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Why the Travel Industry Is So Lily White

August 17, 2016, 10:29 PM UTC
Portrait of male pilot sitting in airplane cockpit
Portrait of male pilot sitting in airplane cockpit
Photography by Hero Images Getty Images/Hero Images

As summer vacation season winds down – only to be replaced by fall conference season – it’s discouraging to note that it’s entirely possible to for you book your journey, give the pilot a perfunctory once-over, get settled into to your aisle seat, and check-in to your hotel – and never encounter a travel professional of color.

Although the travel sector made modest diversity gains in 2015, the entire industry – from airline pilots and flight attendants to reservation takers, hotel clerks and tour guides – remains overwhelmingly white.

Skift, an analyst firm covering the travel industry, has published their annual review of diversity in the travel business. The tale of the tape: Some 91% of airline pilots are white, as are 73% of flight attendants, 70% of travel agents and 81% of tour and travel guides. The best news came in the hotel and motel desk clerk category, which is now 52% white. “And that took a long time to get there,” the report explains. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

“When one considers the rapidly increasing buying power of women and people of color, the opportunity costs for a lack of diversity can be massive,” says Genhi Bailey, Director of Diversity and Inclusion from the law firm DLA Piper. (Just one example: African American vacation spending grew 52% from 2015 to 2016, says MMGY Global, a global travel marketing firm.)

“Of course diversity is not the only factor to success – the product or service must be a quality one, but diversity can help organizations gain and maintain market share.” As someone who travels a lot for business she says, “I always notice when there is a person of color behind the desk – especially at high-end hotels and facilities. And I remember those places.”

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Diversity, even behind the scenes, leads to a better customer experience in a world where everyone travels. “We have built out the diversity of our product teams and we saw the caliber of our testing and experimentation improve significantly,” says Gillian Tans, CEO of She says the company employs people from 100 different nationalities, 50% of whom are women. “We found we were able to create better, customer-centric product features more quickly with a more diverse product team.”

For the face-to-face world, Bailey says that focusing on the pipeline is key. “Target diverse students studying hospitality at places like Cornell University and UW-Stout,” she says. Smart companies offer targeted internships and fellowships even for high schoolers, but, she cautions, “be sure to hire more than one diverse candidate at a time – being the “lonely only” can lead to feelings of isolation and attrition.”

But with the airline industry facing a fairly significant labor shortage for pilots, why are they still so stunningly white and male? We’ll dig into that in a separate column. But one air carrier is trying some interesting things. We’ll peek into their cockpit.
Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.