Discrimination in business travel?

btlogo1Demographic changes, societal shifts and an intertwined global economy mean that today’s road warriors are more diverse and multi-faceted than ever before. But how well is the travel industry responding to the needs of today’s business traveler? Regardless of corporate directives and training, do subtle or not-so-subtle forms of discrimination or inferior treatment persist at point of service?

If you want to see how far things have come in the last two decades, look no further than business travel. Today, women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities are in the executive suite and out on the road, and so-called Millennials, born during the 1980s and ’90s, are entering the work force in ever-increasing numbers. With the population aging and demographers estimating that whites will become a minority in the U.S. by 2050, there’s little doubt that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.

To succeed in this shifting market, travel companies can no longer afford to look at business travelers as a single group, and instead must work to create an environment that celebrates and respects the differences that make each of its customers unique. Organizations able to do this will find themselves with loyal customers, a highly-respected brand—and a competitive advantage. 

Dr. Neal Goodwin, a consultant who develops corporate diversity and inclusion programs, says that despite a changing U.S. work force and an explosion of travelers from Latin America and Asia, companies often fall flat when it comes to cultural competency and sensitivity. “There is a clear lack of training,” he says, “and as a result, these companies are inadvertently offending customers.”

Jim Huerta, CEO of ResearchPAYS, a consulting firm, is concerned that political and economic realities could make travel more difficult for Hispanics like himself. “Look at the Arizona immigration law, the economy, and the general attitude toward illegals in this country,” he says. “It’s a perfect storm. People are angry, and there’s no reason to believe that Hispanics who are on the road for business might not be targeted or profiled.”

A dark-skinned Dominican colleague of Huerta’s believes that it’s already happening. “He finds himself being constantly selected for secondary airport security,” Huerta says. “He can’t say for sure that he is being profiled. All he knows is that time after time, he finds himself being called out.”

Kathleen Ameche, an executive who spends more than 30 percent of her time traveling, says that despite the progress made in recent years, she still sees situations where female travelers receive subpar service. She says that she is rarely offered a hotel room on a concierge floor, that her coat is almost never hung when she flies, and that when dining with female colleagues, she is often seated near the back of the restaurant. “Even my male counterparts notice it,” she says.

Ann Hanson, an executive with the Igloo Corporation, says lack of respect or consideration for women can take other forms as well. “I’ve been to hotel lobby shops that stock three kinds of shaving cream, but no feminine products,” she says. “That tells you a lot.”

It is estimated that one in five Americans is disabled in some capacity, but many travel organizations are ill-equipped to manage this reality. Jani Nayar of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, recounts one story about a deaf executive who slept through an important meeting because the hotel forgot to provide a vibrating clock and had no way to wake him up, and another about a guest staying at a high-end property who couldn’t shower because his wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door. “There’s a lack of training around the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she says. “And when the staff at a hotel or airport doesn’t know what to do, you start to have real problems.”

Jeff Ward, a former airline executive who has worked in travel for more than 25 years, feels that the industry has become increasingly sensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian travelers, but says there is still work to be done. “I once met with a hotel manager who said that he was committed to making me feel comfortable as a gay traveler,” he says. “But then I got to my room and found a welcome note addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ward. Little things like that send a subtle, but strong message.”

“We tend to be fantastic at word-of-mouth advertising,” says Huerta of Hispanic travelers. “The companies that realize this will find themselves ahead as the economy begins to turn around.”

Goodwin says that creating a welcoming environment for all customers requires a concerted effort and a long-term commitment. “There needs to be a champion near the top of the organization who understands the importance of diversity,” he says. “It takes more than a newsletter or a page on a website. Creating a truly inclusive experience is a lot of work.”

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