Saluting the unsung 'sheroes' of the travel industry


Women's History Month is a chance to honor the unheralded contributions women have made throughout history. Nowhere is that more fitting than in the travel agency industry.

In our work, we are surrounded by extraordinary women leaders, and we have been for well over 100 years. Despite that, when you Google the history of the travel agency business, you'll find references to Thomas Cook or Walter Brownell; missing from the picture are the hundreds of female entrepreneurs who built and shaped the industry we know today.

When we think about women in leadership positions, top of mind are women in the C-suites at large travel corporations, cruise lines, hotel companies, etc. Too often we overlook the many female innovators, owners of small and medium-size businesses, who paved the way for all of us.

The vast majority of today's travel enterprises were built upon the sweat equity of many female agency owners, managers and independent travel advisors. The latest Phocuswright travel agency survey found that 77% of travel advisors identified as female, and the number of independent advisors -- entrepreneurs who own their own businesses -- is rising.

At Travel Leaders Group, our leisure business has its roots in the travel franchise "Ask Mr. Foster," established in 1888. In his book "Travel Agents: From Caravans and Clippers to the Concorde" (Universal Media, 1992) Eric Friedheim quotes Ward Foster on why he bucked the conventional wisdom of his day and started putting women in charge of his offices. After detailing the qualities that made women great managers, he concluded, "We never open an office until we have a woman to take care of it."

Becky Powell
Becky Powell

Today, women head up Travel Leaders Group's four largest travel agencies: Protravel International, Tzell Travel Group, Nexion Travel Group and Barrhead Travel. What's more, several of our brands were founded by women, including Protravel International, In the Know Experiences, Your Event Solutions, Cruise Specialists and CruCon Cruise Outlet.

Priscilla Alexander, who retired in 2014, founded Protravel in 1984. The agency now has 22 locations and close to 900 advisors, and it has held the distinction of being Virtuoso's highest-producing agency for 14 consecutive years.

Janet Olczak-Lanterman started Cruise Specialists in 1987 after sailing for many years as a registered nurse for major cruise lines. The agency, now a market leader in world cruising, has grown from a one-person operation to more than 40 dedicated professionals led by Annie Scrivanich.

Sandy Cleary, who retired last year, grew CruCon Cruise Outlet from a small online travel agency into one of the largest sellers of cruises.

Lia Batkin
Lia Batkin

Lia Batkin co-founded In the Know Experiences, an innovative travel and lifestyle consultancy known for its tailor-made experiences around the world.

And Sue Gill of Your Event Solutions grew her U.K.-based MICE business (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) from a one-person operation to a 24-person firm.

Women have had a long history of launching, managing and growing successful businesses in the travel industry, without which cruise lines, tour operators, airlines and hotel companies would not be nearly as successful as they are today.

In some cases, women-owned travel agencies -- such as Corporate Travel Planners, founded by Christy Prescott in 1991 as a one-location venture in San Antonio -- have grown to become among the leading women-owned businesses in their states.

Our admiration for the longtime travel agency founders and owners who are still running successful businesses today is heightened when we consider the transitions they have made over the decades.

Cindy Schlansky
Cindy Schlansky

These entrepreneurs evolved their roles from mere agents of the airlines issuing paper tickets to early adopters of technology (the computer reservation systems). Along the way, they weathered commission caps and cuts, implemented service fees, adapted quickly to the advent of the internet and developed an unmatched value proposition.

Their ability to reinvent their businesses time and again is no surprise to us. Women are nothing if not adaptive.

What's particularly exciting for us as longtime participants in the travel industry is to see the new respect that has emerged for the travel advisor profession and to see more and more women making a career choice to start their own businesses as independent travel advisors.

Women in the agency industry have led the way, not only creating strong enterprises, but also giving back to our industry and communities. To cite but a few examples:

• Roberta Long-Kelleher, an independent travel advisor with Protravel International, serves as president of the 41-74 Club of New York. Established in 1937, this philanthropic organization of professional women has a long history of supporting community-based charities.

• Mimi Comfort opened Cruise Holidays of Kansas City in 1988 and has been honored multiple times as an industry leader. Mimi and her husband, Mark, support orphanages in Mexico and youth groups in their community.

• Gloria Bohan, founder of Omega Travel, who grew her one-person travel office into a multiline travel company, gives back through the Dan and Gloria Bohan Foundation, providing scholarships, supporting medical research and sponsoring ASTA's Entrepreneur of the Year award.

• Angie Lepley founded Tangerine Travel of Bothell, Wash., more than 29 years ago, and she extends her company's personal touch through her Tangerine Travel Charity Foundation. In 2018, the foundation supported youth in foster care.

• Lynn Farrell, president of Foremost Travel & Tours, a branch of Tzell Travel, started her career delivering airline tickets for Foremost before starting her own agency and eventually purchasing Foremost and other agencies. For 23 years, Lynn has organized a group of volunteers to provide a Christmas Eve party for Chicago's homeless with decorations and gifts for all guests to unwrap. Last year, they served more than 170 homeless men and woman at three Chicago shelters.

Jackie Friedman
Jackie Friedman

• Our own Jackie Friedman chairs the Family Bonds Foundation, a charity that supports travel advisors and their communities.

And the list goes on and on.

So, what are we going to do to celebrate the legacy of women in the agency industry? As Serena Williams said, "The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up."

This Women's History Month, we pledge to champion and empower each other and to ensure that women in the agency industry are recognized for the important contributions they make to travel and tourism.

To all the women entrepreneurs out there who made this the greatest industry in the world, this month's for you.

Jackie Friedman is president, Nexion Travel Group; Becky Powell is president, Protravel International; Cindy Schlansky is co-president, Tzell Travel Group; and Lia Batkin is co-founder, In the Know Experiences.


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