Picture: Booking.com's Arjan Dijk (provided)
LGBTQ leaders are still strikingly rare, despite the progress we have made over the past decades. There were fewer than 0.3% of Fortune 500 board directors publicly identifying as LGBTQ in 2020 - a figure that's barely improved for several years. In fact, there are now fewer LGBTQ CEOs than there were in 2018. And it begs the question: where are the LGBTQ executives?
Openly LGBTQ executives can expedite equality, challenge the status quo, and create further opportunities for others to do the same. So, it only makes sense that their presence is a key part of the jigsaw for equity and inclusion. Zoe Schulz, from myGwork, sat down to speak to one of the few visible LGBTQ executives, Arjan Dijk, Chief Marketing Officer at Booking.com about exactly this, as well as Travel Proud, their new initiative en route to revolutionise inclusion within travel.
Growing up in the East Netherlands near the German border, Arjan describes his younger self as an “awkward gay kid”. On top of this, he was also smart and, looking back, feels as though this gave him what he would describe as a “f*** off power”, the ability to brush off the fact that he always knew he was different – feeling this from a young age of four or five – and make himself feel powerful regardless.
Arjan’s father is from a working-class background, having entered the workforce at 16 years old. And his mother is one of 15 children, growing up in a Bible Belt family. All of this created a conservative environment, yet Arjan sees himself as very lucky to have always had supportive and loving parents, something that should be – but alas is not – the norm.
The 90s were a complicated time though, for LGBTQ people of all identities. And coming out at 25, Arjan explains he saw his fair share of misinformation. “In those days, as a gay man, the immediate question in the 90s was ‘are you being safe?’ because people expected you to die from HIV.”
Now, living back in his Dutch home country, after years spent in California, Arjan sports an impressive resume. With 11 years previous experience in Silicon Valley for Google, where he was the most senior LGBTQ person at the company, sharing that when it came to inclusion, he was often their go-to person. Before this, he spent eight years in the financial sector as well as at Unilever within their ice cream brands, as he jokes: “you can ask me anything about ice cream.”
Early in Arjan’s career, he was lucky enough to have LGBTQ role models to look up to, and he sees this as being fundamental in his journey. Now, coming full circle, he’s hopeful he can be a role model for someone else, while also being able to champion the visibility of other marginalised groups, so that everyone can see themselves in high positions across the company.
“When I came out, I was very confident because of my supportive environment,” Arjan says. “I had a great role model at Unilever and that's where I learned that it's super important to be able to have someone to look up to as a young person, and to look at the management of the company and say, ‘there's someone like me here.’ And I know how incredibly important role modelling is and I see that as a key role I’m now able to play at Booking.com.”
As the CMO of Booking.com, one of the world’s leading travel platforms, Arjan is part of their management team with responsibilities centring on marketing. He’s also the Executive Sponsor of their Employee Resource Group (ERG) for LGBTQ colleagues and allies, where he sees his main role as to ensure when the ERG wants to do something it isn’t blocked and, if it is, to help push through so they can succeed. It’s an invaluable group, Arjan explains, founded six years ago, that is employee-led and helps to drive inclusion for both their products and their workplace.
“I believe people have to decide themselves what they share [in the workplace], and that's a very personal decision,” says Arjan. “But they say seven questions predict if you're happy at work. One is ‘do you like your boss?’ Another is ‘do you have a best friend at work?’ And my question always is, ‘how can you have a best friend at work when you cannot be yourself?’
“And Booking.com really cares about creating an environment where you can have a best friend at work. And that means bringing your full self to work and it doesn't matter if you’re LGBTQ or who you are. And this is really embedded in our DNA, in our mission, we say we are ‘for everyone’ because that's really who we are.”
It is the mission “for everyone” that has spurred on their latest initiative, Travel Proud, which Arjan has said is the proudest moment of his career so far. “‘For everyone’ is really something super important,” he shares. “Both internally and externally, we want to be an employer for everyone and a travel platform for everyone. That means if you’re LGBTQ or whoever you are, we are a brand for you. And that’s really where the thinking behind Travel Proud has come from.”
The initiative has been launched alongside research conducted by the Booking.com team, investigating the experiences of LGBTQ travellers. The harrowing results revealed that, of over 3,000 LGBTQ participants, 65% say they have to consider their safety and wellbeing as an LGBTQ traveller when picking a destination and over half (58%) believe that travelling as part of the LGBTQ community means that some destinations cannot be visited.
On top of this, one in five (20%) have had staff presume they would need separate beds when checking in as a couple and 20% have felt the need to change their behaviour – and 16% their appearance – to avoid a negative reaction from accommodation staff. Although not all bad, with over half (57%) of LGBTQ travellers reporting they have felt welcome most of the time during their stays, it is still evident the travel industry has work to do to ensure everyone is welcome.
At Booking.com, Arjan sees it not just as a goal, but as a responsibility to change these statistics. So that in any number of years if the same questions are asked, fewer and fewer LGBTQ people will report that their identities as negatively impacting their travel experience and Travel Proud is a key part of how Booking.com will achieve this.
Travel Proud is made up of three core goals. The first is to help LGBTQ people to travel with confidence, which is why they have launched Proud Certified properties with the Travel Proud Badge. Customers can be sure that these partners are committed to providing welcoming hospitality to everyone and that they can be comfortable to show up to their destination as their full selves.
Secondly, they are not just highlighting inclusive properties but helping to create them, with their Proud Hospitality training, which will be offered to their partners so they can be sure they extend exceptional inclusive hospitality to all LGBTQ travellers.
And last, they are focussing on language. This means ensuring they use the right language with every interaction. Part of this has been a change so that you no longer need to choose a gendered title and adding a wide variety of gender options to profiles.
“I think that most people want to be able to be themselves in a very regular context. And I deliberately am not using normal. Because what is normal? But most people just want to have a good life with a partner, with a family. And the role that we [at Booking.com] need to play is that we offer people as much choice as there can be,” shares Arjan. “I don't think we should be cutting up the world into small, little boxes. We don’t need to put people in boxes based on their characteristics. I really don’t think that's how we should filter the world. And that's exactly our premise, we filter places, not people. People can decide for themselves, and we want to offer them as much choice as there can be and for them to feel reassured. Our travellers are empowered, and they should be able to use our platform to gather all the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves.
“Our recruitment team is also very focussed on being able to attract LGBTQ talent. We offer an environment for people to be themselves. So, we encourage checking out our jobs as we have some amazing ones.”
These are broad steps forwards, that could set the stage for wider change across the sector, upping the standard of travel for everyone. Arjan explains that their ERG has been fundamental in shaping what this looks like. But it hasn’t been without challenges along the way. For example, their platform is available in 43 languages, and although some are easy to swap to gender-neutral vocabulary, others prove trickier.
Yet they’re not afraid to face these challenges, and they won’t be the last to want to solve them. And when they do, they could create a blueprint to pave the way for the travel and hospitality industry. This may just be the start of Travel Proud, but it wouldn’t be what it is without the strides for equality that came first, from visible role models paving the way to determined ERGs, what may seem like isolated moments are all accumulative in wider change. We may still not have enough visible LGBTQ executives, but what Arjan and the Booking.com team are proving is that when we do, change is not isolated to just that individual, but can ricochet far and wide across a sector and beyond.
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