On diversity, show up and have the conversation

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Cathy Brooks-Oliver, owner of CBO Custom Travel in Scottsdale, Ariz., speaks at Global Travel Collection's Elevate the Journey virtual conference.
Cathy Brooks-Oliver, owner of CBO Custom Travel in Scottsdale, Ariz., speaks at Global Travel Collection's Elevate the Journey virtual conference.
Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

As a Black woman who owns a luxury travel agency, CBO Custom Travel in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cathy Brooks-Oliver has faced two main challenges: visibility and representation.

During a panel on diversity at Global Travel Collection's Elevate the Journey virtual conference last week, she was asked how she overcomes those challenges.

"To be honest, I really don't feel like I have," Brooks-Oliver said. "What I do is I show up. I truly believe we all have more in common than we have differences. I travel extensively, I share my experiences; I engage in conversations frequently about race and equality, even when the topics are uncomfortable. I reach out and I let my voice be heard with hopes that it will make a difference."

Brooks-Oliver said Blacks are underrepresented in travel in all areas, including marketing campaigns, as conference speakers and attendees, in leadership roles and more.

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When she meets with suppliers, attends conferences or just interacts with colleagues, she said she is usually in the minority.

And when luxury travel suppliers don't portray Black people in their marketing materials, it sends a clear message: "We're not interested in luxury travel," Brooks-Oliver said. "We can't afford it or we're just not welcome."

Another challenging area Brooks-Oliver has encountered is seeking clients through social media. She's faced with a choice when choosing images to post.

"If I use the images that I receive from various marketing campaigns, it's not representative of the diversity that I see in travel," she said. "If I share images from my own travels or from Black content creators that I follow, I run the risk of not attracting non-Black clients who seek luxury travel experiences."

Talking about the lack of diversity in the travel industry is a priority for Brooks-Oliver to hopefully change the landscape. She follows Black influencers and content creators and looks to them for inspiration and support. She sits on diversity panels like the one at Elevate the Journey. She supports organizations like the Black Travel Alliance.

Also sitting on the panel was Maya George, CEO and founder of Our Black Passports in Fairfield, N.J. She was asked to talk about a sad reality addressed by another Black agency owner, Margie Jordan, in a Travel Weekly article in June: Traveling while Black.

"Margie detailed experiences where she encountered unconscious bias as a Black traveler," George said. "Traveling while Black means understanding that your skin color can automatically trigger prejudice."

It's something George has experienced many times in her own travels, especially when she is traveling in business class. She gets stares, looks of disgust, seat-change requests and other travelers asking if she is in the right line to board the plane.

"Sadly, Black travelers have to build a thick skin and sometimes a tolerance to knowingly encounter microaggressions or blatant racism," George said.

She agreed with Brooks-Oliver about the importance of talking about issues of equality.

"It's important for us to change the narrative that Black travel doesn't exist or that it's not worth investing in, because we do travel and in various sectors [ranging from luxury to adventure]," she said. "I think it's important for us to continue these conversations."

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