Skift Take

We like it when these people make headlines.

Travel isn’t just about hotels, airlines, cruise ships, theme parks, and destinations. It’s about the people who make these things work. And when it comes to people who make our work at Skift interesting, these 17 men and women helped shaped the travel news that made 2013 so exciting. They not only made mega mergers, smart social campaigns, and disruptive technologies happen, they set the bar for their competitors and imitators.

Here they are, in no particular order.

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber

The smart, opinionated CEO has barreled through the ground transportation industry with all the delicacy of a rabid bull in a china shop. He’s done such a masterful job performing for the media that few bother to question how big the opportunities really are in Uber-like ground transport. Kalanick takes on critics and customers with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach that is refreshingly blunt, even when he’s wrong. If more CEOs were like Kalanick, the industry would be even more fascinating.

Nick Bilton at the New York Times

The New York Times‘ technology reporter didn’t begin his one-man crusade against the FAA’s rules for using electronic devices on airplanes this year, but 2013 is when everything changed for people eager to keep their their Kindles turned on throughout the flight. In October the FAA announced that gate-to-gate use of electronics would be allowed if the airlines met certain guidelines. Flyers took to Twitter to thank Bilton, while airlines raced to be the first to meet the FAA’s new rules (JetBlue won).

Carolyn McCall, CEO of easyJet

McCall could get attention simply for being one of the very few women in a leadership position at an airline, but that won’t do. This is the year that easyJet began showing Europe’s low-cost carriers how you can keep some prices low, but fine-tune your offering enough to attract business travelers. It resulted in a 51% increase in pre-tax profits this year. Another measurement is even more dramatic: She made Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary promise that he was going to “stop unnecessarily pissing people off.”

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona

Every four years around World Cup time, soccer/fútbol players help make or break one big destination. But Lionel Messi gets people traveling every day of every year. As the face of Turkish Airlines (along with basketball player Kobe Bryant) and Qatar Airways, too (with his teammates at FC Barcelona), Messi is the most influential travel pitchman on billboards, TV, magazines, or the Internet — sorry William Shatner. His “selfie shootout” video for Turkish Air was the most-watched travel video on YouTube last year, while “The Land of FC Barcelona” was sixth.

Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City Transport Commissioner

Under the 12-year reign of New York City mayor/benevolent dictator Michael Bloomberg, the city made more changes to how people moved than any time since Robert Moses was destroying neighborhoods. Sakid-Khan was the brains behind the changes, and her brainy moves were big: Turning parts of Broadway into pedestrian plazas, making the city less car-friendly, and embracing bicycles (if only she had a solution to slow-walking tourists). Her team often pushed through plans without neighborhood approval and the city as a whole benefitted from it. She’s leaving office for Bloomberg’s new consulting group, which will tell cities how to be more like New York. The new transportation commissioner has some big shoes to fill.

Doug Parker at American Airlines

While outgoing American Air CEO Tom Horton got a bigger pay day, former US Airways boss Doug Parker is walking away with the reins to the world’s largest airline. He did it by courting both stock holders and labor unions before approaching the airline itself, and keeping a cool head during the U.S. Justice Department’s challenge to the merger. Parker has, as Bloomberg’s Mary Schlangenstein wrote, “a mix of relentless determination, pragmatism, patience, risk, energy and a kind of Reaganesque confidence that tends to rub off on a room.”

Jesse Desjardins at Tourism Australia

Bigger destinations with better attractions look to Tourism Australia as the example for destination marketing in a social age. It’s Jesse Desjardins and the organization’s social team who are responsible for bringing the island continent into the Facebook feeds, Twitter streams, and Instagram apps of more than five million potential visitors worldwide. This year Tourism Australia completed another successful (and very much copied) “Best Jobs in the World” campaign, activated its social followers by curating and sharing hundreds of their fan photos (including a racy kangaroo one), and maintained its position as the most popular destination on social media.

Ray LaHood, former Secretary of Transportation

Ray LaHood, who left office in July, used his four years as head of the U.S. Department of Transportation to change how people move about the U.S., and to encourage us to think smarter. Under LaHood, infrastructure projects boomed, safety became a priority, and the FAA was considered the most consumer-friendly it’s ever been. Although Anthony Foxx stepped into the role this summer, LaHood continues to be an important voice; in early December, he told a morning news show that the U.S. was “too afraid” to invest in new infrastructure.

Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil

It’s rare that a world leader has the World Cup and the Olympics on her calendar just two years apart. But President Rousseff does, and the two sets of games have given her the opportunity to remake her nation’s ground transportation network, sell off the country’s largest airports, redevelop entire swaths of major cities, and create a world-class hospitality industry. Not a small list. This summer saw protests and riots in Rio and this fall a stadium collapsed in Sao Paolo. We’ll see this summer if the work she did this year will pay off in the short term, but the long-term implications are huge.

Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines

A pariah in the media, Spirit Airlines and its CEO Ben Baldanza has shaken up U.S. aviation with contrarian thinking, big fees, and a huge success story. Allegiant Airlines has been greatly influenced by Spirit, Frontier is in the midst of trying to clone the model, and carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest have to reckon with the fact that they are not considered low cost carriers any longer. New entrants everywhere must take the Spirit model into account.

Lydia Tenaglia, founder of Zero Point Zero

With Anthony Bourdain as the face man, Tenaglia and production company Zero Point Zero started No Reservations on the Travel Channel in 2004. In the place of vanilla hosts promoting a cruise ship or a hotel that’s given them a freebie, ZPZ’s hosts dig deeper into how people live, eat, and even hunt. As Tenaglia told Skift this summer, “There have been shows that have been made by tourism boards and they look like bad travelogues.” Bourdain and ZPZ moved from Travel Channel to CNN in 2012 for Parts Unknown, and won an Emmy this year. Beyond Bourdain, ZPZ has shows on the Sportsman Channel, The Weather Channel, Speed, the Travel Channel, Food Network, and PBS.

Brian Sharples, CEO of HomeAway

Airbnb may get all the attention, but HomeAway’s Brian Sharples is happier running a profitable public company. After going on a buying spree over the last twelve months that has allowed it to expand geographically and build a larger base of vacation rental listings, in December it raised nearly $200 million in a secondary stock offering. HomeAway has also become the adult in the room when it comes to negotiating with municipalities over the growth of vacation rentals in newer, more restrictive markets.

Jonathan Gray, Blackstone Global Head of Real Estate

This was a remarkable year for Blackstone in the lodging sector and as head of its global real estate unit, with some $70 billion in investor capital management, Jonathan Gray was calling the shots and managed to execute Hilton Worldwide’s $2.35 billion IPO, the largest in hotel industry history. It turns out that Blackstone’s relatively smallish $565 million Extended Stay America IPO a month earlier was just a warmup. La Quinta, another limited services chain, is on tap for 2014, and Gray has plenty of more money to invest in the interim.

Sam Shank, CEO of HotelTonight

HotelTonight is available only on mobile, offers only one product, and knows what its customers want as soon as they open the app. HotelTonight’s last-minute hotel deals have sparked copy cats across the industry, but the app has managed to stay one step ahead of competitors. In 2013, Shank continued to build out the service by expanding internationally, adding high-end penthouses, and pushing the booking start time to 9am. It’s also showing travel companies how to make money on mobile bookings. But Shank’s concept is still easy to understand: Use this app if you want an easy, quick way to find a cheaper hotel tonight.

Pam Nicholson, CEO of Enterprise Holdings

This year Nicholson became the first non-family member to run Enterprise, the world’s largest car and truck rental company. She joined the company 32 years ago as a trainee and worked her way to the top while the company grew bit by bit — in the last decade its revenues grew from $6.9 billion to $16 billion. The company expanded its European presence this year, bought Zimride‘s ride-matching service, and began adding luxury cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles into the mix, too. In October Nicholson announced that Enterprise would hire another 11,000 employees over the next year — including more trainees like Nicholson started out as.

Alex Calderwood, Co-Founder of Ace Hotels

2013 was shaping up to be Calderwood and Ace’s best year when the hotelier’s tragic death in November made the discussion not about what Calderwood would do next (new hotels in Panama, Los Angeles, and London), but about everything he’d already done. He had an outsize position in the industry that was a result of a business sense that, “encouraged the unwise allocation of human resources to risky ventures that took no heed to consumer research,” as one employee described. Despite the size of the portfolio, Calderwood and Ace have shaped how much lager hotel brands think about about their neighborhoods and their next generation of customers.

James Hogan, CEO of Etihad Airways

Under Hogan, Etihad has reinvented how airlines work together. Instead of alliances, Etihad has partnerships and investments. It has 45 codeshares and equity stakes in Virgin Australia, Jet Airways, Aer Lingus, Air Sechelles, and airberlin (with Alitalia a strong possibility, too). That helps it fly passengers to some 475 destinations. “More than my nearest competitors,” Hogan reminded a transport summit this summer. The ten-year-old carrier has little to no legacy issues and one big advantage over North American and European rivals: It’s hub is at the crossroads of 21st-century commerce.

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Tags: ace hotel, american airlines, anthony bourdain, blackstone, dot, easyjet, emirates air, enterprise, etihad, faa, hilton, homeaway, in-flight, nyc, olympics, spirit airlines, turkish airlines, tv, uber, world cup

Photo credit: Lionel Messi in the Turkish Airlines advertisement "Selfie Shootout." Turkish Airlines

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