“Travel in the United States hasn’t always been as liberating an experience for its Black citizens as it has for its white citizens.” - Angela Gathings
We like to think of travel as an escape. As something that takes us away from the troubles of everyday life and opens our minds to new experiences.
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And while that is, in many regards, true, it’s easy for those of us who look like Mark Twain to overlook how travel has failed to benefit everyone equally.
From segregated buses and trains to whites only hotels and restaurants, Black travelers have had to endure trials and humiliations their white counterparts could never imagine.
And while the scourge of legal segregation has since been purged from our midst, the uncomfortable truth is that the travel industry continues to cater to the needs and desires of white travelers more than anyone else. Not necessarily out of animus, but perhaps as the result of habit and ignorance of the needs and expectations of our Black customers and colleagues.
Marring our idyllic view of travel and tourism with talk of racial inequality is uncomfortable, I know. But it’s a conversation that is long overdue. And when I read travel agent Angela Gathing’s letter to the industry, I knew she’d be an excellent person to have that conversation with. So, without further ado:
Q. Please, tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Angela Gathings and I live in beautiful Winston Salem, North Carolina with my husband, five of our eight children, and my son-in-law.
Q. What led you to become a travel agent?
I actually fell into travel. I never dreamed of working in the industry as a professional or business owner. I started in corporate travel in 2005 with American Express when they had an office located in High Point, North Carolina. I started because I needed a job and fell in love with the industry and stayed.
Q. What challenges have you faced as a Black woman working to grow your own business?
My three biggest challenges have been financial, building credibility, and proving my competence.
It feels like Black women in any profession have to know 10x more than our white counterparts. We have to prove ourselves. We have to know practically everything to be perceived as competent and gain credibility. And that can be very difficult to overcome, especially in market segments like luxury where very few travel professionals are black or brown. It’s the reason why even though I have more than a decade of combined experience in corporate and leisure travel I still sought to attain certification from The Travel Institute and am working towards certification through CLIA (Cruise Line International Association).
Also, I didn’t have a book of business when I started. All of my clients belonged to the agency and my personal contacts aren’t a traveling people. That meant I had to be resourceful when it came to gaining business so that I wouldn’t need to work side gigs forever. I was finally seeing the fruits of that labor and then the pandemic hit. Even though all of that business has disappeared, I still feel like I’m better positioned because I’m still in a growth mindset and I’m not paralyzed with fear.
Q. In your experience, what challenges do Black people face when traveling?
That’s a great question. I think we face two in particular.
The first, I believe, is not knowing all of the options that are available to us. For example, that we could have potentially gotten more if we had known we could do something like pay a deposit—or as I tell my clients, “put your trip on lay-a-way.” We oftentimes think we can’t afford to do certain things or go certain places and we miss out on a more enriching experience just because we don’t have that knowledge in our toolbox. Which is why travel professionals—especially travel professionals who look like the traveler and have a shared experience which is relatable to the traveler—are important.
Secondly, I would say our major challenge is safety. When we consider the “Negro Motorist Green Book” was last published in 1966 and acknowledge what it means that black people even needed a book tailored to them to travel, we can understand that travel in the United States hasn’t always been as liberating an experience for its black citizens as it has for its white citizens. Every aspect of our travels had to be meticulously planned so our basic needs could be met while on the road.
"Every aspect of our travels had to be meticulously planned so our basic needs could be met while on the road."
When you couple that with the reality that sundown towns were still around as late as the 80s and 90s, then you can gain a sense of why black travelers have never asked about certain experiences. Many black people probably know of a former sundown town in their state. I can tell you about a neighboring town I wouldn’t visit as late as the 90s at all, let alone after dark. To help put it in perspective, I was born in 1972. This history isn’t ancient.
Q. What could the travel industry, as a whole, do to better serve the Black community?
I would have to point to diversity and inclusion. And understanding what that means, what that looks like as our starting point. Understanding that it’s not enough to hire one or two black people in an agency or to have one black couple on page 10 of the brochure. It means a critical examination that asks, “is the message that we want to send one of inclusion or exclusion?” It means evaluating the diversity at the C-suite level and asking, “why aren’t more diverse experiences and backgrounds represented there?”
It also means that we, as an industry, have an amazing opportunity right now. We can reimagine this industry completely to be all we imagine it can be. We can change the messaging to say, “everyone is included and everyone is welcomed.”
"We can change the messaging to say, 'everyone is included and everyone is welcomed.'"
We have to be committed to learning, growth, and change, and to understanding how we can benefit from being uncomfortable. Innovation happens outside of the comfort zone. And this industry is, by nature, one of innovation and transformation.
To take that further, it isn’t solely about seeing myself reflected in marketing or in retail travel agencies, I also don’t see Latino, Muslim, physically challenged individuals, or LGBTQ people reflected broadly either. All of those people travel and they all matter. It’s time for us, as an industry, to do some self-evaluation. Our industry paints a picture of travel as being transformative and authentic and connected to local cultures and all of these ideas that make us feel good— that make the traveler feel good. It’s time we practiced what we preach.
Q. What should individual travel and hospitality businesses do to ensure they’re welcoming and inclusive for everyone?
In my opinion, first and foremost we have to understand that this is going to take internal work within our organizations. Otherwise, it looks and feels disingenuous and “trendy” to see messaging that isn’t consistent with internal practices.
As of 2018, thirteen HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have hospitality programs. The industry not only has an opportunity to recruit amazing and diverse talent, but also to gain perspectives that may not match their own.
Think about it, who doesn’t want to do business with a company where they see themselves represented on many levels? From the perspective of the employee, it’s empowering and inspiring to see someone who looks like you represented at executive levels. From the customer standpoint it sends the message that the company cares about how they do business.
The visual message needs to be intentional so that diversity is normalized. The industry has a two pronged task to conquer, right? Individual businesses have to be willing to address how they view themselves internally and how they communicate externally to travelers. That may mean coming up with several new avatars or muses, but this is where being intentional is vital and necessary. We have to be intentional in our hiring and promoting practices AND in the images and messages we put out in print, on social media, and in television commercials to that broader audience. Images are just as powerful, if not more so, than words.
"It looks and feels disingenuous and 'trendy' to see messaging that isn’t consistent with internal practices."
We also need to be ok with the reality that this is going to take time. Some practices can be implemented immediately, right? But we also need to consider that many companies are cash strapped because of the pandemic and many people in the industry are out of work. So we have to find a way to move out of dual crises to better serve those internal customers as well as our external customers. The initiatives we come up with won’t take shape overnight; however, I believe we can push the boulder forward together.
Q. If one of your customers asked you to plan a vacation on which they could learn about Black history and Black culture, where would you send them and why?
Wow. That’s a tough one because there are so many destinations that are history-rich and significant to the black experience in America. Just thinking about all of the places I’ve been that gave me a sense of belonging and a historical perspective of my forefathers’ contributions makes this one tough.
But I think I’d have to say Atlanta would definitely be a top contender. The reason I chose Atlanta is because the first time I visited Atlanta, I felt empowered. It was a liberating experience for me as a Black woman traveling alone. I was safe, and it was my renaissance moment. I wasn’t perceived as a threat because most of the faces I saw EVERYWHERE looked like mine. And you gain the black experience from a historical perspective (Dr. King’s Birthplace, The National Center for Human and Civil Rights, etc) as well as in real time simply by being in Atlanta and feeling connected to those around you.