In the fall of 2019, I was speaking with a client about creating a process for vetting prospective tour operators around equity. Her organization has a strong social justice component in their mission and wanted to ensure they were partnering with tour operators who shared their commitment. This proved challenging, as some tour operators only “talk the talk” when it comes to equity, but don’t “walk the walk.” And many don’t even “talk the talk” with no Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion statements or any mention of equity in their operations.
To help assist her in screening and vetting new tour operators, I did some research to see if an evaluative tool already existed, but I was unsatisfied with what I found.
A Gap for Small Businesses
Most equity audits are self-assessments, meant to be conducted internally based on employment data and policies. This is not information that an outsider would be able to access, and therefore not an effective screening tool for my client and nonprofits like hers.
Other benchmarks and metrics are clearly designed for large organizations. Typical metrics used in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion evaluations consist of hiring policies, leadership representation, promotion statistics, and compensation. These are irrelevant for a business whose sole employee is also the owner. Many tour operators employ less than 10 people, and a significant number of them are run by only one person.
Nonprofits that don’t conduct donor trips or work with travel companies still face this challenge – as many of them contract with consultants, event planners, grant writers, and graphic designers who are also sole operators.
For businesses that small, a different set of criteria is needed.
That’s where this tool comes in.
I designed this simple 2-page Evaluation Tool to mirror what is likely your current vetting process: Reviewing the company’s website and interviewing the owner.
This Evaluation is set up in two parts: The Talk and The Walk.
Talking the Talk
“The Talk” is a quantitative approach. This is where you will review the operators’s website to see if, and how, they have addressed equity in a public way. This could include the publication of an equity statement, diverse representation in story and imagery, and social impact initiatives such as philanthropy.
Some of what you find will be very direct and explicit. Some of it will be very nuanced. Organizations in different countries use different terms to address equity, so don’t get overly fixated on particular words.
I chose to begin this evaluation with a website review for three reasons:
1) The website is a first impression, and therefore an important communication tool that says a lot about the types of clients an operator is looking to attract.
2) Words matter. Actions matter more, but we can’t necessarily know the actions they are taking, so they need to tell us. Thus, words matter.
3) The way an organization talks about itself and its positioning within a social, cultural, and professional landscape reveals a significant amount about the world-view of its owners and founders.
Walking the Walk
Of course, how an organization presents itself and how it really operates may not be the same. It is possible for an organization to possess a well-worded equity statement while simultaneously engaging in inequitable practices. That’s why the second section is called “The Walk.” This is where you will have a conversation with the owner (or representative) to get a better sense of what they are actually doing about equity.
The first question is about ownership representation:
“Representation is important. Please tell me more about the company owner(s) and how their identities and lived experiences influence their work.”
It should be your goal to work with supplies from multiple backgrounds. I also encourage you to ask this question regardless of what you already may know about the owner based on their visual presentation or what they have publicly disclosed. There are many identities that are not readily visible.
The wording of this question is intentional. I prefer to let people self-identity and see what emerges from the conversation instead of arriving with a checklist of labels like “Latinx,” “LGBTQ,” or “Person with a disability”. We need to create space for fluidity and intersectionality, so this question is best left open-ended.
The framing is also intentional. The question begins with “Representation is important,” and ends with “how their identities and lived experiences influence their work.” This grounds the conversation in self-awareness, anchors it to a professionally relevant context, and clarifies why you are asking what could otherwise be considered a very personal question.
The remaining questions are about process. Most begin with the word “How.”
Asking the operator to describe “how” necessitates the use of a verb and requires them to move beyond generic statements of values. The goal is that they are not merely repeating their equity statements, but actually talking about processes, actions, and examples.
I recommend folding this interview into the introductory/discovery call you have with the operator. Tell them you want to add on 20 minutes to their typical call to discuss equity (or social justice or the exact terminology they use to describe it). Once you are on the call, keep it casual and feel free to rephrase the questions in your own words.
Of course, there is no single right answer, but plenty of wrong ones. If they don’t even know how to begin to answer the questions, that’s not an encouraging sign. But if they say, “You know, we’re still struggling with that,” and offer up a specific example of a past incident and how they addressed it, then that to me seems like an honest admission. We’re not looking for perfection – no one has all the solutions – but awareness coupled with the willingness to acknowledge mistakes and make changes, really goes a long way.
This is still a working document that will likely change as more organizations put it to use. If you have feedback or want to see something added or changed, please let me know.
1. Should we still use this tool to evaluate businesses owned by people of color?
The implication in this question is that this tool was designed to vet white-owned businesses and outbound travel operators based in North America, and that is not inaccurate. I had in mind the specific intention to hold white business owners accountable to the equitable policies they seek to employ. I also believe that all business owners have a responsibility to use their platform and privilege to advance justice and equity.
I strived to design prompts and questions that are applicable to all kinds of business owners, with the caveat that websites hold less prominence in different industries and locations, and that you may need to verbally reframe or contextualize the interview portion of the evaluation. For instance, the global nature of the travel industry means that many business are located in places where the dynamics of power and oppression differ from that of say, the United States. I encourage readers to be cognizant of the local dynamics, knowing that different groups will be marginalized and different lexicons exist to express that marginality.
And again, I strongly encourage you to specifically seek out tour operators run by people of color. If you lack personal connections, you should make use of the lists provided by associations, for instance Blacks in Travel & Tourism, as well as other websites highlighting Black-owned travel businesses such as:
2. What about businesses located in countries where government censorship prevents them from talking about equity?
This is indeed challenging, particularly if the government censors any discussion of its oppressive treatment of the marginalized groups within its borders. Speaking openly about such atrocities can be dangerous for individuals in that country, and we certainly don’t want to endanger anybody. It can also be very, very difficult to determine how people really feel about a given topic. On a secured conference call, I encourage you to frame the question like this:
“Our travelers/donors will likely have questions about the government’s treatment of this particular group (or a particular event or issue). Are you able to share more about how you might address those questions on our tour?”
See how far that gets you, and if it opens doors to deeper conversations. Keep in mind some conversations are only possible in person, and once trust has been established.
3. I don’t know a single company that would perform well on this evaluation. Are you sure you aren’t setting the bar too high?
The above question actually came to me in the form of a comment, but I will address it here as a question. I appreciate that this is a difficult evaluation. I do happen to personally know several travel companies who would knock this out of the park, so, no, I do not believe I have set an unattainable standard.
However, I am not the one whose standard matters. It is up to you and your organization to determine how to utilize this tool and where you will set the baseline. For that reason, I purposely do not provide recommendations for what to do with the data you gather. Simply asking the questions on this evaluation is an awareness-building and change-inspiring initiative in and of itself.
I also believe that given the large scale of social change, the qualities and processes addressed in this tool are actually quite minimal. Let me be clear: The final goal of social justice is not to have equity statements on every company’s website. The final goal is that equity statements are no longer needed because inequities no longer exist. With the eradication of inequity as the goal, the scale of the evaluation changes, and it become obvious that this tool is merely a starting point.