Brian Major | August 31, 2016 5:00 PM ET
Targeting African American Travelers
The title character of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” is an unnamed black American man who feels his race makes him socially invisible. The character believes that as an African-American, the dominant (white) society fails to recognize his value and individuality as a human, rendering him invisible.
The book was groundbreaking in its time and continues to resonate with readers today. Among other things, Ellison’s masterpiece aptly describes the relative lack of comprehensive data we have on black American travelers’ preferences, desires and expectations.
There’s only a handful of credible research tracking African American leisure travelers’ habits. The most comprehensive and most often cited study is a 2011 report by Mandala Research, which found African Americans, who represent 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, spend around $48 billion on travel annually in the U.S.
Moreover, 13 percent of African American leisure travelers take more than six leisure trips per year, and another 15 percent take three or more leisure trips a year. That represents a market of 6.5 million travelers taking three or more trips annually.
Overall, African Americans represent $1.1 trillion in annual discretionary spending.
If fact, despite what certain presidential candidates may believe, African Americans spend on leisure travel and have the means to continue spending. Fifty-four percent of African American households have income of $35,000 to $99,900; 10 percent report income of $100,000 or more.
So, what are African Americans looking for when we’re traveling?
Aside from the things everyone travels for – to experience new places, relieve stress and create lasting memories – trust is an important element of travel for African Americans.
The legacy of trust is encapsulated in another book written by an African American, the Negro Motorist’s Green Book. Created in 1936 by New York mailman Victor H. Green, the book was a critical element of black travel as provided a growing black middle class with a guide to reliable lodgings, businesses, and gas stations during the Jim Crow era, when black Americans routinely faced open and often legally prescribed discrimination while traveling.
The book was so successful Green later expanded its coverage from the New York area to North America, and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. He also founded a travel agency.
Even today, the purpose behind Green’s book is reflected in the desires of contemporary African Americans travelers, who largely seek environments in which they feel welcome and free from preference or antagonistic attitudes.
I can’t recall the number of times my own relatives or black American friends and acquaintances have asked if a particular destination is “OK for us.” I’ve never had to question what that meant, I knew. I’m happy to observe in my travels I see more African Americans enjoying international resorts and destinations than I have at any point in my career.
It isn’t always easy for marketers to specifically target the African American market.
In a January 2014 New York Times article entitled “Traveling While Black,” writer Farai Chideya notes:
“For all of [their] buying power, major hospitality companies and tour operators often steer clear of targeting African-Americans. After all, it’s complicated. Hoteliers are promoting women-only floors, but that idea would be anathema to black travelers, who are concerned about getting equal and respectful treatment from staff members.”
Knowledge of the habits and expectations of black travelers can’t hurt, especially if coupled with efforts to engage African Americans in the venues and forums where they congregate, from churches to social organizations.
Destination marketers who can find creative ways to reach African American travelers will be positioned to reap significant profits from this lucrative but little understood consumer group.
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