Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Rahiem Johnson
Tray Table Seat Back Redefines What Black Travel Communities Look Like
Travel content creator and consultant Rahiem Johnson, 36, didn’t experience his first flight until he was 21 years old. He hadn’t grown up taking summer trips with family and the television glaring in his Philadelphia childhood home rarely showed images of Black people vacationing. So traveling the world seemed out of reach.
Today, his company Tray Table Seat Back, is encouraging African-Americans from all walks of life to venture out and travel the world. A Black travel community, Tray Table Seat Back has a unique approach to tourism and specifically caters to the working class citizen to make their dreams of traveling internationally a reality without breaking the bank. Since its creation in 2017, the company has taken more than 300 travelers to 15 countries including South Africa, Mexico, Ibiza, and Botswana.
“When we think about travel, we forget about the working class American who may not be able to do a luxury vacation and spend five or six thousand dollars,” Johnson said. “But the reality is to travel, you don’t have to be rich.”
Johnson learned this first hand back when he was working full-time in a psych hospital in 2015. He realized he was tired and needed more balance in his life. With little direction but a clear goal, Johnson grabbed a composite notebook and jotted down 10 countries he wanted to visit in the upcoming years.
“I said, you know what, I am going to work and I am going to find a work-life balance and I’m going to start traveling,” he said.
His first international trip landed him in the Dominican Republic where he fell in love with the Caribbean food, the local people, and the culture. Although he spent time at the resort, Johnson was drawn to the local life and began to have eye-opening experiences as he learned more about rich cultures and lifestyles outside of living in the US.
“Everything that I’ve known and everything that I’ve become accustomed to, life in DR was completely different than that,” he said.
Hypnotized by the landscape and the people, Johnson returned to the Dominican Republic two more times before deciding to explore more international places. What he began to notice was that not only was the DR different from the US, but every place was. The streets were cleaner, there was less violence, and the way he was treated as a Black man had completely shifted.
“As a Black man, I also started to feel like these countries would welcome us with open arms; there was a safety that I felt,” he said. “All these years, I’d felt America was the greatest country in the world and, that when you went to these other countries, it wouldn’t be safe. And it was the complete opposite.”
Since his first international trip in 2015, Johnson has visited over 50 countries. However, as he explored the world, he noticed there weren’t too many people who looked like him in these different places. Every time he would see other Black travelers, they’d both light up with excitement or give the head nod of solidarity. But those moments were few and in between.
With its name inspired by the last announcement made on board before a flight takes off, Tray Table Seat Back was created to remove the stigma that Black people don’t travel and to empower people of color to take their travel desires into their own hands.
“Instead of always going into a space where we have to conform and we have to make other people comfortable, we make our own table where people can come and be themselves and we can fully vibe out as Black people and show people we are valuable customers in the travel world just like people who are not Black,” he said.
Over the past few years, many Black travel communities have emerged solely with the purpose of uniting and inspiring more travel among people of color. However, what differentiates Tray Table Seat Back from the rest is their dedication to the working-class Black American to ensure they have access to international travel opportunities without luxury prices. In addition to announcing trips up to six months in advance and offering monthly payment plans, Tray Table Seat Back is one of the only travel communities that include flights in their packages. Johnson said he wanted to appeal to the underserved demographics within the tourism industry to ensure everyone had the same opportunities to see the world.
“For me, I think about the everyday working Joe; I think about myself,” he said. “And when I created this company I wanted to be mindful of all of those things…and make sure we were making the price reasonable. We understand that we’re a business, but understanding that our goal is to get more Black people out there traveling and our goal is not to make all this money overcharging people when we don’t have to.”
Eighty percent of the travelers on group trips with Tray Table Seat Back are new guests with the rest being returning members. The community has multiple international, group excursions coming up including trips to Bali, Greece, and South Africa. The more people Johnson can get on his trips, the more Black people he can inspire to travel and explore the unknown. He hopes this inspiration trickles down to the mainstream travel and tourism industry and motivates them to use more images of people of color in their marketing.
“What tourism companies are missing, is that a big part of the travel market is working-class Black Americans,” he said. “So actually, they are doing themselves a disservice by not targeting that market.”
While the tourism and travel industry has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Johnson is hopeful that his company is the beginning of a much-needed change. His goal is to show young Black boys and girls that there is more to the world outside of their neighborhoods and that they are deserving of seeing each and every corner of it.
“Through you doing it, it allows someone else to realize it’s possible,” he said. “I like to say that visibility creates believability.”
With his company and his curated content inspiring more people of color to travel, Johnson believes this is just the beginning of the evolution of Black people in the tourism industry. Whether traveling state to state or overseas, there is strength in encouraging more conversations about diversity and inclusion in travel and tourism. He hopes Tray Table Seat Back is involved in this conversation and knows that as more people journey out, the industry will begin to see the true power of the Black traveler.
“Even though we’re underrepresented, us traveling lets people know we’re here,” he said. “We’re valuable customers, we have money to spend, and we’re here.”