The Lack of Diversity at Senior Levels in Travel Industry

In February 2022, TravelPulse published an article that asked travel industry executives to share progress updates on diversity efforts. Looking through the article, I paid attention to whether or not the executives discussed how they’re integrating diversity into the senior levels of leadership.

Preferred Hotels said their senior leadership is made up of 46% women but did not explain how diverse the leadership is (or isn’t) in any other way. Marriot probably had the best response. “Last year, we announced an acceleration of our efforts to achieve global gender parity for women in leadership positions by 2023, two years sooner than our original goal. We also established a new objective to increase the representation of people of color in executive positions in the U.S. from 20.5% to 25% by 2025,” said Ty Breland, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Marriott International.


But overall, most of the 21 travel executives interviewed did not mention this topic at all.

The C-suite and senior-level positions are the place in a travel company where power is held – where real change is made. As it stands, most travel companies don’t have diversified senior-level teams, and it’s hard to determine if they’re actually doing anything about it.

We wanted to delve further into this topic, so we spoke with a variety of travel industry professionals. What we learned was astonishing and concerning.

Gary Murakami, Vice President of Sales and Industry Relations at Teneo Hospitality Group
Gary Murakami is the Vice President of Sales and Industry Relations at Teneo Hospitality Group and is an active board and committee member of various associations like IGLTA and Events Industry Council. (photo via Gary Murakami)

The Numbers

The question is: Does the travel industry have a problem when it comes to diversity at the executive level? To answer that question, we would first try to gather statistics, but that’s where we run into a problem.

Gary Murakami, who identifies as an Asian American gay man, has been in the travel industry since 1995 working for the likes of MGM, Hyatt, and The Ritz-Carlton. Just recently, after 26 years, he reached the senior level as Vice President of Sales and Industry Relations of Teneo Hospitality Group.

When we spoke about the lack of diversity in the executive levels of the travel industry, Murakami made a good point about numbers.

“If I say there’s not enough visibility of Asians in this industry, [the industry responds], ‘Gary, what makes you think that?’ There’s not a lot of data to support that so you have to be anecdotal. [Then they’d say], ‘If it’s anecdotal, then how do you know it’s a problem?’” he said. “When data is not visible or recorded, it doesn’t become a focus because it doesn’t look like an identifiable problem.”

In 2021, Women in Hospitality Travel & Leisure released a report called “Inclusion at the Core of Recovery: The WiHTL 2021 Annual Report.” They looked at more than 120 hospitality, travel, and leisure businesses and found that there was 29.9% female representation at the board level. As far as ethnic diversity, representation dropped from 6.4% in 2020 to 6% in 2021. That means that they found about seven people of historically marginalized ethnicities and races at the board level among 120 travel companies.

The only other statistics we could find had to do with hospitality. The Castell Project released a study in the summer of 2020 that found that Black executives “represent 1.5 percent of hospitality industry executives at the director level or above on company websites which is 12.5 times below their proportionate share of hospitality industry employment.“ For reference, the study examined 630 hotel company websites.

These limited numbers don’t provide insight into the real problem at hand, and part of that has to do with the fact that companies don’t share this kind of data. It can also be difficult to gather that information by looking through company websites as some executive-level employees do not have a visible presence, and certain identities, like LBTQIA+ or a disability, are not apparent by a headshot.

Murakami believes we need more data. “I’m involved with the Events Industry Council on the equity task force. We’re trying to do a study across the industry to really see how we find ways to elevate different communities into more leadership roles, visibility roles,” he said.

A more thorough study would be incredibly helpful and provide irrefutable evidence about the lack of diversity in the travel industry’s C-suite. Until then, we have anecdotes, and they’re equally as powerful.

Denella Ri'chard, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) & Executive Producer of SOAR Entertainment
Denella Ri’chard has been in the travel industry since 1999 and is an important member of the Northstar Black Travel Advisory Board. (photo via Denella Ri’chard)

The Anecdotes

Denella Ri’chard is the Chief Marketing Officer & Executive Producer at SOAR Entertainment & Media, a television production company that specializes in travel. She’s been in the travel industry since 1999 working for brands like Hilton, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Holland America. As a Black woman, Ri’chard is no stranger to being the only Black person or person of color in a room of travel leaders. Her time in the industry has given her a first-hand look at how people of color are treated at the executive level.

“You can’t say the word ‘travel’ and not equate diversity. It’s the diversity of people, cultures, languages, and destinations. By the nature of it, we are diverse. There have been big wins in hiring women and people from the LGBTQ community in the C-Suite and senior leadership positions (though primarily who identify as white),” said Ri’chard. “You’ll see in the sale side of our business a lot of Black BDMs (Business Development Managers), but you will not see Black people elevated to the C-suite.”

Murakami has also seen some evidence of this too, especially as it relates to people of the LGBTQIA+ community. “I do know, anecdotally, friends of mine who are LGBT and early in their careers, they rose to some level of success, but not [while being] out. So, did those people get ahead of me because they were able to hide it or not talk about it? Because I’ve never not been out since coming into the industry. It is who I am,” he said.

And did his identity play a role in the trajectory of his career?

“Sometimes it’s really hard to tell, because discrimination is very subtle. It could seem like I just didn’t get the opportunity, and not outwardly because I’m gay or Asian. But then you know that there is some level of discrimination when you don’t see people like you,” he explained.

You don’t even need anecdotal evidence from people of historically marginalized identities in the industry. Just go to a travel conference and look around.

“Over my years in the hospitality industry and various cities I worked in, I noticed a major lack of BIPOC talent at all levels of the organization and was troubled by the lack of representation in senior-level positions,” said Al Hutchinson, President and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “A few years ago, I was in a room full of executives at a conference, and it became clear to me just how big this issue has gotten, so I spoke up and addressed that our industry had a serious problem with hiring diverse talent at all levels.”

On the chopping block

Recently, I was working on another TravelPulse article and I spoke with travel advisor and CEO of Zenbiz Travel, Laurence Pinckney. He told me, “I find it very discouraging that there are very few Black executives at high management levels. There were at least five I could name before Covid. Now I can’t name any.”

His statement stood out because when I spoke with Ri’chard, she told me that the pandemic had set us back in terms of diversity at the executive level and that people of color, especially Black people, were disproportionally affected by layoffs and reorganization in the last two years.

This seemed a little ironic, especially since many travel companies were making commitments to increase diversity in their companies after the murder of George Floyd. Their promises seemed genuine, and yet, when you looked closer, the Black and brown people who held executive positions before the pandemic were gone by 2021.

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“When COVID hit, of course, ships were being shut down. My president’s position, who was Orlando Ashford, who was also Black, was impacted. I had to lay off all my team. That was fine. We get it,” Ri’chard explained. “But it is interesting that in times of reorganization, financials are down, or due to COVID, people of color, in particular Black people, always end up in a non-essential role bucket even when their individual business unit revenue numbers exceed goals, they have higher degrees of education, their job performance is stellar, and their leadership evaluations confirm that [they are] superior to others whose jobs are protected.”

Murakami agreed with Ri’chard: “I do notice that when economic impact and resizing happens, that underrepresented communities suffer the most.” (He also added that most people of color work in frontline jobs, and are thus impacted the most, but recognized that it occurs at all levels of the industry).

Even before the pandemic, people of marginalized communities who obtained roles at the executive level hardly seemed to find the kind of stability that their counterparts had. Ri’chard explained that when people of color were removed during reorganization, they didn’t always get the same benefits as their white counterparts, such as: protection of unvested stock, grandfathered to retirement if it was within a few years, and a payment extension on behalf of the company towards their health insurance.

“If you look at our industry as a whole, people of color, and in particular Black people, don’t get the golden parachute to retirement. We look at white colleagues; some of them have been in these organizations for 30-35 years. They weren’t ever on the chopping block to be reorg’ed out,” she said.

“Somehow Black people are always part of the reshuffled deck and when the deck gets reshuffled, our careers are disrupted. We’re not able to continue on the trajectory to elevation, promotion, and retirement. Black and brown people are not given long-term career sustainability when it comes to the C suite,” Ri’chard added.

Prior to the pandemic, Ri’chard said that there had been some movement to actively recruit more Black and brown people to the cruise industry’s executive roles, specifically when Arnold Donald was the CEO of Carnival Corp. But the pandemic wiped out much of the progress that had been made and it doesn’t seem like there has been an effort to bring these people back.

“Yes, these things are real – COVID, reorg – we have to do it. But there should be an intentional effort to retain some of your Black and brown people with the skill set. You hear a lot of people say, ‘I would hire more Black and brown people, but I can’t find them.’ Go back and look before COVID; who was in those roles?” said Ri’chard.

You don’t even have to look at who previously held those roles to help your company diversify its executive positions. Many in the travel industry can contribute to diversifying the C-suite by doing something very simple: suggesting qualified Black and brown people for the roles.

“I love the travel industry, but we’re incestuous,” said Ri’chard. “We’re all a bunch of friends and we want to promote our friends. I get that, but you also know the Black and brown people in this industry that have the qualifications. Extend the olive branch and give the opportunity when you have those roles.”

Hutchinson has some ideas about how to get more BIPOC people in senior executive roles in the travel industry.

“First, we need to continue building leadership pathways through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts such as regular trainings, hiring and paying people of color in senior leadership positions, diversity benchmarks, scholarship programs for BIPOC individuals and workforce development efforts that touch young talent as well,” he said.

“The second part of this is a marketing issue – right now, people are not seeing the benefits to working in the hospitality industry and we need to show the array of long-term opportunities for BIPOC individuals within the industry. We need to highlight success stories of other leaders who started in entry-level positions and found their careers in the industry in order to make the industry attractive again for the incoming generation of the workforce,” Hutchinson adds.

It’s a good plan, but as we mentioned, it’s hard to find leaders of color who have gone from entry-level to the C-suite – and still remain in the travel industry, especially after the pandemic.

Murakami thinks that travel companies shouldn’t overlook the talent that they have in-house and make a concerted effort toward raising those employees of historically marginalized communities to the executive level, whether that be through mentorship or some other way.

“While I achieved some success in my career, what could it have been or how accelerated could it have been if somebody had invested in and guided me along the way?” he said.

While we know some companies have mentorship programs, we’d be curious to see just how effective they are. Are these companies getting these mentees beyond lower-level management positions and to the executive level? Remember, it’s not enough to merely put Black and brown people, or anyone of a historically marginalized identity, in a management position. We need them at the executive level, the C-suite, because the benefits would be astounding.

Al Hutchinson, President and CEO of Visit Baltimore
Al Hutchinson became the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore in 2016 and has led the destination in some amazing initiatives since then. (photo via Visit Baltimore)

Benefits of Diversity in Executive Roles

There is a business incentive for companies to hire people of diverse backgrounds in executive positions. Simply put, it results in more success and money.

McKinsey & Company released a study in 2019 that showed that companies with more ethnically and racially diverse executive teams are 36% more likely to outperform other companies in profits. Without those teams, you’re 29% likely to make less money. Boston Consulting Group found the same to be true in 2018: when companies have above-average diversity on management teams, it resulted in an average of 45% innovation revenue. Finally, Cloverpop found that when teams are more diverse, they’ll make better decisions 87% of the time.

Murakami summed up the results best: “If you don’t bring different experiences and backgrounds into the room, you’re not going to create the diversity of thought that’s needed to grow.”

Just think of how it would help in marketing alone.

“Having BIPOC senior leaders in destination marketing leadership positions helps destinations to tap into travel markets of people of color because we have a deeper understanding of the cultures that we came from and know where to reach the people who grew up in our communities, went to our churches, played on our sports teams, etc.,” explained Hutchinson. “Having diverse leadership in the C-suite assists with attracting business from the BIPOC community. People want to do business with other people that they have a common interest with and come from similar backgrounds,” he says.

It begs the question of how many customers and businesses are travel companies not connecting with simply because they don’t have diverse people in their executive roles. Quite a bit, we imagine. As Ri’chard says, “People want to do business where they see themselves reflected. They want to see that you care, and that you have representation in your C-suite, your leadership.”

Final Thoughts

In my interviews with Hutchinson, Murakami, and Ri’chard, they did mention some companies and organizations, like Hilton and Destinations International, that are seemingly making a concerted and public effort to hire more diverse people in senior and executive roles.

But if we can only name a few companies with intentional and public efforts to hire executive leaders of diverse backgrounds (and share their progress), then we have a problem. The pandemic exacerbated an issue that was already there – people of historically marginalized identities have a hard time getting into the C-suite, and when they do, their jobs are not as secure as their counterparts. Long-term career sustainability in the travel industry is difficult for people of historically marginalized backgrounds, especially people of color.

“In 2020, with the media and everything that happened with George Floyd, you had organizations whose heart was in the right place, to want to do the right thing and make an intentional commitment to Black diversity. As with anything, if you do not put somebody there to own it, and make it actionable, it just falls by the wayside,” Ri’chard said. (Many have not followed through on their commitments according to the Co-Star report that was recently released.)

Diversifying senior leadership isn’t going to be easy, but for too long, people from historically marginalized backgrounds, specifically people of color, have suffered, lost their jobs and their road to retirement, whereas others from more privileged backgrounds have not. Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but it happened, and still happens.

So, what are you – travel companies – going to do about it?

Do you, travel companies, want to have more innovation, see higher profits, tap into untapped markets, and make better business decisions – especially now as you seek ways to make back all that you’ve lost during the pandemic? It’s simple: diversify your executive teams, especially as it relates to race and ethnicity, but also in terms of gender identity (including women and gender queer identities), sexual orientation, and disabilities.

We know you can make it happen because there are plenty of people from historically marginalized identities who are qualified and capable to lead the travel industry to a brighter, more profitable future, and they haven’t been given the chance to do so, at least not in the long term.


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