Black & Abroad is the Atlanta-based brainchild of Kent Johnson and Eric Martin. Founded in April 2015, the two men identified a need for travel companies to cater to the needs of Black people but also to democratize the luxury experience and for Black people “to tap into a sense of pride when doing so.” So they bootstrapped the company and have grown their enterprise to include more than 100 countries and across every continent, making it a point to partner with Black-owned businesses in those locations, too.
Johnson and Martin have been invited to the United Nations, companies like Mastercard and Facebook, and other organizations around the world to discuss the need for authentic and organic representation of the Black community in media.
Two years after their wildly successful “Go Back to Africa” campaign, Black & Abroad released “The Black Elevation Map” this past February. The tool assists Black domestic travelers with 12 curated city guides and 10 national guides to learn about everything ranging from Black-owned wineries (“Melanin Vines”) to notable start-up companies (“Black Silicon Valley”) to restaurants that fueled the Civil Rights Movement (“Civil Bites”).
Johnson and Martin sat with CASSIUSLife to talk about the pandemic’s effect on travel altogether, normalizing the ideas of Black excellence and the future of Black luxury travel for 2022.
CASSIUSLife: What inspired the development of the Black Elevation Map, and how does a traveler use it to enhance the experience?
Eric Martin: Back in 2020, when the pandemic was at an all-time high, we obviously weren’t able to travel. Nobody knew anything about the virus at the time, so we were all on lockdown. A McKinsey study came out around that time that [highlighted the disproportionate percentage] of Black businesses, including brick-and-mortar, that had to close their doors as a result. Nearly half of small Black businesses were shutting their doors, and we were one of them. But luckily, we didn’t have a brick-and-mortar; we were able to operate digitally.
So we asked, “How can we use the theme of travel to help solve the problem — maybe not in its entirety — but at least set up some type of “train track” for recovery to follow?
And so we came up with the Black Elevation Map. We said that we were going to use Google and Yelp because, around that time, you were able to self-identify as a Black-owned business. So we [used them] as a source for all of the Black-owned businesses here in the U.S., and to not only encourage domestic travel but also encourage patronage to a lot of our Black landmarks as well, like museums, historic sites, restaurants, things of that nature. So there are over 30,000 businesses on the map, black businesses on the map.
But we also wanted to include places that were sacred to us, that we can just go and explore. It promotes travel by allowing our people to see the heights of our culture. And it also allows our people to go and create and curate their own itineraries that they can use to share some of their favorite places, not only for themselves but with their friends and family.
So this is a project designed to try to allow us to experience our own businesses in a way that has never been done before.
CASSIUSLife: What is the importance of Black people embracing the idea of luxury travel, both domestically and internationally?
Kent Johnson: I think we deserve seeing things modeled for us, [which] makes things that much more accessible. We are inspired by things that look like they are attainable to us. So if we see other people having these experiences that we thought were outside of our access, all of a sudden, it becomes that much more attainable, that much more accessible.
So the more representation that we’re able to provide in media where people actually see someone in their skin tone, someone from their neighborhood, someone from what is similar to their background having these experiences, it just makes it that much more normal.
We always talk about Black excellence, right. But I’m all about Black normalization, too. Making things that didn’t seem like it was a part of the Black experience [be seen as] that much more of the Black experience.
Because the truth of the matter is that Black people were always having these luxury experiences, it’s just they weren’t given the place to show and display them. Now that we have social media, those walls have really kind of been taken down as far as what kind of media we can choose to see or allow to be fed to us.
So the more opportunity we put out there for people to see themselves in these luxury situations, the more it becomes normal. And that’s what we want. We want people to feel like it’s just a thing that you do. It’s a thing that you can do and make it accessible to everybody.
CASSIUSLife: What are some of the misconceptions and hurdles you’ve faced from the Black community, both within and outside of the diaspora, when it comes to the idea of luxury travel?
Kent Johnson: If we start wider and look at the diaspora when we first started out, and even after we had the big success of the “Go Back to Africa” campaign, a lot of tourism boards within the continent of Africa did not see a tangible value in marketing directly to Black consumers. And we thought that we would have had the easiest of those conversations on the continent! Saying, “Hey, there are Black Americans or Black citizens of the world who would benefit from marketing efforts that tapped into them directly,” and they just didn’t see it.
And it wasn’t completely their fault. It was a breaking of tradition for them. They knew to spend the majority of their dollars for European countries to come to destinations in Africa, for the colonizers to visit home. [They already had a predetermined] mindset when it came to allocating tourism dollars.
We applied to countries like Ghana, which really were the vanguard for saying, “Hey, we’re doing a campaign that is for and completely dedicated to Black travelers coming to Ghana.” And that was with the “Year of Return” in 2019. They set a precedent that so many other countries are now trying to mimic, even those in the Caribbean.
Barbados was doing a similar campaign, where they invited people in the diaspora to come visit them as well. But that Ghana campaign proved to be a major success for the country, and it still resonates [to this day]. There are people who are making trips there now because of all of the pictures, the videos, the experiences that they saw from their neighbors next door, celebrities like Colin Kaepernick and Steve Harvey, and the other groups of celebrities that went over to kick off the “Year of Return.”
So you see those experiments prove successful every time. And it’s not just in travel: we see it in media, where they’re like, “Oh, diverse movies need more money,” but yet we still see the primarily white cast. We still see marketing centered around the White experience, even though time and time again they are reminded that authentically advertising to other experiences in the world will prove to make more money for everybody.
Change is hard for folks. [But] it’s slowly starting to change, though. We’re thankful for that.
CASSIUSLife: Lastly, what do you foresee as the future of Black luxury travel and also for Black & Abroad?
Eric Martin: Well, for luxury travel, based on the numbers from this year, the theme is supposed to be to “go big” this summer. More people are working from home and working from their laptops. A lot of people are planning to do luxury travel but on a different level: not just visit the destination, but stay there.
Typically [a stay would have been for] a week, but now it’s more [for] like three weeks, where people are planning to go out and enjoy destinations. Traveling in a pandemic, [there are] obviously a lot of boxes to check. You’ve got [thousands of] health and travel restrictions in place. So once you get to the destination, you’re going to fully enjoy it and embrace it.
I do anticipate travel to be a lot more meaningful as well, and that’s because of all this pent-up “travel aggression,” you’re going to go somewhere that means something.
Kent Johnson: Yeah, 100%. I think people are realizing that time is really the biggest luxury. Having money and being able to have that five star experience is one thing, but time is the biggest luxury. Because if you have the ability to stay places for weeks since you work remotely versus “I can only be down here for three days, and I’ve gotta rush and get right back?”
It’s the ability to be down there for an extended period of time that really is the true luxury and [future of] luxury travel in 2022.