As the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) continue to draw attention around the globe, many suppliers and destinations are seeking to cultivate a more inclusive image. Travel advisors, meanwhile, play an important role as they seek the best travel options for a diverse clientele. 

“It’s exciting to see how many travel professionals and companies are now focusing on DEI initiatives,” said Sarah Marshall, owner of TravelAble, a travel agency that specializes in accessible travel. “When I started doing trade shows, as recently as 2019, I was one of the only ones truly focused on accessible travel. Suppliers wanted to assist but didn’t know how, and [they] were concerned about the financial investment required to truly make their products accessible. But now, there are multiple agencies doing great work in furthering this mission, suppliers hiring departments and executives solely focused on DEI initiatives and more voices coming out in the travel space. It’s been fantastic to see more people understanding the underserved communities that have historically been forgotten by the travel industry.”

Indeed, the greater number of destinations and suppliers that are recognizing diversity among travelers — not to mention among their own workforce — has made it easier for travel advisors to serve their clients’ needs, according to Darren Katz, co-founder of Red House Concierge Travel, part of Global Travel Collection. “DEI is crucial to expanding your client base and finding the right product for your client,” he said. “Specifically in reference to the LGBTQ+ community, companies throughout the travel industry have come to understand that when they are clear and specific about welcoming LGBTQ+ guests, they more easily win their business. And that’s a potentially very lucrative chunk of business.”

Joshua Harrell, chief revenue officer at WorldVia Travel Group, praises the continued progress. “In the travel industry, there are encouraging changes being made around committing to DEI practices,” he said. “As our advisors keep open channels of communication with the suppliers doing this work, they can become more knowledgeable about the different product offerings that might best suit their clients’ needs. The values that are important to a client do not disappear when it comes time to book a trip. It is important for advisors to keep that in mind in each booking they make.”

Qualifying clients

Traveler preferences and needs can vary widely, even within one demographic group. That makes qualifying especially important, according to Marshall. “We start our client process with a consultation, where we get to know our clients and explain to them the level of assistance we can provide to them,” she said. “We also ask a lot of questions about the types of travel they are looking to have and what accommodations would make their experience amazing. It is at this point [that] our clients can decide whether working with us is something they want to do.”

Marshall also uses a questionnaire to learn more about each client’s needs, including requirements related to their physical abilities. “We have a form they fill out with very specific questions that hit all the major and minor access points that someone might have in a travel experience,” she said. “These are compiled from years of helping other clients with similar profiles. We are always striving to communicate with our clients and really get to know them, get to know their pain points, remember their likes and dislikes, and understanding the types of experiences they want to have and then endeavor to provide that.”

How DEI Helps Travel Advisors Better Serve Diverse Clientele

Finding the right welcome

Inclusivity may be a goal in many corners of the travel and tourism sectors, but it’s not all smooth sailing. A recent report in Travel Weekly, for example, analyzed the backlash to some policies. And Martinique Lewis, president of the Black Travel Alliance, said in the report that many travel companies have stepped back from DEI commitments since 2020. 

Among the organizations encouraging sustainable progress is Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM), which serves as a DEI resource for the industry. TDM recently identified several key trends for 2024, including a continued focus on DEI commitments and strategies as well as the importance of creating a positive and diverse company culture. The report also recommends that the industry continue to update its DEI language to include inclusive and respectful terminology, and to watch for bias in content generated through artificial intelligence (AI). 

Advisors, meanwhile, continue to seek out suppliers and destinations that are welcoming for diverse traveler types. Online resources have made that easier — especially for the LGBTQ+ market, according to Rick Hurlbut, owner of Pride Enterprises, a travel consulting company. “In the old days, advisors had to use a handful of printed guides — Spartacus, Damron, Odysseus — to connect travelers to friendly businesses,” he said. “Today, websites like GayCities have gone a long way to keep information current. Once the internet came along, it became easier to drill down on specific interests, whether it’s age groups or other interests. It’s become easier to diversify the messaging.”

Katz pays close attention to what suppliers and destinations share publicly about their DEI stance. “Many suppliers will make it evident in their advertising and outreach that they welcome LGBTQ+ guests and/or support LGBTQ+ causes,” he said. “One of our resources is the Internova SELECT program, which offers properties the opportunity to state that they are LGBTQ+ friendly. It’s also helpful to test out certain suppliers by reaching out to them for help with connecting rooms for a queer family, or getting a tour guide who can offer a queer perspective. It will be very clear in their response whether you want to continue to work with that supplier or not.”

Marshall makes the most of in-person meetings to gauge supplier commitment to DEI.  “When I go to trade shows, FAMs, conferences, etc., I am always grilling the destination and supplier reps about their commitments to accessible travel,” she said. “If they can’t speak to it, I move on. Has this garnered me many friends? No.  But honestly, I don’t want to schmooze with those that aren’t interested in furthering their position in diverse and inclusive programs.” 

Marshall also monitors supplier initiatives. “We look for suppliers and vendors in the countries our clients want to go that are already doing good work in their communities,” she said. “For instance, we have a wonderful partnership with Himalayan Circuit/Accessible Nepal to provide accessible trekking in the Himalayas and Nepal. In addition, they are creating, in Nepal, a feeder program to encourage young people with disabilities the opportunity to train and become tour guides for their company. Not only are they providing a superior product for our clients that want a bit of adventure, but they are affecting the outcomes of young people in their country. These are the kinds of suppliers we like to support with business.”

Communicating with suppliers about DEI is just one example of how travel advisors can play an important role in encouraging a more welcoming environment for diverse travelers, Marshall notes. “We see ourselves as advocates for our clients,” she said. “We take it a step further because we’re advocating for their needs as well.”

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