian or Asian American, 3%; American Indian or Alaska Native, 0%

For the survey conducted of the 52 Power List companies, 24 responded. The median ethnic and racial makeup of these companies is 80% white. No other ethnic group reached 10% representation.