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Jessica Nabongo
Jan 10, 2018 · 8 min read

Not everyone is born where they belong. I am a traveler. I always have been. From the age of six when my parents took me on my first trip to Uganda to spinning the family globe and looking up different locations in the encyclopedia, I always explored the world, both physically and as a matter of daydreaming. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my parents took us to various Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Canada, the UK, and of course multiple trips to Uganda. I always knew that the world was accessible to me. When I was 22 and working full time, I decided to take a trip to London, Madrid and Paris to hang with some friends. I was nervous because it was my first transatlantic flight by myself, I didn’t know what I would do on a plane, alone, for seven hours. I survived it, with a book, a few drinks and a pair of headphones. Though I faced challenges navigating Paris solo, challenges that led to a lot of tears, I survived. I knew at that point I could, and wanted to travel more. In 2008, when I cut off my hair and moved to Japan, after the first six months abroad I proclaimed that I would not live in the US for three years. That three years turned into seven and calling five countries home on four continents. Though my childhood introduced to me to travel and served as a courting period, moving abroad is what solidified my marriage to travel. Travel is the air that I breathe with my curiosity about the variations in cultures around the world keeping me at border crossings.

Instagram has truly changed the travel industry not only in how brands promote themselves but also in how we consume travel. For anyone who spends time on Instagram making bucket lists from different accounts, you will notice that the biggest travel influencers are all white, but beyond that, you will notice that accounts with large followings that promote travel, but are independent of brands, are also overwhelmingly white. Specifically, there are a number of handles for women travelers that repost beautiful images of their favorite travelers and black woman are often, noticeably left out. Some of these accounts include: @sheisnotlost, @dametraveler, @wearetravelgirls. These are all beautiful accounts that rarely post pictures of women of color and specifically black women. This simple example is a reflection of the larger travel industry. When you scroll through the Instagram accounts of the biggest travel brands, whether they be hotels, luggage companies or travel service providers, black people are inexplicably absent unless they are employees of the company.

I asked myself is this blatant? Are they leaving us out purposely? Or are we being excluded because they simply do not think about us, in a non malicious way. I could never answer this question and never wanted to make assumptions, but last week, the Four Seasons answered it for me, at least their property in Nevis did.

As a travel influencer, I reach out to brands prior to traveling in hopes of obtaining complimentary stays. Sometimes hotels do not respond, sometimes they tell me they cannot accommodate me, sometimes they say yes. The other day I received the below email from the Four Seasons property in Nevis.

The confusion here is that I had not given them any demographic information about my followers nor my clients. What she concluded from her review of my “profile and social accounts” was that my “demographic was not in line with their [our] brand.” The only demographic information she could have gleaned from the information I gave her was my race, she could assume my age and she could assume my gender identity. I sent an email asking her to clarify what was meant by “demographic” and received this in response.

For full transparency, the email that I received from “corporate” (I cannot share it here because of the disclosure at the bottom of the email), was two short sentences that only said they could not accommodate me, but there was no indication of “a partnership wouldn’t be the right fit at this time.”

Before I dive in, I want to note, I recognize that the Four Seasons is a private company and it is their right to determine who they want to market to and how they want to market to them. I am writing this to share with my audience how this specific company views me and the people that follow me.

Travel influencers on Instagram hop on and off of planes everyday with expensive cameras and cute outfits in tow to curate accounts that leave followers with extreme cases of wanderlust. Travel influencers all speak to the aspirational travelers. Our lifestyles are aspirational. I agree with them here. What I find interesting is “we feel that it is not reaching a luxury brand clientele which is in line with our brand.” I am not sure exactly what on my page is not appealing to the Four Seasons luxury clientele and perhaps I also am still unclear what is their clientele, but what I do know is that I am reaching people that are past guests of the Four Seasons, and I have actually sent some of my clients (I run a boutique travel firm) to the Four Seasons and other competing luxury hotel chains.

I did a poll on my Instagram account to find out if my followers are visiting the Four Seasons and what I found is that in fact 33% of respondents have stayed in Four Seasons properties in the past. And several respondents sent me DMs and shared with me the multiple properties that they have stayed at. But honestly none of this matters because they specifically noted “luxury brand clientele WHICH IS IN LINE WITH OUR BRAND.” To be clear, this is coded language to say we do not want you or anyone who follows you to visit our hotels unless it is behind closed doors. Yes, they said my demographic is not in line with their brand, but still were graceful enough to offer the opportunity to spend my money at the property.

My followers come from all around the world and represent the full age range from 13–65+. With 50% being 25–34. My followers represent countless nationalities, multiple religions, different ethnicities, and varying interests as it relates to travel, and most importantly varying income levels. I know many of my followers personally from the time I spent in NYC, to studying at the London School of Economics, to working at the United Nations, to working at the world’s number one pharmaceutical company. Beyond my actual followers on Instagram, much of the press that I do, where I offer travel tips, are aimed at luxury clientele, but apparently not those that align with the Four Seasons brand. That means the readers of Bloomberg, Conde Nast Traveler and Inc magazine are excluded because this is part of my “reach.”

I have been traveling my entire life and it has been plainly clear to me that brands do not market to me or people that look like me, despite the fact that I have many indicators of being someone interested in luxury travel. I am highly educated, have a significant amount of disposable income, am well traveled, have a Chase Sapphire Reserve, AMEX Delta Platinum, I am Diamond Medallion on Delta, to me all of these speak as indicators of a luxury traveler. I recognize that they pointed less towards me and more towards those who are following, but birds of a feather…

In publishing this article, I hope that I am shining a light on an industry that I have been participating in as a huge consumer as well as an an expert and service provider though the industry rarely considers me or people that look like me in their marketing.

I will not make this a litany of all of the wrongs that I have been dealt at the hands of the travel industry, I will save that for another post. I will not use this space to quantify the liters of tears that I have cried because of my loss of dignity in interactions with representatives in the travel space. But I want to use this as a reminder, that we are not equal. Simply because of the assumptions that someone makes about me based on the way that I appear in front of them, and nothing else. Because I dare, to travel the world. I dare to wear my hair short, going against beauty norms. Because I dare to be boldly African and refuse to dim my light. Because I dare to enter spaces where I am the only nonwhite person and demand equal treatment. Because I dare to visit luxury lodges and show my followers who come from a variety of backgrounds great options for a vacation, whether they are booking within a month or within five years. Yes, my Instagram account speaks to the aspirational traveler, it speaks to the seasoned traveler, it speaks to the luxury traveler and the budget traveler, and the fast traveler, and the slow traveler, and the new traveler and the old traveler, and the young traveler and the retired traveler and the male traveler and the female traveler, the American traveler, the African traveler, the European traveler, the Asian traveler, the Latino traveler, those who know a lot about the world and those who know very little.

I have traveled to 106 countries and territories across six continents. I have traveled to all of these countries in my same body, with my same face. I have had amazing experiences and a few shitty ones. My experiences and the things that I have learned are not only reserved for one perceived demographic. My experiences are accessible to all as long as you can see me merely as a traveler. Not a black traveler, or a female traveler or an American traveler or an African traveler or a young traveler, but simply as a traveler. One with extensive experience and the ability to translate these experiences across racial, gender, generational, and cultural boundaries.

Update: The General Manager of Four Seasons Nevis sent an apology email and corporate left the below response on my Instagram post.

Jessica Nabongo

Written by

106 of 195 UN countries and counting. | journeying to be the first black woman to travel to all of the countries in the world. | www.thecatchmeifyoucan.com

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