The travel industry is overwhelmingly female, with an estimated 70 percent of the workforce women. But at the top it’s still mostly male dominated, although that’s changing and this list is the 50 most powerful and influential women in the business.
These are the powerhouses, the visionaries, pragmatists and romantics, the message shapers and the idealists, the trailblazers who proved conventional wisdom to be neither. Their common denominator is they all worked very, very hard and believed in themselves and refused to be held back. And one senses none of them are finished yet.
What do they see as the future of travel, a future they are instrumental in shaping? What’s their advice for women who want to be up there with them?
Well, let them tell you.
Bob Guccione, Jr.
1 Lindsay Nelson, Chief Experience Officer & Chief Brand Officer, Tripadvisor
At Tripadvisor, which by some metrics is the largest travel company in the world (it gets approximately half a billion visitors a month, so we’ll start with that), “experience” is everything, because other than that the product is, essentially, connecting electrons. And Lindsay Nelson is the person who is in charge of the experience.
“Travel unlocks the good in each of us. It’s why travelers grow more compassionate with every trip, more daring with each new dish they try, and more open when they meet someone on the road. And it’s why travelers help other travelers — sharing their knowledge and experiences with one another. This is the DNA that defined Tripadvisor from day one, over 20 years ago,” Lindsay explains.
Her remit at the company is massive: she is responsible for brand and product marketing and design, advertising, communications, membership and loyalty programs, and user experience and general innovation on the platform. She also oversees Tripadvisor’s expanding media business and, apparently, has been charged with developing an entrepreneurial new ventures division, that will create and perhaps acquire company extensions. There are people who run countries who have less to do, and less people to worry about.
She is a relatively new hire, brought in in November 2018 to be President, Core Experience, from Vox Media, where she had been in charge of marketing and “commercial efforts.” She was promoted this January to her current position.
We met at Tripadvisor’s very cool world headquarters just outside Boston.
Is there a point when the spontaneous thrill and mystique of travel can become choked by too many reviews and recommendations?
It’s important to remember that people have different levels of travel experience, risk tolerance and financial cushions. A person with many passport stamps likely has a higher degree of comfort leaving certain parts of a vacation to chance; if you take one vacation a year or have a family member with accessibility needs, it’s not realistic to be unprepared.
The good news is that travel planning is a choose your own adventure: from full service trip design, to DYI discovery on Tripadvisor through forums and reviews, or good old fashioned, spontaneous in real life discovery.
What do you see as the future of the travel business? What will be the next big trend?
Today we’re digitally connected, borders are more open, and low cost carriers have made travel much more affordable. And while this is largely positive for the economy, the act of travel can have both positive and negative impact. Last year, after Justin Bieber made a music video featuring a beautiful canyon in Iceland, tourism skyrocketed in the region to a level where the government had to close the area to tourists. Overtourism can create a devastating level of pressure on a community’s natural resources when an influx of travelers suddenly arrive, camera phone in hand.
From a positive perspective we can also use our travel dollars for good by going to and therefore investing in places dependent on tourism that have been recently affected by natural disasters or crisis.
What is the most beautiful, special place you’ve ever gone to? What’s your favorite hotel in the world?
Marrakech, Morocco, which I loved so much I married there. My favorite hotel in the United States is Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California. Outside the U.S., I’m in love with Raas Devigarh, as well as their property in Jodhpur.
If you were suddenly in charge of a major airline, what would you change to make air travel more enjoyable, because it isn’t very enjoyable right now.
I would give gate agents the ability to text passengers directly, ensuring any traveler who might be running late can make their flight if the stars align. Wouldn’t it be nice if a gate agent could help you speed through security or hold the door [at the gate] open if they expect idle time on the tarmac? And if you aren’t going to make it, they can give up standby seats much sooner. If I’m getting greedy, I have yet to be on a flight anywhere in my world, in any class of service, that serves a legitimately good cup of coffee.
You were brought in to create a better experience for the Tripadvisor visitor. What does that entail?
It’s imperative we don’t lose sight of the thing people love us for: honest, authentic perspectives of real travelers who care about the same idiosyncratic details that you do. In the future, we need to make it easier to tell Tripadvisor what your needs and expectations are for a given trip, so we can more easily and quickly connect you to recommendations from people like you.
Why aren’t there more women in top positions at big travel companies?
One of the biggest challenges is the lack of women in the executive pipeline. Travel is an industry where people stay for a long period of time. This leads to a sea of sameness, across both ideas and representation. Unfortunately this is not an issue exclusive to travel. We see a lack of diversity at the top spots in most industries’ leading companies.
Let me turn this question on its head, and make a call to action for fellow leaders globally: You have the power to be an ally and build towards a more diverse management team. But it won’t happen overnight. We need to support non-incumbents as they rise to unfamiliar ranks and into critical senior positions. This includes women and people of color. Without the confidence and mentorship at critical career junctures, it’s unlikely we’ll eventually change the ranks all the way to board levels.
You’ve reached a mountaintop in the business, what’s your advice to other women trying to break through the glass ceiling?
My advice is to take chances, be bold and have a high risk tolerance which can yield outsized impact. Don’t forget to use your voice and be heard. Practically speaking, invest as early as possible into becoming a strong public speaker. Executive presence can be learned, and it will pay dividends regardless of whether you ever speak to a group of strangers from a stage.
2 Jane Jie Sun, CEO of Trip.com
Born in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 1976, although enigmatically she won’t say when, Sun was among the first students Deng Xiaoping permitted to study abroad, which is how she wound up at the University of Florida and from there Silicon Valley. When the dotcom bust hit in 2000, she was offered a job as the first CTO of the then startup Alibaba, and returned to China. In 2005 she joined Ctrip (recently renamed Trip.com), China’s largest online travel agency and second largest in the world, as CFO. She tells stories of going to Japan for meetings and men not even shaking her hand, assuming she was someone’s secretary, and of being asked at an entrepreneur’s dinner in Silicon Valley where her husband was, as if she couldn’t have been there except as a spouse.
This stuck with her and when she became CEO of the company (making her one of very few women to head a major corporation in China) she was determined to do more for women in the workplace. Pregnant employees get free taxi service and a gift of 800 yuan upon giving birth, and 3,000 yuan towards the child’s education fund. And for women who are unsure when to become mothers, Trip.com offers them free egg freezing. Under Sun, Trip.com has grown to a more than 25 billion dollar company and employs over 33,000 people. It has branched out into international car rental and made acquisitions and, for perspective, in total corporate revenues, is bigger than TripAdvisor and Expedia. Just recently, in the wake of the coronavirus devastating Trip.com’s business, she stopped taking her salary, as a gesture of slidarity with the struggling company.
Sun has addressed the cultural issues she thinks holds women back from achieving more top positions in the workplace. “First, as mothers we take a lot of responsibility for raising children,” she told South China Morning Post in 2018. “And, being a wife, caring for the home is naturally on your shoulders. So lots of women wonder whether they can balance work and family, and they give up on their careers. Second, society still has a lot of bias against women. We must fight for equality.”
3 Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises
“People will be surprised to hear this, but I got into the travel industry completely by accident,” Lutoff-Perlo shared with us. In December 2014, she became the first (and only) woman to lead one of Royal Caribbean’s cruise line brands. While her career was floundering in the early 1980s, she checked the Help Wanted section of the Boston Globe and saw an ad for a cruise sales person for the largest travel company in New England. She landed the job and just a year later, started working for Royal Caribbean. “I believe that life is filled with serendipitous moments that happen that you don’t understand at the time but become very clear as you reflect back on them. And that’s how I feel about me finding the travel business.”
One of Lutoff-Perlo’s first actions as President of Celebrity Cruises was to hire Captain Kate McCue, the company’s first American female captain of a cruise ship, and she takes a thoughtful approach in her business decisions to promote women in the cruise industry. “Like every industry, the percentages are still too low. I always say that it’s quite troubling that women make up slightly more than 50% of the population yet are so underrepresented in political office and heads of companies. But we have to keep going. That’s the only way it will change. Our industry should over index with women leading big travel companies, given the percentage of women in the workforce.”
Early in her career, she didn’t aspire to soaring to her position, and says she limited her aspirations. “Women have to see themselves in senior leadership roles or they will never get there. That’s one of the reasons I am so committed to bringing other women along with me. Only 2% of the mariners in the world are women. When I came into this position at Celebrity a little over five years ago, only 3% of our mariners were women. Today almost 25% are. And we aren’t finished.”
How will the coronavirus threat impact cruising? It’s impacting the entire travel industry. Not just cruise. But I have been in this business for 35 years. And I have experienced enough to know “this too shall pass” and the industry will be stronger than ever in short order. What’s your advice to other women trying to break through the glass ceiling? “One of my all time favorite quotes is ‘teach your daughters less about fitting into the glass slipper and more about shattering the glass ceiling’. My advice to women is to not get discouraged. Believe in yourself and continue to do the things it takes to achieve what you want.”
Being the President of one of the most luxurious cruise lines in the world has its travel benefits, and Lutoff-Perlo’s favorite experiences are scattered all over the world. She’s descended into a volcano in Iceland, walked The Great Wall of China, swam in the Dead Sea and gone dog sledding in Alaska. The most special place on Earth to her? “The Galapagos. The natural habitat and wildlife you will only see there is truly special.”
4 Joanna Geraghty, President and CEO of JetBlue
When recently awarded with the United Service Organizations (USO) of Metropolitan New York’s 48th “Woman of the Year Award,” Joanna said of JetBlue, an airline frequently voted passengers’ favorite: “First, we both strive to make a positive impact on all those who are traveling, whether going to, or coming from home. The second is a profound desire, a yearning almost, to be of service to others.”
One of the few C-Suite women at airlines, Joanna (an attorney) joined JetBlue in 2005 as a vice president, handling litigation and regulatory business for the airline, eventually becoming EVP for Customer Experience. She was named President and COO in 2018.
5 Kellyn Smith Kenny, Chief Marketing Officer, Hilton
There are almost 6000 Hilton hotels and resorts around the world and although it’s not the world’s biggest hotel chain, it is the world’s most legendary. Partly because, at 101, it’s probably the world’s oldest, starting with a Texas boomtown hotel, the Mobley in Cisco, in 1919. In many ingrained ways our perception of a hotel chain is Hilton, greatly because founder Conrad really pioneered the concept.
But that, and its age, can be a double edged sword, as in “old news”, especially in this exponentially expanding era of hip, design-y and high-tech boutique hospitality. But perhaps no one person in the now massive, globally sprawling Hilton empire of 15 different brands in 100-plus countries, is more responsible for not allowing that to happen than Kellyn Smith Kenny, who is in charge of branding and messaging. She has led keeping the perception of the group as fresh and innovative, and responsive to modern traveler’s expectations.
“We are sitting at the epicenter of a really cool industry that has all these dynamics and forces around it that’s forcing us to innovate in service of the customer,” Smith Kenny told Variety. She says her inate love of travel was first fostered by her professional baseball playing father, who was constantly traveling the US to play, and later bought an around-the-world plane ticket which he pretty much exhausted. “I remember hearing stories about what travel meant to him, and how it opened his mind, opened his perspective, and helped him think about his place in the world,” she told Conde Nast Traveler in an interview.
Kellyn came from Uber, where she had been VP of marketing. At Hilton she immediately set about opening up opportunities for other women to grow in the company, which now has more senior female executives than it has ever had. She also stresses that it’s important to let women hotel guests know they are being specifically thought of, “not just as the person who gets the second key, but as the decision-maker,” she says.