A dearth of women at the top

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Travel Leaders Group sponsored the Cinderella to CEO Awards. Attending on its behalf were (from left): Dina Ruden, senior vice president of public relations and communications; Michele Capaccio, COO of Protravel International; Elisa Foley, vice president of operations of Tzell Travel Group; Cindy Schlansky, co-president of Tzell Travel Group; Becky Powell, president of Protravel International; Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group; Sara Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel; Lisa Wheeler, senior vice president of operations of the Eastern region of Altour; and Randi Wexler Dukoff, owner of Nexion Travel Group affiliate Travel Well Be Well. They were joined by the event’s founder, Cary Broussard.
Travel Leaders Group sponsored the Cinderella to CEO Awards. Attending on its behalf were (from left): Dina Ruden, senior vice president of public relations and communications; Michele Capaccio, COO of Protravel International; Elisa Foley, vice president of operations of Tzell Travel Group; Cindy Schlansky, co-president of Tzell Travel Group; Becky Powell, president of Protravel International; Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group; Sara Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel; Lisa Wheeler, senior vice president of operations of the Eastern region of Altour; and Randi Wexler Dukoff, owner of Nexion Travel Group affiliate Travel Well Be Well. They were joined by the event’s founder, Cary Broussard. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

The travel industry is built largely on the backs of women, who make up the majority of today's advisors, and female leaders are increasingly visible throughout the agency and supplier communities.

Yet female leadership in the C-suite and the investment companies that own stakes in large agencies or travel companies is still lacking.

"Really, even within Travel Leaders, the women leadership that we have in place now has just really happened within the last two years," said Becky Powell, president of Protravel International, a Travel Leaders Group (TLG) company. "We've made great headway as far as Travel Leaders, but if you look at the industry overall, you're right -- the majority of large companies, travel management companies especially, are still run by men. So, how do we get the respect?"

Take Travel Weekly's annual Power List. While women leaders aren't uncommon on the list, among the top 20 agencies, only two list women in the top leadership positions: American Express Travel (No. 8) with president Audrey Hendley and Omega World Travel (No. 15) with president and CEO Gloria Bohan.

More women should be leading the agencies they power every day.

"We've got a long way to go," Powell said.

But, Cindy Schlansky, co-president of Tzell Travel Group, added, "We've got a long road behind us."

According to Phocuswright's U.S. Travel Agency Distribution Landscape 2016-2021, the average travel agent today is a woman age 55-plus working from home as an independent contractor (IC) affiliated with a host agency or consortium. Her primary bookings are leisure.

At several agencies owned by TLG, female ICs make up the vast majority of contractors. Powell estimated that women comprise from 85% to 90% of her ranks. Schlansky put that figure in the 75% to 85% range. Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group, estimates that 65% or more of her ICs are women.

I caught up with Powell, Friedman, Schlansky and several other TLG representatives at the Cinderella to CEO Awards last month in New York. The event recognizes female leaders who overcome obstacles and support other women. TLG and Carnival Cruise Line were event sponsors.

The event was founded by Cary Broussard, co-author of "From Cinderella to CEO: How to Master the 10 Lessons of Fairy Tales to Transform Your Work Life."

"These awards celebrate women and their stories," Broussard wrote in the event's program. "The obstacles and barriers they've overcome are akin to superhuman feats, and they motivate us all to be better."

In the travel industry, many of today's female leaders worked their way up to their positions, like Schlansky: "This was my gas money job in college, filing brochures," she said. An education major, she stuck with travel and has "done pretty much every job on the way up."

That mirrors Powell's path. She started in the industry as a res agent and now heads the agency, a Virtuoso top producer for years.

"If you look at a lot of men at leading companies, they entered at the management level," Powell said. "I think people are starting to see the value of knowing, from the ground up, what women can add to the positions."

Women, too, are seeking management jobs right out of college, Schlansky said.

In addition to the C-suite, Powell said, investment companies are still largely male dominated.

Advisors who are ICs already head their own companies, Friedman said. In many cases, women head the most productive Tzell, Protravel and Nexion affiliates.

"I would love to get to a place where we don't even ask this question, where it's not even an issue," Friedman said. "We're not there yet. But I think we're at a place where it's on people's radar. They consider it when they're hiring."

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