Diversity: It’s Time To Get It Right
Author: Bashar Wali
We check boxes all day long, as if we might somehow measure guest experience. We give away points to game loyalty, instead of earn it. And when it comes to diversity, we try to check that box, too—but let’s be honest—the workers that allow us to label hospitality as diverse are relegated to behind-the-scenes work: cleaning the rooms, scrubbing the dishes, and doing the laundry. Therein lies the problem.
We have COVID to thank for bringing our ‘back-of-house' (hate that term) to the front of house. It’s not magic that keeps our hotels humming, it’s these incredible humans—largely immigrants. People whose lives depend on who is sitting in Washington, DC. People who pick up your unmentionables, deal with the worst of humanity, and rarely have a chance to look you in the eye. Why is that?
It’s time we see more people eye to eye—including ourselves—and this industry. Our industry’s fallacy is believing we’re diverse, and therefore untouched by social injustice. We check that box, and go on with our day.
I call foul on doing little work behind the scenes to engage in conversation. I call foul on not taking a hard look at our own practices.
SILENCE...OUT OF RESPECT?
When COVID blew through our industry, everyone and their mother put out a statement via email. A few weeks later when the protests took root, some spoke up on issues of social justice. Too many posted a black box on Instagram, and moved on.
It is as if the COVID issue affected our turf, and the second issue did not.
The protests spread—across all 50 states, and then the world—people of all ages, races, nationalities, using their voices to condemn racism and demand justice.
We need to do more than follow in the footsteps of brands with beating hearts. We must stand up, too. We need to raise our voices as industry leaders and take steps to ensure our hotels are welcoming to all.
Newsflash: hotels never have been.
In fact, the precedent that Black hotel owners most often cite, when it comes to hotel ownership and safe spaces, is The Green Book. The very thing that allowed Civil Rights era citizens to move about the country knowing which hotels were safe to inhabit. We're still fighting for many of the same rights, today:
Walking down the street while Black.
Staying in a hotel while Black.
Sleeping in your own bed while Black.
This isn’t the 1950s. It’s the 2020s, and racism is still everywhere. It’s latent. It’s in the way we organize our teams, it’s in that term ‘back-of-house’, it’s in our board rooms, it’s across management teams. It’s in our marketing, it’s in our hiring processes, it’s in our investment conferences. It’s everywhere.
Racism is like a blacklight wand carried across a guest room. It can be overwhelming when our blemishes are exposed, but it can also be liberating to make our hotels better than before.
THE WORK BEGINS WITH BABY STEPS
When it comes to diversity, we’ve got to look at the children in our community. What are we exposing girls and boys to, what are we exposing children of color to, and how can we create a world that’s open to them?
Why is it that when a white kid wants to work in hotels, parents look at Cornell Hotel School, but when a Black kid wants to work in hotels, parents suggest other options? Look at your division of labor. Look who’s managing your hotel, and who’s cleaning it. The opportunities for both kids should be endless.
Even though I’m brown, my focus is on the Black community. When you look at the world of CEOs, it’s dominated by old white guys, and our industry is no different. When you look at the world of hotel ownership, less than 2% of hotels are Black owned.
How do we create an environment that actually encourages diversity, up and down the ladder? How do we bring diversity into the board rooms with a seat at the table? How do we bring diversity into investment conferences with meetings that lead to deals, and into ownership positions?
Well, execution eats strategy for breakfast, my friends.
Start by engaging in conversations that are constantly evolving. In a recent conversation on diversity, I heard from a Black man whose parents urged him to choose a career other than hospitality. It’s a picture that’s eerily familiar—black employees serving wealthy white people—a thin line separating service from servitude. Haven’t we been fighting 400 years to end that?
These conversations are being fostered on Hospitality Design’s Hospitality Diversity Action Council (HDAC), in “Hospitality Professionals” on Clubhouse, created by Damon Lawrence (founder of Homage Hospitality, the first Black-owned hotel group celebrating Black culture), and beyond.
If you tune in, you’ll notice something: the panels look like the world outside of our door, not our board rooms. Drop in and listen. You don’t have to raise your hand. When you’re ready, let your guard down, and let the learning begin.
On that note, when you see a panel of hospitality professionals, and the panel is all white men, say something—even if you are one of those white men. In order for BIPOC to see themselves in management positions, they need to see themselves represented on the stage. It’s the Kamala Harris effect, and it’ll make a world of difference.
The next step, mentorship, comes about by engaging in these conversations, recognizing needs, and fostering relationships to bring more people of color to the finish line in our industry, whether that’s initial investment of capital, opening doors, or filling in the blanks. For people who don’t have familial wealth to cushion their entrepreneurial pursuits, connecting these dots is invaluable.
I could write an entire book on hospitality reform. Maybe someday I will.
In the meantime, invest in your team. Look around at who’s who, and who’s where. Be thoughtful about promoting within your team. We need to ask our team members how they’re feeling. Leave that open-ended question hanging in the air, and listen. Look around at your neighborhood. Are you building community? Look at your local public schools, how might hospitality be a path for those kids?
What’s one step you can take to get started? I encourage you to take action today. Open a door, send a note, donate, offer in-kind service, or reach out to someone you know, and just ask: how can I help you?