Agents of color: Travel Weekly

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David Anoyke“Sometimes it’s me alone.”

David Anokye has worked in travel since 2000. He formed Klassique Travels in 2007, and the Ghanian native’s five-employee agency now includes brick-and-mortar operations in the Bronx and Queens. He is ASTA’s 2014 Young Professional of the Year.

But at travel shows — “which I go to a lot” — the dark-complexioned Anokye doesn’t see many people who look like him. “Even those guys that I saw were migrated from other countries,” he said. When told that Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann had written a column about noticing a dearth of black people at industry events, Anokye laughed. “I guess he saw only me.” 

Larger findings support Anokye’s perspective. The most recent available census figures (2007) put African-American travel agent ownership at just 2%.

Another, more recent, 2% figure: Today, only 11 of nearly 500 convention and visitors bureaus are led by African-Americans. Solomon Herbert, publisher of Black Meetings & Tourism magazine, has written that “the industry that we love” needs to address an “historical lack of diversity and inclusion. … We cannot continue to sweep this issue under the rug.”

Representation clearly doesn’t match buying power, and this may be a major business mistake.

African-American spending across travel and hospitality runs anywhere from $40 billion to $56 billion. Black travel in the U.S. is projected to grow 25% over this decade. Seventeen percent of African-Americans take one or more international trips a year.

“Within the last decade, I’ve seen significant growth in both [African-American] group leaders and the number of passengers who are traveling,” said Kimbela Randle, a group business development manager with Globus out of Atlanta. “In just my territory, they’re doing more than just casino trips. They’re moving into cruising, international, longer trips.”

Jamie PerryEven as African-Americans maximize markets within an ever-more-rainbow society, their increased presence can enrich all of travel and hospitality. “Cultural differences,” said Jamie Perry, a Cornell University assistant professor of human resources management, “can create innovation in organizations in ways they never imagine.”

African-American insights

Within the black community, a variety of travel solutions draw on an understanding of culture and spending patterns. 

• Group travel: Betty Jones began her travel career as the only African-American in the office of a nationwide agency. “I didn’t pay that much attention because that was the norm,” she recalled recently. “It just didn’t faze me. Everybody treated me fine.”

For more than 20 years, Jones has owned CB Jones Travel Services in Denver. She has weathered recession and a decline of fam trips by building her business around an African-American affinity for group travel. The bulk of her bookings now come from four major church conferences a year. “I take care of all their airlines and cars,” she said.

Jones also adapts to her clients’ finances. At her former agency, she recalled, “My counterpart would say, ‘This is the price; take it or leave it. This is the deposit; you have to pay it by so-and-so.’ Here, this is the price, but we’ll work with them. The deposit, you can break it up into two payments.” 

• Rites of passage: Cheryl Jones (no relation to Betty Jones) also customized previous experience to target a particular niche. Originally from Trinidad, she spent six years with Carnival Cruise Lines doing business development in New Jersey and New York.

“Because it was large, it was a nice, diverse group of sales staff,” she recalled. It “catered to the smaller agencies, including to the small African-American agencies. … In the field, however, I was maybe one of three or four outside sales reps. Upper management was all white.” (Carnival Corp. now has a black CEO, Arnold Donald. He was unavailable to be interviewed for this report. Last week, an African-American, Orlando Ashford, was named president of another of Carnival Corp.’s brands, Holland America Line.)

Cheryl JonesJones now operates Brooklyn’s Unique Weddings & Tours. Her partner, someone she met while at Carnival, is a certified event planner who handles destination and local weddings. Jones is the business development manager.

“We specialize in group travel, family reunions,” Jones said. “We court group leaders. We’ve gotten really great responses that way.”

Digital media is a key tool in Unique’s plan “to grow us past our four walls.” These include a website, social media services Facebook and Instagram, and sending email and a newsletter to the firm’s database.

“Just depending on foot traffic? It’s a definite no; it’s mainly airline tickets,” Jones said. “However they feel comfortable connecting with us, that’s what we do.”

• New markets: Roots & Vines Wine Tours, out of Hayward, Calif., exemplifies some niche ups and downs. Longtime wine country visitors, co-owners James Adams and Cassandra Beckett-Kidd noticed that there very few people of color at wineries and related events.

“We just sat down the next weekend and threw some figures together,” Adams recalled.

With a Hispanic partner who had poured at various tasting rooms, their value-added has been as “wine educators. We take people to the wine country and we have interactive seminars.”

Subsequently, though, a glut of tour companies caused hard-pressed wineries to charge for tastings. Some in the target market didn’t fully recognize Roots & Vines’ value proposition; others now go on their own. The company has survived by combining “passion for the business” with “the power of relationships,” serving a group annually for the past 12 years, packaging seminars and transport.

“We’re very glad we did it,” Adams said. “Now, when we go to winery events, we see a lot of us there. We know we made a significant contribution.” 

• Heritage/cultural tourism: A major growth area draws on a passion for learning about African-American progenitors who sacrificed and pioneered. Civil rights-era landmarks such as Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, have become what Ernest Boger, chairman of hotel and restaurant management at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, called “places of cultural worship.”

Cultural tourism can include heritage travel in the Caribbean and parts of Africa not ravaged by Ebola. It also can assume a decidedly modern motif.

Jason MillerMinority Travel Group, based in Miami, staffs cruise lines with relevant DJs and comedians. Its eclectic bookings range from family reunions and church outings to newer niches such as marathons, ski trips and celebrity charters. CEO Jason Miller, also a cruise company veteran, said the $8 million business combines one-on-one client advising and working with a minority business-and-development council to pitch larger companies. “We’re gearing ourselves to the minority market, gearing to their needs.”

Diversity’s competitive advantage

Carmen McCloud works for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) as a key account director for airlines and specialty markets. Originally in trucking, she has spent almost 24 years with IHG after stints with Crowne Plaza, Hyatt and Marriott. She directs accounts of $1 million or more in annual lodging spend.

“It is the ivory tower,” she said. “Everyone wants to get into corporate.”

McCloud likes “the diversity and exposure” of a global organization, but she said she also feels welcomed in her external interactions. “I think it’s refreshing [for them] to see a person of color,” she said. “I’m talking to organizations that are doing missions. Diversity is important to them.”

McCloud honed in on commitment, role models and resources. IHG, like many transnational hoteliers and carriers, has a diversity and inclusion program, and McCloud also cited IHG’s Winning Ways program as instilling worthwhile values.

“Our corporate culture has adopted a formal mentor program,” she said, adding that personal development is monitored for progress, skill needs and interests. “Shadowing” senior executives is a best practice.

Donna Brooks LucasOver at Kenilworth, Ill.-based Travel 100 Group, commission luxury agent Donna Brooks Lucas has a reputation as a “rainmaker.” A longtime corporate publicist, Brooks Lucas was hired on the spot eight years ago by an owner who saw the potential to develop new African-American luxury business.

Her travelers want quality, variety, a safe environment — “the same as the general market.” At the same time, Brooks Lucas salutes Marriott for avoiding a pet peeve of African-American clients and professionals alike.

“They consistently include African Americans in their marketing materials,” she said of Marriott. “And onsite we see many people who look like us.”

That’s not always the case: Brooks Lucas recalled confronting one cruise line over not including people of color. “I talked to them,” she said. “They now do.”

The power of association

The need for travel professionals to grow, network and gain volume led Betty Jones to co-found Travel Professionals of Color (TPOC). Its first conference, in 2003, drew 12 people. Now 250 to 300 members, primarily African-American, work in both minority- and general-market companies. New chapters are forming.

The National Association of Career Travel Agents (Nacta) and ASTA, Jones said, offer good conferences and workshops, and TPOC and Nacta are looking at restoring earlier cooperation, but she said, “We wanted to focus on the issues that we live day to day: how to approach African-Americans, how to get the money you need for deposits.”

TPOC also covers general issues: selling destinations, running webinars, getting tracked by supplier databases, how to take an agency from Tier Two (hosted) to Tier Three (operating with an independent IATA number). An arrangement with the Outside Sales Support Network offers an IATA number for a fee, Jones said. Another alliance supports certification through the Travel Institute. “Maybe [of] 30 people, all but three passed,” she said.

TPOC also addresses an image issue: “There’s a perception that some of us don’t know what we are doing,” Jones said. “[We] teach the agents skills so their clients feel very comfortable.”

Betty JonesIn this sense, TPOC and Nacta agree. “These women are very good travel professionals,” said Ann Van Leeuwen, Nacta’s president. “They are mentoring, and could be attracting other women of color into the industry.”

Similarly, the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (Nabhood) set out in 2001 to increase the number of African-American owners and executives in the hospitality sector. At the time, there was one African-American-owned branded hotel in U.S.

“I saw a huge disconnect and need for a more diverse industry as the country and consumers are becoming more diverse,” recalled Andy Ingraham, Nabhood’s president and CEO. “We have the greatest industry in the world, but that diversity continues to be elusive.”

Lack of capital has been a challenge, he said. So has perception. “A generation of minorities, when they looked at the travel industry, all they saw was servitude.”

Despite such issues, Ingraham sees market-driven improvement. He puts the current number of African-American-owned hotels as “north of 523” and hopes for another 500 by decade’s end. “Our goal is fair representation and opportunity across the board, and at the executive level,” he said.

African-American professionals can inform two worlds. Neither Nacta nor ASTA has a dedicated diversity program, but Cheryl Jones of Unique Weddings is one of several African-Americans who directs or co-directs Nacta chapters.

“When we do have our meetings, they are very diverse: home-based, independent contractors and diverse by race,” she said.”With Nacta being part of ASTA, it’s a great way to connect with suppliers who can’t get to these little agencies.”

That’s good for suppliers too, Jones added. “We tend to be loyal. You treat us right and make us feel welcome, we will keep coming back, and bring people with us.”

Black to the future

Inclusion programs can’t risk being what Black Meetings & Tourism’s Herbert called a “flavor of the month.”

“Truth is,” he said, “things are not very good in the travel industry.” Lodging, he agreed, is “a whole lot better than it was.” But those 500-plus black-owned hotels, he said, add up to less than 1% of the “52,000 to 53,000 hotels in the country.”

But improvement seems inevitable, given the changing population.

A 2008 report by the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. is morphing from a white-majority to a white-plurality society. By 2050, Pew estimated, based on current birthrates and population trends, 51% of the U.S. population will be nonwhite. This trend, widely referred to as “the browning of America,” is creating momentum for inclusion across all sectors of business and commerce, including the hospitality industry.

Carolyn WhiteTo cite but one example, between 2009 and 2012, IHG doubled its spend with certified minority-owned businesses. In 2013, it began monitoring diversity in its supply chain.

Destinations also are promoting multiculturalism. Washington is seeking commitments for labor and vendor diversity. Fort Lauderdale’s Urban Experience Guide spotlights diversity that includes “rich African-American history.” The Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (with a non-minority leader) is focusing on African-American and multicultural travel.

Not all of this is coming from on high: In September, 50 people, ranging from festival developers to ground transport providers, gathered at the College of Charleston to promote “African-American Tourism in South Carolina” and seek funding from the state.

“This is very grassroots,” said the event’s organizer, Kwadjo Campbell.

Sectors within travel and hospitality can share how to attract people of color. Current TPOC President Carolyn White, a 20-year Atlanta-based travel veteran, said she felt “shunned” when she first attended travel events.

She still believes that she could “basically be able to count the African-Americans” at some travel-agent forums and shows.

But, she added, she “can go to Cruise-3Sixty and find a significant number of African-Americans.” A CLIA official was happy to hear this, observing, “Based on agent surveys, attendees feel a positive and welcoming energy toward CLIA and look forward to this annual event.”

Nabhood is learning from its allies.

“We’re not typically operators,” Ingraham said. “I quite frankly emulated the Indian-American model. We have a lot of Indian partners. The hotel industry provided them a place to live, work, have a family.”

Klassique Travels is expanding its destination footprint because of its owner’s ability.

Tim Chan, public relations manager of G Adventures, the Toronto-based soft adventure company, said, “The decision to select David Anokye for the YPS [ASTA’s Young Professionals Society] Costa Rica fam was based on his great experience and strong application.”

A Nabhood diversity study scheduled to be distributed next year will cover all segments of travel and hospitality.

“We want to provide solutions,” Ingraham said. “Nobody’s asking for a handout. … I just wish that people in our industry could see that we could set the pace in making America truly what it is — a country of opportunity, an industry of opportunity.”

Abe Peck’s last Travel Weekly article examined LGBT travel to hostile environments. He teaches journalism at Northwestern University.
 

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