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Are All Travelers Treated Equally?

By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times


Margaret Gray, a public school counselor, and her husband, Nathan, a lawyer, were thrilled when Federal Express delivered their airline tickets for their trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they will attend five days of seminars. A highlight of the trip will be five romantic nights strolling along the Atlantic listening to the waves hit the shore. And, of course, the shopping.

The Grays, Fort Lauderdale residents, have vacationed in Myrtle Beach before and hold no illusions about what to expect this time.

As African-Americans, they know that they have to be alert, that many of the desk and restaurant personnel in this Southern paradise will not greet them with open arms. Yes, they intend to have a good time and are willing to ignore the small and not-so-small slights that will be aimed at their skin color.

The Grays, mind you, do not see themselves as whiners. In their late 40s, they have traveled to many world capitals. They even have braved some of the remote, mostly white-populated spaces of Utah and Idaho.

"We just know what it means to be treated right," Nathan Gray said. "We're African-Americans, and a lot of the people we meet, including flight attendants and rental car people, have attitude problems. But that doesn't mean that we can't have a great time. Because we do.

"I've got to tell you, though, that things are much better now than they used to be. When I traveled with my parents years ago, we packed everything we needed -- food, water, blankets, even a slop jar to go to the bathroom in. There was nowhere for us to stay on the road. Our car was a rolling motel.

"When I was a kid, you couldn't show your black face on Myrtle Beach unless you wore a uniform or carried a rake."

Today, Margaret and Nathan Gray represent an emerging breed of black traveler: sophisticated, educated professionals with gobs of money to spend, especially on conventions and self-improvement seminars.

And travel agents like Rodger Smith are going along for the ride. Smith is founder and owner of Rodger's Travel Services in Fort Walton Beach. His 3-year-old company mainly caters to blacks but recently landed a $12-million contract to arrange travel for the U.S. Air Force facilities near Fort Walton Beach. Smith is becoming a player in the nation's $430-billion a year travel industry.

Although he serves the general public, Smith, himself black, understands the problems African-Americans face while traveling.

"Despite the fact that we spend an estimated $30-billion a year on travel and lodging, blacks are not treated as openly as other groups," he says. "There is not an open warmth . . . Although our dollars are welcome, our presence may not be. We're not directed to resorts and all-inclusive vacations.

"I've traveled just about everywhere, specifically in the Caribbean, and they just kind of look at you differently. When my significant other and I stay in a five-star hotel, we can feel the coldness and everything."

Smith, like hundreds of other African-American entrepreneurs, decided to fill the void left by an industry that largely ignored the needs of blacks. He and his brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity established a Web site reaching out to thousands of potential travelers in other black fraternities and sororities and similar organizations. Currently, Smith's agency has more than 350 clients.

"We're booking flights and making resort reservations like crazy," he said. "Right now a lot of the frat brothers and their friends are getting married, and they're taking their entire wedding parties to the Caribbean."

Smith said that he also books many trips for a large number of Nigerians living in New York who return to their homeland about every six months.

He has become adept at sending his clients to the right places. The first priorities, he said, are the strength of the local black community and how well its numbers are represented in the hospitality industry. He believes that Mobile, Ala., for example, is one of the best convention and tourist spots for African-Americans.

"In Mobile, you have a strong black community, and most of the upscale hotels have blacks in management," he said. "That's important."

Each Wednesday, Smith's company publishes a newsletter listing airline ticket prices and the names of cruises and resorts that want black business.

Caletha Powell, president of the African-American Travel and Tourism Association in New Orleans, agrees with Smith that blacks probably will have good experiences in places with a strong black presence. She is particularly fond of New Orleans and Atlanta.

But the rental-car industry, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, is particularly hostile toward blacks, even though research shows that blacks are four times more likely to rent a car than travelers overall. More than 100 blacks joined a lawsuit last year charging discrimination by Avis -- a matter recently featured on 60 Minutes.

In addition to lingering racism, she claimed blacks do not receive the same level of service as white males on airlines, for example. She thinks this occurs because ticket agents, flight attendants and others assume that blacks seldom travel, especially for business, and that they do not fly first-class unless they are celebrities.

Such unfamiliarity with black culture, Powell said, leads to impudence that often causes blacks much inconvenience.

However, some facets of the travel industry are reaching out to African-Americans. Ads for chains such as ITT Sheraton, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, and Shady Lane Hotel in Barbados have become regulars in targeted black publications such as Ebony, Black Enterprise and Emerge. Some tour packages cater exclusively to blacks, emphasizing historical trips to Africa. The cruise lines caught on years ago and most regularly feature blacks as passengers in their brochure photos.

States such as Maryland and Missouri are trying to attract blacks, and cities such as Palm Beach, Detroit, Miami, Jacksonville and San Antonio, Texas, have initiated aggressive ad campaigns.

Among the leaders, with a brochure aimed at African-American visitors, is Fort Lauderdale. Using the theme "Marketing to the New Majority," the Greater Fort Lauderdale Multicultural Tourism Network will hold an economic summit and trade show July 24-27, at the Marina Marriott in Fort Lauderdale.

Organizers say that the event will attract top hospitality representatives, meeting planners and entrepreneurs from around the United States, the Caribbean and South Africa.

Andrew Ingraham, a summit organizer and the president of Horizons Marketing International Inc., said that the four-day event is designed to educate the local community about opportunities in the industry; to bring together professionals who can share experiences or have similar multicultural tourism programs in other cities; to show how to market ethnic tourism; and to share minority travel trends and their importance to the travel industry in general.

Margaret and Nathan Gray plan to attend the Fort Lauderdale event. They see it as a long-overdue godsend.

"Somebody seems to realize that we're 33-million strong and growing every day," Nathan Gray said. "We're talking about a lot of hotel rooms and plane tickets. We're definitely a force to be reckoned with. People need to learn that we want the same things other travelers want -- courtesy and service in return for our dollars." Resources for African-American travelers

On the World Wide Web:

NetNoir is a comprehensive Web site that offers great travel information (http://www.netnoir.com/ spotlight/travel/resource. html).

Rodger's Travel Services (http://www.yourvacation.com).

Books:

Caribbean Bound! Culture, Roots, Places and People, by Linda Cousins. A 226-page travel guide for the African-centric and culturally aware traveler. It features historical sites, galleries, museums, regattas, festivals, markets and more. $14.95, the Universal AfriCAN Writer Press, POB 5, Radio City Station, NY 10101 (1995).

Historic Black Landmarks: A Traveler's Guide, by George Cantor. This 400-page guide lists more than 300 sites in the United States and Canada. It also offers a brief history of black America, historic maps and photos. $17.95. Visible Ink Press, a division of Gale Research Inc., 835 Penobscot Building, Detroit, MI 48226 (1991).

Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad, by Charles Blockson. This 370-page book traces many roads that lead from the Mid-Atlantic states to Canada and stops at safe havens along the way. Hippocrene Books. $22.95.

Travel companies

African Tours & Travel

2170 Avenida de la Playa

La Jolla, CA 92092

Africa Tours

210 Post St.

San Francisco, CA 94018

(415) 391-5788

Rodger's Travel Services

24 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 8-A

Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548

(800) 853-1128

Haggins International Tours

306 W 38th St.

New York, NY 10018

(212) 563-2570

Horizons Marketing International Inc.

3520 W Broward Blvd., Suite 218B

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312

(954) 792-2579

Interesting Facts about African-American Travelers

They take twice as many trips that involve group tours.

Blacks tend not to stay in a tent or recreational vehicle.

More than other groups, blacks shop while traveling.

The top U.S. destinations for blacks are Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas.

Most blacks report feeling comfortable on cruises because of the international mix of the passengers.

Family reunions, held mostly from May to September, are one of the biggest reasons that blacks travel.

Tours of historical sites and black-related museums have more than doubled in recent years.

Now that apartheid is dead, South Africa has joined many other nations on the African continent as a favorite destination.

Originally published June 29, 1997



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