Like too many industries, travel has long been a business dominated by men. From airlines to hotels to tour operators — it hasn’t historically been easy for women to break through travel’s glass ceiling.
But that’s changing and in a big way. More and more women are now executives at major travel brands, running their own companies and launching some of the coolest travel startups out there.
We wanted to highlight a range of badass #GirlBosses in a variety of travel companies from massive corporation to startups to more intimate mom-and-pop shops in order to show there’s more than one way to be a fabulous woman working in the travel industry.
Kate McCue, Captain at Celebrity Cruises
Kate McCue began dreaming about commanding her own cruise ship when she was just 12 years old. Little did she know that, until last year, there were no American female captains of cruise ships.
“The more someone learns about me, the broader their idea of a ‘Captain’ becomes.”
But after years of working her way up through the ranks of the big ships, McCue became that first American woman to be named a captain in 2015, taking over one of Celebrity Cruises‘ mega-ships, the Celebrity Summit.
“The more someone learns about me, the broader their idea of a ‘Captain’ becomes,” McCue said. “Luckily, I come across more opportunities than issues, but there’s a unique challenge in overcoming the stereotype of what a captain should be, i.e. what ‘he’ looks like, sounds like and even walks like.”
And some cruise guests still think the job of captain is primarily a male one and find McCue to be a pleasant surprise.
“Recently, I went snorkeling with a group of guests in Champagne Bubble Bay in Dominica and I was chatting with a woman in the water as we were getting ready to dive,” McCue said. “She asked if I would be on the cruise next week and I said, ‘I sure hope so, since I’m the captain.’ She almost choked on her snorkel!”
Luanne Calvert, Chief Marketing Officer at Virgin America
When Luanne Calvert first interviewed with Virgin America, she wasn’t sure they were going to hire her. Calvert had a decade of experience in Silicon Valley and a strong creative and quantitative background, but she’d never actually worked at an airline. But then, the Virgin brand has always been known for doing things a little different.
“I think that the fact that I came from a non-traditional background was actually an advantage for me,” said Calvert, now the Chief Marketing Officer of Virgin America.
Calvert was recently at an event in Denver for the inaugural launch of the airline’s flights from Silicon Valley to Silicon Mountain where an exec from another company complimented her on how quickly her team made decisions. She asked Calvert what she thought made her team so bold.
“I make sure they feel empowered and encouraged to be creative about trying innovative ideas,” Calvert said. “Taking risks can increase the odds of making a ‘mistake’ — which can translate into fear and stagnation – but with a team culture where fear is marginalized, you can create an environment that promotes teamwork and ultimately progress.”
Nicole Smith, Founder and CEO at Flytographer
Back in 2011, Nicole Smith was a marketing manager with Microsoft on vacation with a girlfriend in Paris. Disappointed with the quality of their selfies, she asked a local friend to snap some candid pictures of the two of them wandering the city. The photos were fabulous, and the idea for Flytographer — a startup that pairs tourists with local photographers for the photo shoot of their dreams — was born.
She launched the company in 2013 and bookings have tripled every year, with more than 350 photographers working in 175 cities.
The biggest challenge for Smith right now is building a marketplace that has never existed before.
“There’s no roadmap or blueprint to follow,” she said. “You simply have to forge a path in the fog based on your instincts, testing, and listening closely to customer and photographer feedback.”
“Travel startups fail faster than other industries; you have to enjoy the journey.”
And she has stellar advice for young and hungry female entrepreneurs who want to disrupt the travel space.
“Build genuine relationships; you will soon discover that everyone knows each other in the travel industry. If you want to create a startup, look for a problem you personally want to solve,” Smith said. “Travel startups fail faster than other industries; you have to enjoy the journey.”
Chyulu Francombe, Co-owner of Ol Malo House
When I first met Chyulu Francombe she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, carrying a toddler and running marketing and day-to-day operations for her family’s successful eco-tourism business in North Kenya.
Two years ago, Francombe and her husband Andrew started their own new adventure safari business, Ol Malo Nomad, a 180-degree diversion from the traditional jeep safari where guests rough it in the Kenyan wilderness and trek through the nomadic Samburu tribe’s mountainous rangelands.
Her job includes everything from overseeing a staff of 70 to running kitchens and meal plans, ranch administration, veterinary and first aid work; making sure the lions don’t kill the cattle and the elephants don’t destroy the garden; planning and hosting both horse and camel safaris; and feeding their 500-lb. pet pig named Sausage.
“What I love are the variety of things you have to get done. There is no hope of planning a day since it changes minute by minute. This sure isn’t your average office job,” Francombe said. “But you sleep damn well every night.”
Belinda Johnson, Chief Business Affairs and Legal Officer at Airbnb
In 2011, Belinda Johnson was searching for a new kind of job, one that she hoped would be both challenging and meaningful, with a mission-driven company.
She took one look at then-upstart home rental tech company Airbnb and knew it was a place where she could make a real difference in both the company and the global marketplace.
“My best advice to young women looking to get into both travel and tech is to put yourself out there, get out of your comfort zone and be persistent,” Johnson said.
With true grit, she asked everyone she knew for an introduction to Airbnb’s founders, wowed them with her passion, intelligence and drive, and joined the company as the first General Counsel.
Today she oversees everything from public policy efforts, community mobilization, social initiatives and the company’s engagement strategy.
“When I came on board I was essentially designing what a legal department would look like for this kind of company,” Johnson said. “Every day we are making the playbook, which can be challenging but enables our team to be creative and embrace new opportunities.”
Coni Thornburg, General Manager of Auberge Resorts Calistoga Ranch
Coni Thornburg has worked as the General Manager of Calistoga Ranch, an Auberge Resort and one of Napa Valley’s premiere properties with its very own Cabernet vineyard, for the past eight years.
She worked her way up through the ranks of the hospitality industry, starting out at the Four Season Hotels and Resorts, taking on the job of Food and Beverage Director at Aspen’s Little Nell, and then becoming a General Manager at Hotel Teatro and the famed Lodge at Pebble Beach.
General manager is a dynamic position managing the frontlines of both guest and employee operations on a daily basis — and it’s one of the most demanding jobs in the hotel industry.
Throughout her career, Thornburg balanced the equally challenging demands of being a single mom to her daughter Lindsey who is now a fashion designer in New York City.
“Lindsey and I worked hard to create our version of ‘balance.’ She was and is a source of inspiration, peace, energy and pride — my greatest success,” Thornburg said. “I have come to know that balance does not mean 50/50; it’s not that clean-cut and it’s not about ‘having it all.’ It’s about being attentive to your life and attentive to those around you.”
Caterina Fake, Founder and CEO at Findery
Caterina Fake has always been a traveler, backpacker and explorer who believes seeing the world is one of the best ways to learn and grow as a person.
“If you love traveling, travel. And you will eventually find a way to make your passion your work.”
After an auspicious career founding Flickr and working as a chairperson at Etsy, Fake founded Findery, a travel startup that allows users to annotate their own maps in order to create the world’s first completely crowd-sourced travel guide.
Fake has some of the best advice I’ve heard for young women who are afraid of getting out of their comfort zone and taking that first trip, sending their first resume or even starting their first company.
“If you love traveling, travel. And you will eventually find a way to make your passion your work,” Fake said. “At which point, it won’t seem like work at all.”
Barrie Seidenberg, CEO at Viator
These days, Viator is the go-to company for booking tours all over the world. I’ve personally used it for safaris in Africa, cooking classes in Paris, a private plane trip to Niagara Falls and a seaplane ride over Seattle. Not only are they great at what they do, but they’re also run by one very cool woman.
Barrie Seidenberg was brought on as president of Viator 11 years ago. At the helm of Viator (she has been CEO since 2008) and as a member of the TripAdvisor management team, Seidenberg has 10 folks in her inner management circle, seven of whom are also women.
“While that was not a purposeful effort, I do think it’s great,” Seidenberg said. “I enjoy a work environment with a balanced gender split, and am always surprised when an outside visitor comments on the number of women in our office. It’s something I need to remind myself to be thankful for.”
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