Thursday,  October 21, 2021  11:58 pm

“It’s disappointing”: Advocates call out ACTA for “ignoring” anti-Black racism in the travel industry

“It’s disappointing”: Advocates call out ACTA for “ignoring” anti-Black racism in the travel industry
Shalene Dudley, founder of Latitude Concierge Travels. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

A group of travel advisors and social justice advocates is calling out the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) for “ignoring” the issues and realities of anti-Black racism in the travel industry – an accusation that is raising further questions about ACTA’s role in promoting racial diversity, equity and inclusion.

Last summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests – a global movement of marches against police brutality and racism that began in response to the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, during an arrest – travel advisor Shalene Dudley emailed ACTA’s team to see if the association was planning any training sessions about racial diversity and inclusion for its Canada-wide membership of travel agencies.  

Dudley, founder of Latitude Concierge Travels, asked the question after receiving an invitation from ACTA to attend an Aug. 26, 2020, webinar about “embracing economic recoveries” and best practices the travel industry could follow as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Dudley, who is Black, it was a timely and urgent inquiry given the global racial reckoning that was, in the wake of Floyd’s death, erupting at the time and Dudley’s own work with Let’s Get Uncomfortable (LGU), an organization that, for weeks already, had been calling on the travel industry to commit to anti-racist practices.

But the response Dudley received from ACTA last year was “problematic,” as she puts it.

Shalene Dudley, founder of Latitude Concierge Travels, contacted ACTA last year about addressing racial diversity, equity and inclusion. (Pax Global Media)

Calling diversity and inclusion a “growing topic,” Marco Pozzobon, director of marketing, communications and partnerships at ACTA, told Dudley that it was a subject the association had on its radar for late fall.

But racial diversity and inclusion, long before Floyd’s death or BLM’s protests, has always been a problem in the travel industry, except for those “with the privilege to dismiss it” – a point Dudley made in her response to the association.

Further, as Dudley and representatives from LGU have stated, a focus on resilience and recovery without incorporating matters of equity and inclusion in the process is falling short of what ought to be done.

“Our industry is clearly missing the mark and is extremely ignorant of the importance this issue is not only to the lives of agents and suppliers but also [to] the travellers we all are responsible for servicing,” Dudley wrote in reply.

Citing ACTA’s mission to “educate and elevate,” as its website states, Dudley advised Pozzobon that ACTA could take an “easy first step in the right direction” by offering anti-racism training for Canadian travel professionals.

(ACTA’s online learning and development platform, at the time of Dudley’s request and at the time of filing this story, does not offer any courses that address racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, or ways to combat racism in the travel industry).

From there, a chain of back-and-forth emails between Dudley and ACTA ensued, resulting in a promise from Pozzobon to take the conversation to ACTA’s senior leadership and an invitation from Maggie Santos, director of education and certification at ACTA, for Dudley/LGU to lead a talk about anti-Black racism at ACTA’s virtual 2020 Travel Industry Leadership Summit in November.

What followed was a series of “disappointing” responses from ACTA, as Dudley told PAX over several interviews that took place in June and July of this year.

Minimal action 

ACTA positions itself as an authority in the travel agent advocacy space, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the association has devoted countless hours to tackling select issues, from securing financial aid for travel agents and agencies to the easing of border restrictions to protecting agent commissions on cancelled files.

The association, headed by President Wendy Paradis, issues regular press releases that highlight its lobbying efforts, advocacy work, campaigns, industry concerns, policy wins and resources that agents can use to weather the COVID-19 storm.

Any travel pro that consumes travel trade media on a regular basis knows that ACTA, with limited resources, has spent the pandemic trying to get the best deal for travel advisors during what has been (and still is) a tumultuous period of financial loss and hardship.

But to this day, 17 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and 15 months after George Floyd’s death, the national association that claims to reach more than 24,000 travel advisors through its member agencies has taken minimal action to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) travel professionals, and travellers, through its various platforms. 

ACTA’s idleness stands out in glaring contrast to big commitments taken by its U.S. counterpart, The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA).

In a June 2020 open letter to advisors, ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby acknowledged his own “inadequate” response in expressing solidarity with African-American communities amid nationwide calls for social justice following the senseless killing of Mr. Floyd.

As such, Kerby outlined immediate steps ASTA would take to promote racial equality in the travel industry, such as making social justice a higher priority for the association, guaranteeing equality of all of its members’ business, offering diversity and inclusion training for all staff and members, and raising money for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

ASTA offers a “master class” in diversity, equity and inclusion – a three-part series that helps travel advisors gain a broader understanding of multicultural audiences.

Nothing of the sort has been proclaimed by ACTA’s leadership in Canada.

Confronting silence 

In a statement to PAX on July 13, 2021, Paradis noted the “catastrophic financial impact” COVID-19 has had on travel agents, agencies and the travel industry as a whole.

And, due to this, ACTA moved all of its available resources to executing “advocacy priorities,” such as securing enhanced financial support for agents and lobbying for eased travel restrictions and the reopening of the border, Paradis said.

“That does not mean that we have forgotten about other priorities and this [racial diversity, equity and inclusion] is one of them,” Paradis wrote PAX in a separate statement on June 16, 2021.

ACTA President Wendy Paradis. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

Paradis said ACTA’s hiring policies reflect “the diverse fabric of Canada” and that the association, last year, took a first step by reviewing and evolving the marketing images it uses on its website and social media.

A glance at ACTA’s Instagram account and website, today, shows some stock images of BIPOC faces enjoying destinations and ambiguous Black hands typing at keyboards.

“ACTA is a small, diverse team and we were surprised at the lack of diversity in our marketing materials,” Paradis told PAX. “We now have a mandate to change this permanently.”

Whether this is an official ACTA policy, or simply a verbal understanding, ACTA’s website, on its “Mandate, Mission and Vision” page, makes no mention of racial diversity or how it applies to marketing or the association in general.

Then there’s the educational component: as the association continues to blast alerts announcing ACTA-approved webinars, why do these educational resources not confront race and racism in the industry?

“It is our goal to include programs about racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the future once we are able to focus on learning and development again,” Paradis said.

But at a time when calls to rebuild a better travel industry are echoing across the country, it still begs the question: why hasn’t ACTA used its influence – any influence – to actively educate Canadian travel advisors about the realities of anti-black racism, as it pertains to travel, and commit to a better, more sustainable industry?

Why, after all that has happened, is the call for a more racially inclusive sector not being treated as a key priority? 

Where does ACTA’s role in advocating on behalf of travel advisors – BIPOC ones included – start and end?

“There are tons of people we service who are not white,” said Dudley, speaking as a travel advisor who has a range of customers spanning multiple ethnicities. “We have a responsibility to make sure we have the best understanding of our customers, no matter what they look like.”

“It’s an important issue, regardless of if it affects you directly. It affects everybody.”

A year of reckoning 

Since the high-profile murder of Mr. Floyd, which captured the systemic racism that exists within policing, and following other deaths involving non-white individuals in the presence of police (Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Daunte Wright, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and others), the world is reassessing the ways in which racist systems are intrinsic to everyday life.

It’s a self-reflective process that has surged well into 2021: in Canada, the recent discovery of more than 1,300 unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools – believed to contain the remains of children who were forced to attend those institutions – has forced Canadians to take a long, hard look at racism and inequality in their own backyards. 

A Black Lives Matter protest in Denver, CO. (Colin Lloyd)

With an urgency to confront and correct internal personal biases, companies and industries are also evaluating ways in which anti-Blackness plays out in professional life.

The travel industry, for all of its love of cultural enrichment, isn’t always the racially diverse and accepting place it claims to be – a truth that has been put under the microscope over the past year and a half.

Between the economic downfall caused by the pandemic, and last summer’s BLM protests, the past year has been “one of reckoning for the travel industry” on issues of race and inclusivity, as author Tariro Mzezewa wrote in a July 27, 2021, article in the New York Times. 

“In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, everybody from hotel operators to luggage makers declared themselves allies of the protesters,” Mzezewa wrote. “At a time when few people were travelling, Instagram posts and pledges to diversify were easy to make.”

“But now, as travel once again picks up, the question of how much travel has really changed has taken on new urgency.”

Some travel associations in Canada have spoken out – the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) paid tribute to George Floyd at its Annual General Meeting on June 29, 2021.

Addressing attendees virtually, Richard Smart, TICO’s President and CEO, referred to diversity, equity and inclusion as a key priority during the pandemic.

TICO has since set itself up for action by signing the BlackNorth Initiative Pledge, which aims to end anti-Black systemic racism in the workplace and beyond.

Brett Walker, chair of the Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO), says all travel organizations have a responsibility to address racial diversity and “curate a culture that’s accepting.”

“It’s the best business practice,” Walker said. “There’s value in the industry doing better, giving back, and being more representative.” 

Walker admitted that CATO, which is run by volunteers, “can do a lot more” to address race and racism with tour operators and, overall, contribute to a “kinder, fairer and more just society.”

One commitment he’s made is to include a section dedicated to racial diversity and anti-racism action on CATO’s new website, which is currently under construction and set to debut by the end of this year. 

Travel’s lack of diversity 

For a sector that is supposed to showcase the world’s diversity, the travel industry is “uniquely stunning in its lack of diversity,” as author Tiana Attride writes in this first-hand account of being a Black travel editor.

The “face” of travel is predominately white, Attride writes, and it isn’t because Black people aren’t interested in travelling. 

The research suggests otherwise.

In a 2020 study entitled “The Black Traveller: Insights, Opportunities and Priorities,” MMGY Global shared that Black U.S. leisure travellers spent $109.4 billion USD on travel in 2019, accounting for more than 13 per cent of the U.S. leisure travel and tourism market.

That same report found that Black travellers – especially those in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Ireland – are paying close attention to how destinations and companies approach diversity, saying it has an influence on travel decision-making.

Expedia Group research from June 2021, too, suggests a changing mindset among consumers, finding that nearly two-thirds of travellers today are more willing to book accommodations that have policies focused on diversity and inclusion.

Yet despite this, the travel industry has historically ignored BIPOC communities. While Black individuals are physically seen, their stories are rarely heard.

“As it stands, white travel industry professionals’ love for culture seems akin to white volunteers taking photos with Black children on mission trips,” Attride writes.

“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Colour) appear as the backdrop to white stories: as safari guides in the Serengeti; as chefs serving up ‘ethnic’ foods; as warm but visually subservient hosts in ‘off the beaten path’ locales.”

“As spectacles of diversity, but never as travellers themselves.”

“A black square isn’t enough”

Last year, the travel industry was among those taken to task for its lack of diversity as travellers began demanding more BIPOC representation in travel advertising and marketing.

There were calls to demonstrate true allyship from a newly-formed U.S. organization called the Black Travel Alliance, which advocates for the hiring and equal pay of Black travel influencers, writers and photographers.

This group, notably, targeted the black squares that companies were posting on their Instagram accounts in June 2020 as a sign of solidarity with BLM, BIPOC communities, and the fight against racism.

(For the record, ACTA, PAX and several other Canadian companies participated in this initiative).

the Black Travel Alliance advocates for the hiring & equal pay of Black travel influencers, writers and photographers. (Black Travel Alliance)

However: “A black square isn’t enough,” as Martina Jones-Johnson, a founding member of the Black Travel Alliance, told PAX in a telephone interview last year. “There has to be action for us to see change. We need the words to be met with action.”

With this, the alliance launched a “Black Travel Scorecard” to evaluate destination management organizations and travel brands on not just what they say, but also what they do.

You can click here to read their report from October 2020, but the takeaway is that Black people are under-represented at all levels within the travel industry and “there is a great need to address the imbalance.”

As a Black traveller, Ms. Jones-Johnson has “more good memories than anything else,” but said one of the most common things she crosses while travelling is white entitlement.

One time, Jones-Johnson was in Italy and an Italian woman reached out and began handling one of the braids in her hair, “stretching it out with amazement,” she said. That’s enough to catch anyone off guard, but what really got her was when the woman then proceeded to pat her face “like a zoo animal.”

Strangers approaching Black people to touch their bodies is one of “the most common things that Black travellers experience,” she said.

Another common occurrence? How non-Black people sometimes look at Black travellers with either admiration or suspicion, she said.

“They think you’re either a celebrity or you’re trouble,” Jones-Johnson said, noting how she is often mistaken for Beyoncé in her travels.

Martina Jones-Johnson and her husband enjoy Paris, France. (Supplied)

Which some may not mind, at first, until they land on the opposite side of the spectrum, where they’re thought to be trouble.

This happens frequently in the Airbnb world, Jones-Johnson said, when Black travellers get their booking cancelled, at the last minute or on arrival, by disrespectful hosts who don’t see guests – they just see trouble.

This is why the move to create an anti-racist industry needs to be “more than just a flash in the pan,” Tiana Attride argues.

“We face discrimination from Airbnb hosts and hotel management. People stare when we visit places where, generally, Black people are rarely seen,” Attride writes. “To travel through this world as a Black person is an entirely different undertaking.”

“It’s not annoying. It’s racist.” 

Dudley can share many examples of racial microaggressions – verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities that stem from people’s biases against marginalized groups that leave victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted – that she has experienced in the field.

Airports, she told PAX, are where Black people can sometimes feel like “second-class citizens.”

One time, Dudley, as a Business Class customer, was waiting in an express line to board her flight and a white passenger – who Dudley believes was shocked to see a Black person flying in premium – approached her to say that she was standing in the wrong line.

Then there’s the lounges, where Dudley “almost always” is requested to show her passport and her driver’s licence to enter (whereas white people get to just flash the app).

As a destination wedding specialist, Shalene Dudley sources photos of her own Black clients. (Supplied)

The lack of Black people used in destination and product marketing – especially in the years leading up to 2020 – is also painfully obvious at times.

From white seniors clinking wine glasses on river ships to white, blonde families frolicking on beaches in Mexico and the Caribbean, the images that are used to promote travel are, to this day, still predominantly geared towards white audiences.  

As a destination wedding specialist, Dudley has taken to sourcing photos of her own Black clients celebrating their big day to promote her services on pull-down banners and fliers because, sometimes, there aren’t enough BIPOC options.

“If I send someone a brochure for a destination wedding, and [that client] is not white, what do I send them? The one Black stock photo?” she asks. “We’re not asking for everything under the rainbow, but it’s about being more diverse in the models that [company’s] use.”

PAX, which receives press imagery on a daily basis, can confirm that the images used by travel companies and destinations have, over the past year, become more racially diverse. Some brands are better than others.

But racism’s role in the industry isn’t limited to who’s frolicking on the beach in which pictures. Racist microaggressions can unfold at all levels of the industry. 

Dudley talks about bridal shows she’s attended where white customers have been surprised to learn that she is the owner of her own business.  

Then there was the time Dudley received a call from her all-Black group of clients – four couples in their 40s, celebrating anniversaries – who couldn’t check into their high-end luxury resort because hotel management wanted a security deposit from them up front. 

(Until then, this particular resort had never required a security payment from any of Dudley’s other clients).

“It’s funny how so many things happen to us, yet we categorize them as annoying,” Dudley said. “But it’s not annoying. It’s racist. We need to call it for what it is.”

Black agents are getting missed

The imbalance of racial representation in the travel industry, as it pertains to travel advisors, is something Veranda Adkins knows well.

Prior to COVID-19, the Alabama-based travel pro would look around the room at travel awards ceremonies and not see a single other Black person in attendance beyond herself.

Anecdotes like this, Adkins told PAX, highlight a “disconnect” that exists within the industry – as in, the lack of Black representation doesn’t necessarily have to do with there not being enough Black agents in the business.

But rather: “Somewhere in the training and selling part, Black agents are getting missed.”

“Somewhere in the training and selling part, Black agents are getting missed," says ABTP's Veranda Adkins. (Supplied)

It was for this reason that Adkins, alongside Gai A. Spann and Shawnta Harrison, formed the Association of Black Travel Professionals (ABTP) in December 2020 to elevate the profile of Black travel pros (in America and beyond), demonstrate Black spending power and create a resource for suppliers to access Black talent.

ABTP, today, boasts more than 700 members, giving travel companies and advocacy groups more opportunities than ever to engage with BIPOC travel advisors. 

And it’s the responsibility of trade associations, like ASTA and ACTA, to seek out these resources that help amplify BIPOC representation – especially if they claim to represent the industry, Adkins said.

“If you’re going to say you represent travel agents, then you should represent all travel agents,” Adkins said.

Not having enough time to confront race or racism, because of the pandemic, isn’t a good excuse either, she said.

“It’s an industry problem that has been around for several years,” she said. “If anything, the pandemic gave us time to finally address these issues.”

From left: Shawnta Harrison, Veranda Adkins, Gai A. Spann - co-founders of the Association of Black Travel Professionals. (ABTP)

“The travel industry is very white”

Those issues apply to the business and PR world too. When Andrew Ricketts launched his travel-oriented public relations business, Total Public Relations Inc., he posted pictures of his team – all of whom were Black – on his website.

But when it came time to bid against other companies for new accounts, “I felt like I had to take the pictures down, just to be an equal player,” Ricketts told PAX in an interview last year.

“When you look at an all-white team, it’s not a problem,” he says. “If you see an all-Black team, it can work against you.”

The type of racism Ricketts has experienced in his career is “indirect,” he said.

“The travel industry is very white,” he said. “There are very few Black people at the table.”

And being the only Black person in the room sometimes means “you have to prove yourself a little more and do things out of the box to get people to take you seriously,” he said.

“When you look at an all-white team, it’s not a problem,” says Andrew Ricketts of Total Public Relations Inc. “If you see an all-Black team, it can work against you.”

Calls for racial diversity in workplaces are sometimes met with pushes for meritocracy – the notion that if you work hard and get your degree, you will achieve success.

But that is also a myth because it dismisses the real-life barriers BIPOC individuals face, like losing out on a job interview because of an ethnic-looking name on a resume.

(There’s tons of research and evidence that suggests non-white names are less likely to get call backs for jobs compared to white candidates, for instance).

“Colour blindness” is another term often used when it comes to calls for diversity – as in, “I’m colour blind. I don’t see race. I only see skillset.”

But this is also problematic, because by choosing not to see colour, it ignores the lived experiences of those who are of colour, therefore removing the intention to address racial diversity entirely.

Not enough Black folx or people of colour in the talent pool? Perhaps recruiters are looking in the wrong places.

ACTA called out   

Here in Canada, Let’s Get Uncomfortable (LGU), a group formed in 2018 to provide a safe space for travel pros to have difficult but honest conversations about taboo subjects, has been addressing these exact topics with a series of virtual panel events dedicated to confronting anti-Black racism in travel.

LGU’s first panel addressing anti-Black racism in travel and tourism was on July 7, 2020.

Dudley acted as moderator and she was joined by panelists Maxine Gundermann, a market sales manager at Celebrity Cruises Canada; Margie Jordan, owner of Jordan Executive Travel Service; Kier Matthews, director of sales at Classic Vacations; and Tolu Aladejebi, founder of Black in Hospitality.

Some takeaways from that presentation, which was attended by more than 100 people (and watched by hundreds more later on), was for employers to create safe, inclusive workplaces, to not wait for racialized employees to push for equity and to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to rebuild with anti-racism strategies.

Then, at a follow-up LGU panel on Aug. 25, 2020, the discussion shifted towards the “true work” that was being done in the industry by focusing on accountability and action.

It was at this event, last year, that Dudley first called out ACTA for not doing enough to engage in the conversation about racial equity, diversity and inclusion.

From top, left (clockwise): Shalene Dudley, Kier Matthews, Jodie Glean-Mitchell, Lauren Gay appear at LGU's event on Aug. 25, 2020.

Shortly after, on Aug. 27, PAX submitted a media request to ACTA, asking what its plans were for confronting anti-Black practices in travel. We did not receive a response.

Ten months later, Dudley took ACTA to task, again, on June 15, 2021, at an LGU event called "Confronting Anti-Black Racism in Travel & Tourism: One Year Later,” where she, again, publicly expressed her frustration with Canada’s travel trade association.

The issue, Dudley said, is that ACTA was remaining silent on racism while, at the same time, promoting a great mission statement that “completely parallels what we’re going through now.”

However: “They made no moves or even insinuated that they supported what was happening,” she said.

Watered down & whitewashed 

So what, then, was so “disappointing” about ACTA’s engagement with Dudley last year when she reached out about confronting racism in travel?  

Following some initial exchanges over email, the ACTA team invited Dudley to speak at their 2020 virtual summit, which took place on Nov. 12 and 13.

Dudley expressed interest in the opportunity, but after learning more about the event, she had some reservations. The spot was set for 25 minutes, which, in Dudley’s eyes, wasn’t enough time for tackling a vast topic like racism.

She thought it deserved more attention and that it shouldn’t just be her speaking (but rather, a multitude of BIPOC voices).

“The issue of anti-racism towards Black, Indigenous and Persons of Colour should be awarded more time and effort,” Dudley wrote Maggie Santos in an email on Oct. 9. “At least if we want to attack the issue with some intention.”

The deadline to produce something meaningful in time for the summit, also, was too tight. So Dudley declined the offer (but left the door open to partner with ACTA on a future project).

In November, ACTA’s 2020 summit went ahead as planned and a panel about diversity and inclusion was, indeed, part of the program.

But that “diversity and inclusion” session, Dudley said, amounted to “lip service” in the fight against systematic racism.

Why? Because ACTA’s panel barely addressed race or racism at all. The message, Dudley said, was “watered down, whitewashed…whatever terminology you want.”

The “growing topic” that ACTA said was on its radar “disappeared,” she said.

Tokenism on the panel 

On June 16, 2021, PAX, for the second time, submitted a media request to ACTA, notifying the association that it had been publicly called out at another LGU event for failing to confront racism in the travel industry.

This time, we received a response, an email from Wendy Paradis, who immediately named ACTA’s “diversity session” from the 2020 summit as an example of action that ACTA has taken. 

“Building a Business Culture Through Diversity & Inclusion” was the title of the virtual “fireside chat” that aired at ACTA’s summit last year.

It featured Kemi Wells, then a director of business development at North South Travel, and Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity Cruises’ President and CEO (whom Wells interviewed).

Luxury Travel Advisor Kemi Wells. (File photo/supplied)

The pre-recorded interview starts with an opening message from the summit’s Master of Ceremonies, Lorraine Simpson, who gleefully indicates how the session will address a topic that has been “front and centre over the last several months – equality and diversity.”

(That, and what Lutoff-Perlo thinks about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the cruise industry).

From there, Wells, who is Black, leads an interview with Lutoff-Perlo, who, as the first and only woman to lead one of Royal Caribbean Cruises’ brands, is a global champion in advancing all forms of diversity on ships and in corporate offices.

The session covers several noble topics, such as gender equality in the workplace, the benefits of diverse hiring, and the importance of listening to and empowering people – all people – at work and in life.

But painfully absent from the 20-minute segment are the lived experiences of BIPOC individuals, lessons on race and how anti-Blackness, though microaggressions, privilege and indignities, impacts the lives of BIPOC travellers and agents and non-BIPOC professionals.

The optics of ACTA asking a Black travel professional to interview a white woman in power are problematic – the chat, at one point, even turns to how hard it was for Lutoff-Perlo, who is white, to succeed in business without addressing the many more layers of challenges Black women face.

The word “Black” is spoken just twice (used only to refer to Black Lives Matter), and race is alluded to, just briefly, as Lutoff-Perlo reviews her efforts in hiring more people of colour from Africa on Celebrity’s ships.

The bulk of the discussion focuses on women in the workforce (again, a noble cause, but off-topic in the fight for racial equality) and Royal Caribbean Group’s commitments to diversity.

(Lutoff-Perlo, to be fair, was invited by ACTA to speak and talked about what she knew).

Travel advisor Kemi Wells interviews Celebrity Cruises President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo at ACTA's 2020 summit.

However, despite the public’s amplified interest in Black lives at the time, the session, PAX later learned, was set up to focus less on race and more on diversity in general.

In an interview with PAX last June, Wells said ACTA gave her the questions to ask, and even after she tried to tweak them to address race issues, the script was spun to focus more on women in the workforce.

Furthermore, Wells said her involvement in ACTA’s 2020 diversity panel felt like pure “tokenism” (the act of making a symbolic effort to be inclusive).

In other words: she feels the only reason ACTA asked her to lead a diversity panel was because she is Black.

At the time, “It felt like an honour to be asked to participate,” said Wells, who now works as a luxury travel advisor.

But after some reflection, and in learning about Dudley’s experience with the association, her opinion on the matter changed.

“They didn’t ask for my thoughts about the travel industry, or about situations where [Black travel professionals] might be treated differently,” said Wells, saying the “diversity” session, instead, felt “like an ad for Celebrity.” 

“They could have been proactive to find Black travel advisors and actually listen to the feedback...Coming to me was the easy way out," Wells said. 

Wells admitted she’s on her own journey in learning about the struggles of other BIPOC travel professionals. But for this very reason: “I’m not the right person to be speaking on these issues,” she said.

Yet travel companies across North America, before and since the ACTA summit, continue to knock on her door with requests to talk about diversity.

“I keep being asked about diversity – is that all we’re good for?” asked Wells, respectfully.

She said she suddenly became “more in demand” to appear on other diversity panels because people, presumably, “were trying to look like they were supportive of the movement.”

Wells says “no” to these requests nowadays and says that if the industry has any sincere intention of evoking authentic change, it needs leaders who “want to work with, listen to and understand us.”

“Versus tokenism,” she said.

Paradis told PAX that ACTA wanted to address diversity and racism awareness at its 2020 summit, but for various reasons, including schedule conflicts and the online format, “we were not able to do all that we had hoped,” she said.

Paradis said Wells was chosen to lead the session “because of her leadership within the Canadian travel industry.”

But the team at LGU says ACTA’s handling of the matter and silence towards race issues over these past 17 months is indicative of a greater, institutional problem.

“It’s a very clear example of who is at the table making these decisions and saying what is work toward equity,” Terrilyn Kunopaski, a co-founder of LGU, told PAX. “If you think having a 20-minute discussion on diversity, equity and inclusion is moving the needle, as you should be, you’re wrong.”

“This needs to be backed up by other actions and commitments, like having BIPOC travel professionals leading discussions and panels based on their professional expertise.”

“We’re not represented”

ACTA’s mandate is to “ensure consumers have professional and meaningful travel counselling by providing effective leadership in a number of key strategic areas on behalf of the retail travel industry members.”

The pillars are to “Advocate” in the best interests of the retail travel industry, to “Educate and Elevate” industry standards and professionalism through learning, to “Promote” the value of travel agents and to “Connect” members with information, contacts and programs “to be more effective.”

“It’s sad they have a mission statement that they don’t hold themselves up to,” Dudley said. “Even if there are five BIPOC agents in Canada, we’re not represented.” 

Britney Hope, another LGU co-founder, said it’s ACTA’s responsibility, as a national trade association representing the retail travel sector, to confront racial diversity on an ongoing basis (as opposed to once a year when their summit hits).

“It’s not something you put on a to-do list and do later,” Hope said. “They’re based on leadership. They’re supposed to be leading the industry.”

There’s also the question of what ACTA believes is effective work in promoting racial diversity, equity and inclusion.

“They have a platform and they’re not using it,” Dudley said. “It’s an ongoing initiative that you should be running.”

“How can we talk about building back anything without building it back properly? That makes absolutely no sense.”

“Everyone is capable”

Paradis told PAX that ACTA has to take “more proactive steps towards diversity.”

It’s assumed that this will start, virtually, on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at ACTA’s 2021 Canadian Travel Industry Summit, which already boasts a line-up of speakers in the diversity sector.

Tammy Webster, an Indigenous education and equity consultant of the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin First Nation, for one, will mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a presentation on Indigenous history and the residential school system and how attendees can take steps towards understanding, reconciliation and respect.

Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, executive director of the BlackNorth Initiative, will host a session on embracing diversity and inclusion in Canada’s travel industry.

Omari Bani-Hani will also lead a keynote on rebuilding the industry through inclusive and sustainable travel.

Paradis, in watching recordings of LGU’s past events, said one of the biggest learnings for her and the ACTA team has been “to listen and let those most impacted by inequality issues share their experience.”

“Although it can sometimes be uncomfortable for all involved, the ACTA team is now much more aware and I believe we have evolved and continue to evolve,” Paradis said.

The question, now, is whether ACTA can effectively and authentically chart a new course and commit to effective anti-racism action once their summit is over and everyone logs off. 

“Everyone is capable,” Hope said. “The resources exist everywhere to make yourself capable.”

“It’s about making the decision to do the work.”


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