Alessandra has over 20 years’ experience in the travel industry, starting in 1995 as a tourism trainee at the European Commission in Brussels. She progressed throughout the European travel and tourism industry, eventually deciding to marry her love of travel with inspiring and empowering women.
Alessandra took time out of her busy schedule to speak with Sojern on the state of the industry – where we are and where we are going.
What inspired you to pursue the development of women in leadership roles in travel?
I was working for the Tourism Society board at KPMG in 2003, and I was given the opportunity to lead the gender portfolio. Working at a big firm made me quite aware of male-dominated environments. So, I convinced KPMG to sponsor some research around the ‘glass ceiling’ and women in travel employment. As a part of this research, I interviewed many women in travel, including those in senior positions, the likes of Sue Biggs at Kuoni and Martha Lane Fox at Lastminute.com .
They identified, really for me, the fact that while the industry was quite generous with product and technical training, what the women were missing out on was the mentoring, coaching, and networking opportunities.
First of all, there was a need to educate the industry about gender. Secondly, there was an opportunity to launch some kind of platform that was dedicated to support these women in achieving more senior leadership roles in travel and tourism. That’s how the whole venture began.
What are the challenges in reaching a gender parity at a senior level?
In order to have women in senior leadership roles, you need to have a pipeline. So while travel and tourism has no issue in attracting women, you find that, as is the case for other sectors, the industry is quite pyramid shaped. When I first started looking at this issue, women in mid-level positions tended to fall off the pyramid because they couldn’t progress.
If they had children, it was very hard to go back, ‘onboard’ again and then progress. I remember women telling me things like “my employer would rather make me redundant than have me part time”, “I have no flexibility”, “I can’t afford the childcare”, or “my employer won’t allow me to work from home a day a week”.
This was over 12 years ago. In those days, I think that feeling of being stuck in the middle meant that the women who were really strong often left the corporate arena to start their own company. That, or were snapped up by other sectors.
How have you seen this evolve over time?
The situation is changing. The pipeline, managing talent in the right way, making sure that you are recruiting from a diverse base, that you are also giving the opportunity for more flexibility and part-time positions, job sharing, all of this, that wasn’t as common 10 or 15 years ago.
Things have evolved because you can see more women in senior positions. What has changed especially is the awareness in the industry. When I started to talk about these issues, people looked at me like I was from another planet. There was a feeling that women had equality and these weren’t problems. But over the last 10 years, not only the travel industry but across the board, there has been so much talk about diversity and its importance.
In your opinion, is travel more or less equipped to deal with these challenges?
Every industry feels that their challenges are unique. I think there are some specific features that work for and against the travel industry, and travel also shares some challenges with other sectors.
A positive example is that the hotel industry is increasingly catering to the needs of female business travelers. But the other thing I find is that travel is a relatively small industry. People change companies, but they don’t go too far. And therefore, you have clique-y situations where people recruit the people they have worked with and like. There is the tendency of recruiting from within the industry, so women who are from outside find it quite hard to get their foot in the door. That can sometimes create difficulties, not just for women but also for men.
How has the women in travel landscape changed since your career began?
Because there is much more support across the board, I think some of the challenges 10-15 years ago are more the norm now. Also I think that women are better informed and can better negotiate as there’s been a lot more written about it than back then.
There are still challenges that women are faced with, issues with self confidence, the ‘imposter syndrome’, negotiation skills and the lack of networking opportunities compared with men. There is also the simple fact that women generally still have to carry the majority of the demands at home. So they can’t always go on to the pub or the golf course. And that’s the reality.
What unique insights do women bring to the table, specifically when it comes to travel?
When it comes to family holidays, women hold a great deal of the decision making. Therefore, you need women working in travel and tourism in order to reflect the view of their customers and their audience.
At a board level, women tend to bring a more collaborative and nurturing approach to working and to work life. They might point out or vocalize issues that men may not necessarily spot.
Can you share some examples of successful programs or other progress you’ve seen over your career regarding women in travel?
I cofounded Shine in 2004, dedicated to supporting women working in travel and tourism. We won funds from the European Social Fund for a small program. Then then rolled out a series of programs funded by the Regional Development Agency. There, we upskilled and mentored team leaders and supervisors. We had hundreds of women coming through. Many were promoted to management level roles through our program.
I also cofounded the Shine Awards, to showcase successful women in travel and tourism and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The Shine Awards ran for six years before they were taken over by People 1st, the sector skills council. The awards continue today! We still showcase an incredible number of women in travel for their contribution to the industry.
What are some things that men can do to encourage a holistic approach to increasing women’s representation at senior levels in travel?
There is an enormous amount that men can do. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. There can be unconscious biases at work that are revealed in little comments here and there. They can impact women and how they feel about their position at work.
The other thing is to think broadly when it comes to recruiting. They can put pressure, for example, on executive recruitment agencies, to have women not just on the long list, but also to make sure that women are present on the short list when it comes to hiring for senior roles.
Men can also give women in travel the opportunity to be in the spotlight. I go to so many conferences where, still, the people on stage are mostly men. I think, you must have a women or two in the management layer just beneath you who can do just as good a job!
Then of course, looking at the things that could prevent any woman from walking into that company and having a great career. Things like assessing the company’s position on things like work flexibility, childcare and so on.
Have you found certain subsets of travel to have a better approach to developing more women in leadership roles (e.g., hotels vs airlines)?
I think it’s more about size of the company which impacts the available resources. At the smaller end of the sector, there tends to be a lot of family businesses. Those are quite hard to break into. There can be an attitude of having to work your way up. And that may prevent opportunities for women if they are coming from the outside. On the flip side, I know that several large hotel chains have specific female leadership programs. I’m sure it’s the same for some of the large tour operators and suppliers.
What have been your favorite vacation spots?
Two years ago I went to Thailand and I absolutely loved it. It was a family holiday with two other families from Australia, so Thailand was a half-way meeting point. We travelled to three different places and I loved them all. But I must say that Chiang Mai is absolutely stunning. I loved the creativity. There are so many different designs on silver and wood, and handicrafts were really creative and unique. So, I loved Thailand. And of course being Italian, I love the whole of Italy.