Zim Ugochukwu, Founder of Travel Noire, will speak at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York on the growing global community of black travelers. See the complete list of speakers and topics for this year’s event.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the U.S. travel industry has challenges with diversity. The executive suites of airlines, destination marketing organizations, hotels, travel agencies, and cruise lines (with one exception, thanks to Carnival) are mostly male and almost exclusively white.
While this presents problems on a social level, it is also a massive fail when it comes to business opportunities. Whether it’s a monocultural team failing to create a decent marketing plan, or one failing to identify a broader suite of products to sell, there’s lots of money being left on the table.
Inching into that gap in recent years was been a group of younger, more vocal travelers of diverse backgrounds who are not only announcing that they’re black and they travel, but finding ways to better educate brands about where opportunities may be.
Travel Noire founder Zim Ugochukwu is one of the more entreprenurial of these voices. Travel Noire takes what it learns speaking to consumers and then turns around to speak with brands like Airbnb about how the brands can better communicate with them.
An edited version of our recent conversation with Zim is below.
Skift: Tell me about the origins of Travel Noire, and why you started it.
Zim Ugochukwu: Right after I graduated college, I got the opportunity to move to India. Asia was so far off my radar, and I thought this was a really big opportunity. So I sold everything that I own, then I moved to India.
I lived and I worked there, but I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. All the travelers that I saw were either European or white American. At the same time, I also didn’t see back home any advertisements or any billboards, or any sort of marketing asset, really, that catered to this idea of a global traveler, this idea of a traveler who looked like me.
While I was in India a lot of people that I knew back home — because they weren’t seeing that representation — they didn’t really think about a life in a different country, or traveling far, far, far away as an option. I sat on that idea for about a year or so before launching Travel Noire in September of 2013.
Essentially, what we do is we create tools, resources, and experiences for travelers. We focus on travelers of color, and we also work with a lot of large brands who are really interested in connecting with this influential market, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it in an authentic way. We create tools and products for the consumer side of things, and then we work on campaign building and larger projects with brands.
Skift: How do you go about translating this to the brands?
Ugochukwu: We have an open inbox policy. We get questions into our inbox multiple, multiple times a day. That keeps us really close to the ground in terms of knowing what our audience needs. Airbnb, is one of our largest partners, and they are really interested in telling the narrative of how everybody belongs anywhere. What we did with Airbnb — what you’ll start to see in the fall — is that travelers of color are typically a little bit more skeptical when they travel. When going into someone’s home, versus a hotel, is something that’s still relatively scary.
Being able to translate that over to Airbnb and say, “Yes. I’m an avid user of your product. I’m a little bit more of an unconventional traveler, so you have to sort of introduce Airbnb in way that’s fun, in a way that’s fresh, and in a way that’s representative.” If I see somebody who looks like me renting out this beautiful villa off of the coast of southern Italy as opposed to going to the traditional hotel route, to our audience, that looks a lot different because they see somebody who’s actually doing that. That’s just one example of how we work with partner brands. We really sort of dig in deep into what they’re doing, and sort of give them a fresh take and fresh eyes about our audience.
Skift: One of the things that we’ve seen at Skift is that advertising materials, whether it’s an airline or a brand like Disney, tends to have a greater representation of people of color than traditional travel media, where you typically only see people of color if they’re serving somebody in a restaurant. What needs to happen on the edit side as well?
Ugochukwu: I think that when I first started Travel Noire, we were trying to talk to magazines. They were like, “Oh well, you know, black people, they only go to like Las Vegas, or Miami, or Atlanta, or the Caribbean Islands.” Doing a piece on Thailand is just like not going to happen because nobody is going to read it.
That was the first sort of barrier that we had to get through, but I think in this case, data matters. It’s one thing to say, X group is traveling here, but if you’re seeing that particular data, then you know. For instance, Greece, last year was named one of the most racist destinations to people of color.
You know, I love Greece. I think Greece is a great place, but a lot of people of color in our community were like, “Oh, well I’m not going there because I don’t want to go on vacation and be treated horribly.” All through last year, we ran a campaign where we had some of our writers go out to Greece. We had some of our writers tell story about Greece, and to date, it’s one of our top destinations for our audience.
It goes to show that not only are people traveling there in large numbers, and you can see that data wise, also being able to tell that story to a publication. Once you have brands like Airbnb sort of pushing this to the forefront, then you’ll start to see that trickle down.
It’s still relatively niche, but the idea of the international traveler is changing. If brands aren’t adapting to that change, then they’re going to lose out. $40 billion spent on travel by African Americans, that doesn’t even account for Afro Brazilians, or black Europeans, or black South Africans. It doesn’t account for any of that. It’s just the numbers in African American community. If brands aren’t sort of taking that into their consciousness and displaying that in some of their ad language or marketing, then they’re missing out on such an influential segment.
Skift: When you’re talking to brands, is there one stat that you pull out that kind of blows their mind on a regular basis?
Ugochukwu: I think that $40 billion stat is a huge number for them.