In response to travel brands posting to social media as part of “Blackout Tuesday,” in which companies and individuals posted a black square in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, members of the travel industry and Black content creators have called on brands to be transparent about Black representation as well as to take action on racial diversity.
What’s also coming to the forefront are concerns many Black travelers have been voicing for years about the challenges they face planning and going on trips – and how travel brands should address these issues.
"The desire and market share for people of color in travel I think is really underestimated. There are those who want to travel, but concerns of racism really do hold them back,” says Kristina Liburd, founder and CEO of trip-planning app Viageur.
“If [travel brands] would start addressing [their concerns] openly and in a transparent manner, there would be quite an influx of people wanting to go beyond their normal radius.”
Nelly Gedeon, founder and CEO of eco-friendly booking app Wayaj, says that over the past five-plus years, there has been a boom in Black traveler-focused blogs and communities because "Black travelers have really been shut out of the traveling market."
Evita Robinson, the founder of one such community, Nomadness Travel Tribe, says lifestyle brands like hers form because “there’s a subset of destinations that almost act like [Black travelers] don’t exist or put us in our own tier,” she says.
“They turn us into a monolith, and we’re not a monolith.”
Not a niche
Although Black Americans account for $63 billion of travel spend every year, they don’t often see themselves reflected in travel brands’ marketing efforts.
Liburd says that the lack of representation in mainstream marketing is why Black travelers turn to communities such as Nomadness, plus sites like Black Girls Travel Too and Black Travel Movement, to trade information about the places, experiences and vendors that do or do not discriminate.
"That's a big part of the planning process for us," she says. "No one wants to have that kind of experience while traveling. The point of it is to escape ... to different places where regardless of how we look, [we’re treated the same].”
Liburd says that when it comes to representation in marketing, “I don't think people realize how much [a little] goes a long way. There's a lot of psychology around, when you don't see others like you, it takes an element of being brave to go beyond that and say, 'Well, I'm still going to try this out.'"
The travel industry is rife with whiteness. It's all over the place.
Eulanda Osagiede - Hey! Dip Your Toes In
Says Eulanda Osagiede, co-founder of travel blog Hey! Dip Your Toes In: "The travel industry is rife with whiteness. It's all over the place. You Google 'traveler' or 'adventure travel,' you Google 'luxury travel,' and the first three, four pages of images on Google are going to show the heteronormative look of whiteness.”
"Travel brands have a lot to catch up on in terms of reflecting the world that's actually around us," she continues, noting that groups including Muslim travelers, predicted to spend $157 billion by 2020, are also not reflected in marketing materials.
"It's considered very niche when it's actually not that niche,” Osagiede says. “More money, more strategy needs to go to making the marketing more inclusive, period.”
Gedeon adds that, when there are people of color in advertisements, they are often featured as servers or bartenders, not the individuals traveling.
According to Pooja Jumani, group product manager at travel marketing company Sojern, travel brands often have certain assumptions about who their target audience is, which are sometimes biased based on past customers or their personal perception of who might want what they’re offering.
For Sojern clients, “we advise them to rely on facts and data - intent signals - to drive their marketing efforts instead of anecdotal information,” Jumani says.
“It’s not about race, but about connecting any individual to any destination that interests them.”
While on trips, Hey! Dip Your Toes In’s Osagiede says her experience as a Black traveler is feeling either "hyper-visible or invisible."
Wayaj’s Gedeon believes the lack of representation in management positions at travel brands can contribute to feeding certain prejudices against Black travelers, and there should be a greater emphasis on training to recognize people’s differences.
For example, an employee at a hotel might give a Caucasian couple a room upgrade over a couple of African American decent, assuming the former is more deserving of one. To address "systemic" problems of this nature, Gedeon says "the only way to deal with them is to really upend the current system and bring in new ways of training people ... to recognize and welcome the diversity of human beings."
One brand that has shown its adeptness at navigating issues around diversity, according to Nomadness’ Robinson, is Airbnb. “It’s been a part of their ethos. They’re more so about the people and getting into communities.”
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However, the home-share giant has been accused of discrimination, particularly toward Black travelers, on its platform. In response, Airbnb says it has removed 1.3 million users since 2016 who have declined to agree to Airbnb’s Community Commitment.
On the training front, in 2017, Airbnb created and distributed an anti-bias training course for hosts, which “thousands” have completed.
This month, Airbnb also sent antiracism and ally resources to hosts in the U.S., and the brand is launching a new initiative called Project Lighthouse, designed to uncover, measure and overcome discrimination on its platform.
Alongside civil rights organizations such as Color of Change and Upturn, with Project Lighthouse, Airbnb hopes to understand when and where racial discrimination happens - such as through things like first names or profile pictures - and the effectiveness of policies that fight it.
As for what other online travel brands can do to fight discrimination and bias, Viageur’s Liburd believes there’s an opportunity for brands like Expedia, which are huge aggregators of information, to hold their vendors accountable when they receive traveler feedback on whether an experience was welcoming and accessible.
"I truly hope that brands will take this opportunity to take the role of being a bridge, a healer, to make things right," she says. "I am hopeful we will see tremendous progress in the next year or so."
Adds Gedeon: "This movement seems to have something different than what I've seen in the past. One of the major differences is that it's not just a bunch of Black people raising their voice, making noise somewhere. It's a larger community of different backgrounds that are saying enough is enough."
Osagiede says that the travel brands being called out now need to look beyond the near-term optics. "You can't expect to just put a Band-Aid on it," she says.
"It's already been a wound that's been festering for years and decades, centuries. You need to address it from the inside out."