Five mavens of group tourism discuss how they emerged in the industry and blossomed intoinfluential women in travel
Each day, the landscape shifts as women in power carve new paths, creating foundations for professionals and entrepreneurs worldwide. But there is still a looming imbalance that infiltrates the industry.
A striking fact from the World Economic Forum highlights the path ahead: Despite women dominating the tourism workforce, a mere 10% ascend to CEO roles, and a modest 15% secure senior management positions.
Unfurling from the intricate threads of the tourism industry’s story, the undeniable impact of these five influential women commands the spotlight. Their stories sculpt the very essence of strength and leadership as they weave their empowerment into the travel industry’s vibrant fabric.
Amy Larsen, Industry Relations Manager, Wyoming Office of Tourism
“I realized early on that travel does something to people.”
For 20 years, Amy found joy in taking youth and young adults from the Catholic church on pilgrimages and group trips. “I saw the absolute transformative power of travel.”
As a Wyoming native, she was in awe that people came to her backyard to visit places like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone. The realization led her to conclude that “if there was something here they wanted to see, I bet there was something where they lived I wanted to see too.”
The profound impact led her to earn a Master’s in Tourism Management and a graduate certificate in Adventure Travel. Today, Amy is the Industry Relations Manager with the Wyoming Office of Tourism in Cheyenne, promoting Wyoming to non-residents as a premier vacation destination.
Growing up, through happy, story-filled postcards from friends and family, Amy was inspired by the world’s diversity and thrilling experiences. She wanted to be a part of bringing those experiences to others, and this required some savvy business considerations.
“The group travel field is all about building relationships.” Whether between suppliers and buyers, a destination and their partners, or another collaboration, these “relationships are at the core, and they take time to develop.” Networking is a cornerstone of the business, one that she is fully aware of.
Other women in power are a fundamental component of this as well. “When I see a strong female leader, I want to learn from her, know her story and connect with the company as a female in a different way.” Still much of a “boys club,” Amy hopes to see more industry barriers broken by other influential women entering the business.
“Every place and every person has a story. It is so important to learn that as it makes them who they are.” She emphatically urges women to not only be authentic and strategic but “follow your passion and don’t give up!”
Chelsea Lerud, Executive Director, Iowa Travel Industry Partners
“When one of us wins, we all win.”
Hardworking mom Chelsea Lerud understands balancing work duties with home life responsibilities. “Tourism folks know how to work hard, but also how to play hard.” And that’s precisely what she does as Executive Director with Iowa Travel Industry Partners (iTIP).
“My primary goal in the group tour space is to become the go-to one-stop trusted resource for group tour operators seeking destinations in Iowa.” Accordingly, “iTIP currently represents over 100 partners across the state and has relationships in all corners of Iowa.”
As a child, she was fortunate to be part of an adventurous family who saw the value of travel and explored the globe together. This catalyzed her to become a dynamic collaborator in the tour industry.
While applying for jobs in college, Chelsea took the advice of a professor who pointed her to a role in tourism. After accepting a position in an industry she didn’t fully understand, she began working with an Iowa DMO and fell in love with it. Chelsea praises the mentors who guided her throughout the journey, most of whom are fellow DMO leaders across the state.
“We would meet on a regular basis and share ideas/current projects we were all working on.” This allowed her to reimagine what she learned to accommodate her mid-sized community and get creative with new offerings to tour groups.
Three industry concepts stand out to Chelsea as particularly noteworthy for success. Hospitality goes a long way in tourism, and she insists, “Always be sure to lay down the red carpet for the tour guests. If you make them feel special, you will help make the trip memorable.” Also, be flexible with tourists and considerate of their vacation needs. And build relationships with local partners and tour operators who add unique activities to your itineraries.
Chelsea advises women entrepreneurs and others to “find your support system. Build your team of those who have different skill sets than you do. When working together, all skills and needs will be met. Don’t feel like you need to do it all and all by yourself.”
Furthermore, “Lean on peers within the industry to offer advice and support along the way. This industry is such an open book and willing to share advice to help the next organization become successful.”
Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, President & Chief Customer Experience Officer, Collette
“Traveling the world, learning about different cultures. It’s what our world needs – to experience something bigger than ourselves.”
Literally born into the industry, Jaclyn Leibl-Cote is an adventure alchemist with decades of wayfaring wizardry under her belt. Not only is she the President of Collette, a family-run tour operation featuring more than 170 unparalleled trips in three countries, but she’s also got travel in her blood. And she’s undeniably one of the top influential women in power throughout the industry.
“As a family company, I’ve seen first-hand how the guided travel space has evolved in the most exciting way. Travel is my passion, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to see the world in my lifetime with my family.“
She believes that “Travel gives you these moments that make you feel part of history, part of the tradition, inspired by beauty … you can see the places from your favorite books and movies and be transported into your childhood dreams.”
Jaclyn has navigated the world of tourism with help from her mentor, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg of Valerie Wilson Travel. She has played a significant role in Jaclyn’s success as an inspiration and confidant throughout her journey. “Find a mentor who is a positive female role model in the industry to help you develop your leadership skills.”
She insists, “Surround yourself with people who lift you up, take time to mentor and support you, and who believe in you. It’s important to know who you can count on.” Jaclyn knows the upside in promoting opportunities for inclusion.
Her ultimate advice is simply to travel. It might sound obvious, and while it is, there’s wisdom in her recommendation. “Travel as much as you can.” And if you are lucky to get an opportunity to go it solo, she suggests you “seize it. You learn so much about yourself and the world around you when you get out of your comfort zone.”
Jaclyn’s enormous success in becoming the globetrotting guru she is today can also be attributed to opening herself up. “Going through executive coaching has really helped to shape me into the leader I am today. Additionally, 360 reviews are enlightening – and humbling. Perception is reality. You can only grow with honest feedback.”
She also notes the importance of being open to diverse cultures, people and customs, saying, “It’s critical to stay relevant and continue to evolve what the guided experience looks like for travelers.”
Tamika Carter, Founder & Executive Director, International Group Travel Agents Association
Lead Consultant, Group Travel Academy
Owner/Operator, Caribbean Mastermind Retreats
“Every setback, every stumble, can be transformed into a stepping stone for improvement.”
When it comes to a true “ambitionista” in the entrepreneurial tour industry, Tamika Carter is one of the most influential women in the business. The Founder and Executive Director of IGTAA and Caribbean Mastermind Retreats and the lead consultant with Group Travel Academy, Tamika is a pro at juggling the lifestyle.
“Mastery of organization stands as a paramount skill for thriving in group travel. The meticulous execution of travel plans hinges on this skill, as any oversight could disrupt the entire itinerary.”
As a child, Tamika was fortunate to experience destinations like the Bahamas, Savannah, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. with her grandmother, a Girl Scout leader, and her great-aunt, who worked for the U.S. Army. In high school, she jumped at the chance to study abroad, opening the door to possibilities beyond her wildest dreams. Afterward, college and pursuing a Marketing and Global Systems degree would propel her forward, even when she couldn’t afford to travel for leisure.
After becoming a travel agent, she admits, “I embarked on this journey without a mentor but persevered through trial and error, attending trade shows and conferences to refine my expertise.” She struggled along the way, finding some aspects more difficult than others. “I didn’t know how to use booking engines and often found myself building travel packages for people who only wanted to see if I could return a price that was cheaper than what they had already found online themselves.”
Tamika never gave up. Instead, she took challenges and turned them into opportunities. “Failure becomes a mentor, guiding you towards refining your offerings for the next endeavor.”
Her career shifted to focus on group travel after a successfully planned and executed family trip abroad, marking a turning point in her career. “A cruise for eight people quickly and easily turned into a cruise for 40. For once, I was successful and profitable.” She dug further into her passion and uncovered a niche market waiting to be tapped. “I really found my stride with planning group trips to music festivals and sporting events.” Her group travel business has skyrocketed since then, allowing her to pursue her lifelong passions. This marks her as one of the most influential women in power.
Her advice to others is “Seek guidance from those who have succeeded before. Align yourself with experienced mentors to navigate the intricacies of group travel and tap into their knowledge, successes, and missteps.” In fact, Tamika says that one of her most valuable resources in the industry is Jeff Gayduk, publisher of Premier Travel Media who featured her in a 2005 Leisure Group Travel issue. “I held on to him as a valuable and knowledgeable resource, and I never let go!”
Meegan Winters, Co-Founder/CEO, AbleVu and Able Eyes
“When I listen to my gut or that little voice in my head, those are the most magical moments of growth.”
When your heart is in the work you do, anything is possible. An innovator in the virtual tour industry, Meegan Winters set out to change accessibility for people with limited abilities to tour destinations. She is co-founder and CEO of Able Eyes, “a virtual tour photography company providing virtual tours of public, customer-facing businesses around the U.S. for the purpose of accessibility.”
Meegan also spearheads AbleVu, a tool that allows businesses to create profiles to include accessibility features and more. It’s a celebration of companies that are transparent about what they offer.
Initially, Meegan pursued a career in special education, teaching students on the Autism Spectrum. Realizing the need for more support for families with disabilities who wanted to travel, she left her teaching position to fulfill her dream and created a solution with Able Eyes.
At the core, Meegan’s pursuit was aided by her best friend, Jessica, whom she lived with during college. Jessica had muscular dystrophy, sadly passing away in 2015. But during their time together, Meegan had a rare and unique perspective on the difficulties those with disabilities face when traveling.
“What I do today is in honor of her and the life she lived here on earth.” She points out that “Accessibility information is lacking in most destinations. Every restaurant, hotel, and attraction should have information on their website that will help visitors of varying abilities prior to visiting.”
While following your entrepreneurial dreams, Meegan advises others to not give up even when tears start flowing. Accordingly, she warns against letting logic slow the progress of growth. Moreover, “I think it’s about empowering women to do what they love, travel where they want to travel, live the life they want to live … and without guilt.”
The beach lover acknowledges that “All traveling experiences have provided me with new experiences, meeting new people, and seeing new things. This is why I love travel and why I want to ensure all others can experience travel as well.”
The landscape of group travel is flourishing thanks to the pioneering efforts of these influential women in power.
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By Heather Dale