Last week saw the first TTG LGBT event of 2019, where members of the TTG LGBT advisory board debated how the industry can do more to attract diverse talent and challenge outdated attitudes. Tom Parry reports.
Helping businesses create transgender policies, ensuring the travel industry is attracting the best talent and holding destinations to account. These were just some of the topics debated by members of the TTG LGBT advisory board in the group’s first event of 2019.
The panel, which comprised Gary Lewis, chief executive of The Travel Network Group, Sharon Confue, head of sales UK at Thomas Cook Airlines, and Melissa Tilling, managing director of Funway Holidays, agreed creating “real, tangible guidelines” was vital in helping businesses grow their fledgling diversity policies.
Speaking at the inaugural TTG LGBT Breakfast Debate, they admitted that despite “encouraging” progress since the initiative was launched four years ago, “more actionable” ideas were needed in the sector to herald further change.
During the discussion entitled: LGBT and inclusivity: In 2019 how far has the travel industry opened its eyes to change? Tilling, who is openly transgender, cited her own experiences as she told delegates she believed practical advice could help unprepared firms cope.
“A lot of the time, small and medium-sized companies only have to deal with situations [such as gender transitioning] when it suddenly hits them in the face. Funway was a good example of that,” she said.
“I remember 11 years ago [when Tilling began her transition], there were no structured policies for our UK business. With help from our US colleagues and information from LGBT charities, I basically taught Funway how to approach things. Once that pathway is explained, it becomes more understandable and it’s an entirely different journey for both employee and employer.”
Assessing the progress of the industry in catering to those from different backgrounds in recent years, Lewis said the consortium had focused on putting diversity “front and centre”.
“People assume our industry is diverse and inclusive. If you are as a company, then great, but if you’re not promoting that and helping others to develop their culture then what’s the point?” he argued.
“We’ve made a massive effort to talk to our members and try to get that diversity conversation at the front of their minds.”
Lewis admitted that for some smaller agencies it was “difficult for them to look beyond where the next sale will come from” and subsequently more of a challenge to then dedicate time and resources to diversity strategy. However, he insisted the consortium had seen a “hugely positive response” from its membership to its diversity focus.
Meanwhile, describing improvements in its approach, Confue said specialist LGBT training was now provided as “standard practice” for all new Thomas Cook agency staff.
“I’m a very vocal LGBT ally, but there is still prejudice and misunderstandings in some communities where we have stores,” she said. “In certain areas, the thought of two men coming in together to book their honeymoon would blow the agent’s mind.
“We’re challenging those stereotypes and misconceptions to ensure agents are giving customers the best service and selling appropriate destinations too.”
In response, Lewis added: “The fact we’re even having that type of conversation and honing service proves how far we’ve come – it’s not a matter of ‘why are we doing it?’ but ‘how we can now do it better?’.”
Confue later recalled receiving “some backlash” from customers in response to Thomas Cook Airlines’ use of same-sex couples in its marketing as well as its annual sponsorship of Manchester Pride since 2015.
“We are not going to stand back and not do it, though,” she insisted.
Tilling described the value of such investment in staff welfare and how supported she felt by Funway’s reaction to her transition and the willingness to help her.
“I felt so valued [by Funway], and it was clear they wanted to keep me and I wanted to stay,” she said.
Asked by moderator and TTG editor Sophie Griffiths whether the industry was missing out on top talent due to a lack of stronger diversity policies, Lewis agreed there was “definitely a point to be raised” around the issue.
Regarding people’s attitudes towards growing diversity within the sector, Lewis said he believed there was still a “lack of awareness” as to its importance.
“You do still have a lot of ‘banter’ that’s objectionable and old-school mentalities which have to change,” he urged.
“Diversity has to be an agenda item at the top level. Every month, companies should be delivering a board report to say what they are doing to progress things.
“It’s simple – if you feel comfortable and feel you can be yourself, then you’ll be happier and perform better… it’s a basic economic argument.
“Do we have a responsibility as a group here to put some more formal guidelines together to be used as a resource? It could definitely help,” he added.
Discussing recruitment, Confue admitted Thomas Cook Airlines’ first foray into sponsorship of Manchester Pride had seen the carrier “make a bit of an error”, by using its expo stand to sell flights rather than as a platform to promote diversity.
“We’re challenging stereotypes and misconceptions to ensure agents give customers the best service”
Sharon Confue, Thomas Cook Airlines
“That was a mistake, and we learnt from that. We now have a team on our stand just to talk about us as an employer and are welcoming recruits from every area of the LGBT spectrum – we also have customers who fly with us because of our LGBT support.”
Confue also advised delegates to “simply ask questions and not be afraid”.
“Get advice from external companies about issues like transitioning – that’s what we’ve done and have been talking about developing our own [diversity] charter over the last few weeks – it’s about people, not about making money.”
Elsewhere, Tilling revealed Funway would be addressing both the social and financial aspect of supporting diversity in the lead-up to the US-based IPW trade show.
Ahead of the event in June and “with a commercial mindset”, she revealed Funway would be writing to destinations and key suppliers in the US, Mexico and the Caribbean requesting written statements on “how they embrace diversity”.
“Rather than just being told they’re doing it, we want to hear it directly from them,” she concluded.
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