As a travel agent, I see black Americans traveling more

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

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

Being a travel agent is part of my destiny. I grew up in downtown New Orleans, where my siblings and I didn’t realize until later that we were poor. Our parents never told us how difficult it was, and I never knew my mother’s struggle, even when she became a single mother raising five children on her own while working as a nurse.

I just wanted to get away from my situation

As a child, I devoured 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 correspondents and I liked discovering other cultures.

I would sit outside at night, and every time I saw a plane, I would say, “My God, wherever that plane is going, just take me from here. I want to go. God answered my prayers, because every place I talked about as a child, I visited. I have visited 75 countries and countless cities in those countries.

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

I didn’t travel much in my twenties when I was married and raising my children. 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 situation – even if it’s only for a week

I started traveling in my mid thirties and am now 52. I realized when I started that I could teach others how to travel economically. I wanted to show them that you can leave your situation, even if it’s only for a week. But now my clients are doctors, teachers, and military officers, so they’re not just marginalized people. I get the most from referrals, but I’ve managed to pass some clients social media, too.

I offer payment plans, and about 98% of my customers who accept a plan stick with it. It’s motivating to say, “In six months, you’re going to be in Jamaica. Or in a year, you’ll be in Mexico. They pay a $100 deposit, which is non-refundable if they don’t book within 30 days of receiving an itinerary. If they book within those 30 days, the deposit is applied to their trip. I get my commissions from resorts and airlines, which are usually between 10% and 20% of the total trip cost.

People who only have time for 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, Maldives and Tanzania. I also have people who want to reconnect 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 destination of choice. Customers want to go where their ancestors took their last steps before boarding the slave ships.

My military clients don’t have a lot of free time, so they want their trips to be fabulous. If they go on vacation once a year, they’re 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 an integral part of my business. The most expensive trip I planned was a week-long trip to Tanzania, which cost $13,000 for one person. I would say the average luxury trip starts at around $9,000 per person.

There has been a change in the way we view travel

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

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

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