On International Women’s Day, female travel leaders tell us how they ended up bossing it

Female travel leaders
By Linsey McNeill
08/03/2024
Home » On International Women’s Day, female travel leaders tell us how they ended up bossing it

Four female travel leaders tell us how they rose to the top of the industry and what they’re doing to help other woman climb the ladder.

Hays Travel Chair Dame Irene Hays

Who inspired you in your career? My mum.

What was the one piece of advice you received from a woman that you’ve never forgotten? “Don’t let the way you look or your gender get in the way of what you are trying to achieve – be utterly professional and passionate about what you are doing and success will follow” – Ruth Thompson, a lawyer who went on to become CEO of British Gas Network Infrastructure Group.

Who is your travel hero?  Jo Rzymowska (former Celebrity Cruises VP & MD, EMEA and now Hays Travel Non-Executive Director).

Do you do anything specifically to empower women in your business? With five women and two men on the main Hays Travel board and 23 women and seven men on our senior leadership team we provide many examples of great role models who talk about their experience and how they have achieved what they have.

Do you think it is easier for women to succeed in the travel industry today than for previous generations? I think it is easier to get into more senior roles in the travel industry now because of previous successful women in travel.

Do you take solo trips and if so where? Yes, I take solo trips all the time – all over the place.

Barrhead Travel and Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association President Jacqueline Dobson

Who inspired you in your career: My business mentor, Sue Holloway, who worked in the advertising industry when we met. She’d worked her way up, despite being in an extremely male-dominated industry. Eventually, she set out on her own and ran one of the most successful businesses of its kind in Scotland. I feel very lucky to have had her as my mentor. 

What was the one piece of advice you received from a woman that you’ve never forgotten? “Believe in yourself and always surround yourself with great people.”

Why do you think you have been so successful? Firstly, I work with amazing people – we’re achieving great things together. Personally, I also love embracing a challenge and once I start something, I don’t tend to give up easily!

Who is your travel hero?  Jo Rzymowska. I love Jo’s passion for people, she’s been incredibly inspirational within the industry. 

Do you do anything specifically to empower women in your business? Giving women autonomy over their areas is really important and it’s something I think we do very well. I’ve also always operated and encouraged an open-door policy which helps give everyone in the business a voice and platform to make suggestions and give honest feedback. 

Do you think it is easier for women to succeed in the travel industry today than for previous generations? Yes, for the most part, it’s a different landscape than it was 20 years ago. However, there are still not enough females in senior or C-suite [top management] roles and we need to see travel businesses – particularly larger corporations – make changes to address this. 

Do you take solo trips and if so where?  I travel solo frequently for work – and as someone who never tended to travel alone, it’s been very empowering. I’d love to take a solo trip for personal travel and would use someone like G Adventures to join a group tour to meet new people and have the comfort of touring with others. 

Advantage Travel Partnership CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said

Who inspired you in your career? I have been very fortunate to have worked with some amazing people during my career and continue to do so, and feel grateful for the incredible women around me, who inspire me daily and who I know I can count on.  I am not impressed by wealth, power or status, but people who stand up for what they believe in and are not afraid to fail always inspire me.

What was the one piece of advice you received from a woman that you’ve never forgotten?  “It takes a strong vision and limitless determination to achieve the unthinkable” – Rebecca Stephens MBE, the first woman to climb the Seven Summits.

Why do you think you have been so successful?  I am still on that journey, but attributing my success to date, I put it down to a combination of hard work, continuous learning, adaptability, effective communication, resilience, focus and gratitude. And, most importantly, always making sure I have the best team around me. These qualities have shaped my approach to life and work and have enabled me to achieve many of my own personal goals to date.

Who is your travel hero? It would have to be Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He truly defines extraordinary. Learning lessons that take us beyond the limits of what may not appear possible are always so inspiring.

Do you do anything specifically to empower women in your business? Leading by example is key and with 60% of my current senior leadership team women, we walk the talk. Encouraging our women to call things out, no matter how uncomfortable they may feel – it’s the only way of getting comfortable. We have introduced flexible working – it’s all about output and not input to ensure our colleagues can manage personal life alongside work. I regularly hold ‘coffee mornings’ with a small group of people from across our group of companies and regular one-to-ones with female colleagues. Having a diverse workforce, promoting from within, providing support and encouragement have been key to our success, and understanding that ‘one size’ doesn’t fit all.

Do you think it is easier for women to succeed in the travel industry today than for previous generations? I’ve seen huge changes for women throughout my career – a female having a seat at the table of an exec board no longer raises eyebrows, but they are raised if the gender split is not balanced. I do think we have moved on somewhat and I see more women owning their story. There are many senior women in the travel industry and many more coming up through the ranks. I would like to think that women are getting the opportunities they rightly deserve – and if they are not, then that will be a failure on us all. The challenge for women today can be exacerbated by societal pressures, particularly social media depicting a world where, as a working women, you can have it all.  My experience is you simply can’t. Recognising the pressures women face, from menopause symptoms through to childcare requires an empathic employer, encouragement and flexibility, whilst also recognising that life is not a bed of roses that the glossy pictures can portray.

Do you take solo trips? At this stage in my life, no. But it sounds bliss!

InteleTravel UK & Ireland MD Tricia Handley-Hughes

Who inspired you in your career? During my retail apprenticeship, there was a male buyer who seemed ancient at the time (he was around 60 and I was 16), who taught me respect and discipline, sales skills and so much product knowledge. It was at a department store called Grant Brothers, it was so like Grace Brothers in Are you being served?!

What was the one piece of advice you received from a woman that you’ve never forgotten?  “You are you, and never underestimate your strengths. Never be afraid to challenge and maximize your talent at board level” – Sunny Crouch, OBE, served as a Director on the London Docklands Development Corporation.

Why do you think you have been so successful? Experience through the ranks in every role, so I understand the challenges faced as you perform and master the art of handling/diffusing difficulties that arise. Communication skills are key, so master this and you’ll achieve great things.

Who is your travel hero? My late husband and cruise guru Gwyn Hughes for his strategic leadership, and Jo Rzymowska for the inclusiveness and diversity conversation now widely discussed in our industry.

Do you do anything specifically to empower women in your business? I ask questions, I listen, and then advise if required. Listening is an art that some lack, so it takes practice.

Do you think it is easier for women to succeed in the travel industry today than for previous generations? In some ways, I do think it’s easier as barriers to creative ways of working have been removed and there is an acceptance that a healthy, balanced executive team performs well and there is the support for women leaders to flourish. However, there still remain the challenges for women who are parents and career women. They are usually the first point of contact should issues occur at home/school, usually the main organiser and therefore must juggle priorities on a daily basis.  Trends have changed  – but there is still a way to go!

Do you take solo trips and if so where? All the time, as I’m now a widow. India was organised with a private guide to really get under the skin of the culture. Last Christmas I visited Vietnam/Cambodia on a river cruise, and I’ve been on a Caribbean cruise, just to chill out.

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