As a Travel Agent, I See Black Americans Traveling More

  • As a child, I wanted to know how other people lived and get away from my own situation.
  • Now I help others travel affordably in order to leave their worries behind, even for a week.
  • This is Laura Smith’s story as told to writer Jamie Killin.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Laura Smith, a travel agent based in North Carolina. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Being a travel agent is part of my destiny. I grew up in inner-city New Orleans, where my siblings and I did not realize that we were impoverished until later. Our parents never told us how hard it was, and I never knew my mom’s struggle, even when she became a single mom raising five children on her own while she worked as a nurse. 

I just wanted to get away from my situation

As a kid, I used to devour 10 to 20 books a week. I wanted to know how other people lived, because I just wanted to get away from my situation. I read a lot of travel books, I had pen pals, and I enjoyed learning about other cultures. 

I would sit outside at night, and every time I saw a plane, I’d say, “God, wherever that plane is going, just take me away from here. I want to leave.” God answered my prayers, because every place I talked about as a child, I’ve visited. I’ve been to 75 countries and countless cities within those countries. 

I take everything I can from each destination and love learning about a country’s food and culture. As Americans, we have so much, and it’s important to see how other cultures thrive with much less. Travel is the best education.

I didn’t travel a lot in my 20s when I was married and raising my kids. We were a military family; now my eldest son is a commander at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and I find a lot of my clients through him. 

You can leave your circumstances — even if it’s just for a week

I started traveling in my mid-30s, and now I’m 52. I realized when I started that I could teach others how to travel economically. I wanted to show them you can leave your circumstances — even if it’s just for a week. But now my clients are doctors, schoolteachers, and military officers, so it’s not just marginalized people. I get most through referrals, but I’ve gotten some clients through social media, too. 

I offer payment plans, and about 98% of my clients who take on a plan, fulfill it. It’s motivating to say, “Six months from now, you’re going to be in Jamaica. Or a year from now, you’re going to be in Mexico.” They pay a $100 deposit, which is nonrefundable if they don’t book within 30 days after receiving an itinerary. If they book within those 30 days, the deposit goes toward their trip. I get my commissions from resorts and airlines, which are usually between 10% and 20% of the trip’s total cost. 

People with time for only one trip a year want it to be fabulous

Millennials want to go to Jamaica and Mexico, while my older clients want to go to Dubai, the Maldives, and Tanzania. I also have people who want to get in touch with their roots and visit Africa. I think the Black Lives Matter movement has people wanting to know who they are and where they come from. Ghana has become a top destination. Clients want to go where their ancestors took their last steps before getting on slave ships. 

My military clients don’t get a lot of time off, so they want their trips to be fabulous. If they’re going on one vacation a year, they’re going to make it worth it — they want butler service, they want the spa by the waterfall, and they want destinations that will blow up their Instagram. 

Luxury travel is a big part of my business. The most expensive trip I’ve planned was for a one-week stay in Tanzania, which cost $13,000 for one person. I’d say the average luxury trip starts around $9,000 a person. 

There’s been a shift in how we view travel

In my opinion, it’s vital and essential for travel leaders and executives to understand the needs, behaviors, and concerns of underrepresented travel communities. Black Americans, for instance, spent an estimated $109.4 billion on leisure travel in 2019, according to a travel, tourism, and hospitality market-research firm. Those dollars are powerful but, unfortunately, under-recognized.

But that’s starting to change. There’s been a much-needed shift toward understanding how we view the world of travel. And with fewer concerns around COVID-19, more people are engaging in what I call revenge travel. People realize they only have one life, and they want to make the most of it.

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