Icons of Inclusion: Calls for industry to adapt and embrace diversity

by: Felicity Cousins | March 19, 2024

UK: Yesterday, the Icons of Inclusion event, at The Dorchester hotel in London, brought together industry experts to discuss diversity and inclusion in luxury travel and tourism.

The event was headed up by Uwern Jong experientialist-in-chief of Out There magazine, which was founded in 2010 as a luxury and experiential travel journal for the LGBTQ+ community, but which has evolved to be a “vital voice of inclusivity in luxury travel for those who still feel underrepresented in the mainstream.”

The Icons of Inclusion event showcased best practice in the industry and celebrated role models through key note speakers and panel discussions on luxury travel and race, LGBTQIA+, women, ageism, indigenous tourism, trans travel and accessibility.

“71 per cent of travellers from diverse backgrounds will overwhelmingly choose a brand that proactively demonstrates inclusivity.”

There was a fireside chat on Race and the luxury travel industry with Out There’s Jong chatting to Vincent Jones of the Black Luxury Travel Network, which is officially launching in June with the aim to work with brands and destinations to help black travellers connect with other luxury travel experiences.

Jones discussed how luxury brands rarely show images of black guests in their marketing photos and when he travels he will tell a hotel how that makes him feel – he will say “that makes me feel like you don’t want me here and that doesn’t make me feel good.”

He added: “I think it has changed at the budget and mid-market level, and advertising for say cruise lines, there is a lot of diversity – but not in the luxury market. I haven’t seen as much change in luxury hotels apart from a few brands.”

Jong asked him: “What would be your top tip to people embarking on a journey to diversify their brands from a race perspective?”

Jones replied: “Two things. One is best practice. I’ve seen brands create advisory groups with people from certain communities and that prevents tokenism as there are people who are representing the spectrum from that community.

“And secondly, do an audit of your social media and if you scroll through your Instagram and you only see white people you need to fix that instantly. I cannot tell you how often that happens.” 

Jones was also optimistic about the future saying: “Young people are demanding that we are treated with respect and that companies change.”  

Debbie Marshall, managing director, the Silver Marketing Association, discussed Ageism: The last acceptable discrimination? She talked about ageism and advertising, how older people are represented as weak or incompetent or forgetful and yet the travel industry is wrong to write older people off – with more than 60 per cent of older people being users of the luxury travel sector.

“73 per cent of luxury travellers from diverse backgrounds do not feel that the industry is inclusive of today’s diverse traveller demographics.”

Alisha Shaibu-Lenoir of Moonlight Experiences, a platform which serves diverse queer culture and nightlife to travellers and locals, talked about Intersectionality: Defining Today’s Traveller.

Shaibu-Lenoir noted that DEI is not a buzz word or a trend, and those in travel and tourism who are not authentic about inclusivity will soon be caught out. If hotels say they are welcoming and have a DEI impact report then all staff need to be trained properly on what it means to deliver the best service to everyone.

She said: “Authenticity is really important as it creates a loyal customer base and the lack of diversity I’ve seen in most places is really not acceptable anymore.” 

She said companies need to start thinking about how to really give what people are looking for, citing an example of a muslim guest during Ramadan: “How are you going to really support that particular group?”.

Shaibu-Lenoir also believes companies should be cultivating a diverse, healthier work culture and opportunities “by making yourself part of the community – so many luxury brands are worried or not sure they should be doing a particular campaign, but most of them are happy they are taking that leap.”

“62 per cent do not feel that those employed by luxury travel providers are adequately trained to deal with diverse guests.”

In a panel discussion on Beyond the Rainbow: What’s Next for LGBTQ+ TravelLexie Shaibu-Lenoir founder and wedding planner at Queer Weddings talked about how couples looking to get married at hotels are looking for people who understand them. Many hotels which cater for weddings will have a different section for LGBTQ+ weddings. As if it is an afterthought.

She said: “We shouldn’t be under a different tab on a website – I created my business specifically for these couples.”

LoAnn Halden VP communications at international LGBTQ+ travel association IGLTA said they have a new accreditation for hotels which truly embody the needs of the LGBTQ+ community so that brands stop “saying” without actually doing. The programme serves as “the gold standard of assurance” that travel brands are committed to promoting equality and safety for LGBTQ+ travellers.

She said hotels had to adapt and make several changes to understand how such an accreditation could work. “We had numerous meetings with hoteliers and came up with a robust programme and a roadmap for having an LGBTQ+ policy. You can’t be out there welcoming travellers if you aren’t taking care of your home.”

She also said that hotels needed to offer diversity training and someone on the staff who is there for the LGBTQ+ community and knows how to handle any complaints, as well as having examples of inclusive marketing.

Shaibu-Lenoir added: “Diversity needs to be on the forefront not just for pride month – brands need to keep working with those people and make sure your brand is diverse, but don’t just have a one off. Laws and trends change all the time and you need to keep up with that.”

Writer, consultant and speaker, Marley Conte spoke about Transgender and non-gender binary travel – the Future is Trans Inclusive, explaining that they found that even at the point of booking there are issues because their name does not match the one on their bank card, so they have to write an email to the hotel to explain. 

Conte said: “Can you imagine every time I travel I have to out myself?”

They went on to explain that once they stayed with their partner at a luxury hotel in London where the staff already knew them and had their details so they sent an email ahead of their stay to change their name and pronouns for the first time. “I was surprised – the card in our room reflected all the changes but they hadn’t told the staff. It is draining to silence myself or correct everyone all the time – things are improving but it’s not enough and there is still a lot of work to do.”

They added that again hotels which ignore the trans market do so at their peril: “Trans people do travel and so do their families and their friends.”

“62 per cent of employees in hospitality and tourism feel that there is far more that needs to be done when it comes to levelling the playing field in their companies.”

The panel Breaking Barrier, Building Bridges: Empowering Women in Luxury Travel and Hospitality saw Pegi Amarteifio global PR and communications Small Luxury Hotels of the World explaining that at SLH two thirds of the organisation has been female led since 1990 but out of the 560 hotels in the portfolio there are fewer than a third of women in a general manager position or equivalent.

Why? Amarteifio said: “Every year we hold nominations for the advisory board for hoteliers but throughout the company’s history we have never had more than three out of 12 people as women to hold that position. So we asked and it’s lack of confidence – imposter syndrome, work life barriers. It’s such a shame we need their voices.”

Laura Dove COO of Allbright the career network for women, talked about the gender pay gap win the sector citing the World Bank report which shows the gender pay gap is widening post covid – while 95 countries committed to equal pay only 35 have put it through. 

Dove also said the latest FTSE 350 report on gender equality and inclusion shows more progress but still only 21 female CEOs on the 350 which is only an increase of six female CEOs in last 15 years. “Women made 50 per cent of world so if you aren’t working with women you are only working with half your company.”

The panel discussed how some in the industry assume DEI conversations will go away if they look away and Allesandra Allonso founder, Women in Travel CIC, said it was up to leaders to take control.

She said: “I sense there is a little bit of fatigue – if people don’t see their own accountability – if they see it as a fad and it’s not going to impact them and there isn’t a direct connection between their action and reward then it’s a lot harder for people to believe there is going to make a difference. This is very much a leadership issue.”

“66 per cent do not feel that providers are offering products or services that are tailored, personalised or individual – especially when it comes to the needs of diverse travellers.”

The session Navigating Disability: Paving the Way for Disability brought an animated conversation about how hotels hide their accessible inventory at their own risk – with 93 per cent of the disabled population not using a wheelchair, the industry also has to rethink the image of the traveller who may have hidden disabilities too. 

Richard Thompson co founder and CEO at Inclu Travel said disabled people won’t travel with a specialist they just want to travel. He explained there used to be a lot of options but those specialist travel agencies haven’t survived. “With advent of OTAs the options and choices and possibilities are actually restrictive for people with disabilities.’

He explained that of the 600 luxury hotels Inclu had looked at 95 per cent don’t show accessible rooms on the photos – “they have the fear and the industry is frightened and don’t understand what it is about. It’s not about disability it’s about barriers. It’s not in the conscience of the industry so it’s kind of been forgotten. “

Thompson added: “When we are arranging travel we sell multiple rooms one in six of the population has a disability 70 per cent of people in the world are touched by disability. Disabled people have trepidation and that’s shameful – It should not be that way. 1.5 billion people in the world shouldn’t be afraid of travelling.”

Quoted statistics are from a survey run by Out There. You can read more about the Icons of Inclusion event here.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash