Although women are particularly well-positioned to lead in the nuanced luxury market, it will take the effort and collaboration of men and women already within the industry to bring about change and more equal leadership teams.
The luxury travel industry is a nuanced, detailed sector where emotional intelligence, cultural subtleties, and market distinctions contribute to products, sales, marketing, and branding. Like almost all industries today, there is a growing movement to create more diversified and equal leadership teams within the luxury sector.
Skift recently spoke to women leading luxury brands throughout the travel industry from international hospitality brands to custom planning services and publications for the present-day pulse of the luxury sector. We look at whether women hold more leadership roles in the luxury segment than the mid-scale category, their alignment with the luxury category, and future opportunities for growth.
Accor Hotels is the largest hospitality company in the world with many women through its executives ranks, and Skift spoke to several of the leaders at brands including MGallery by Sofitel, Raffles, and Swissotel to learn what they attracted to them the industry.
“I personally love the luxury universe — the sense of beauty and refinement particularly in hospitality. The current luxury hotel market trends are very inspiring. We started with product-driven luxury and are more and more moving towards experiences and even transformation focused on people and human,” says Agnès Roquefort, senior vice president of luxury brand management for MGallery.
An allure to the emotional potency of luxury brands was echoed by Jeannette Ho, vice president of Raffles brand marketing & strategic projects.
“The power of brands to engage emotionally with our guests and consumers is more intense in the luxury segment, and it is very rewarding to see how consumers response to your brand when price is much less of a constraint factor,” she said.
The breadth of experiences available to travel professionals holds equal attractiveness in and outside the luxury segment of travel.
“The travel industry is one of those rare industries where you can work on such a wide variety of topics: design, food and beverage, wellness, culture, fashion,” said Lilian Roten, vice president of brand management for Pullman and Swissotel. “Every single day brings a new subject on the table.”
Representation in Luxury
Official statistics on gender breakdowns in the luxury travel space are difficult to find. The women we spoke to shared different perceptions of which segments of the travel industry are more likely to have women in leadership roles.
“I don’t know that there’s a marked difference between the ratio of females in the luxury space as opposed to mid-scale brands, but like everywhere we need to see more women in executive positions in our industry as a whole regardless of whether that’s in the luxury or economy sector,” says Sharon Cohen, vice president of Fairmont brand management, another Accor brand.
Others remarked that they notice a higher percent of female executives in the luxury hotel and cruise sector than other parts of travel. Skift previously reported that women account for fewer than 5 percent of airline CEOs around the world.
Crista Bailey recently entered the luxury travel sector to take the reigns of legacy brand Andrew Harper, which provides recommendations and editorial reviews of luxury properties, after a decade in the beauty industry.
Unsurprisingly, she saw much more female representation in the beauty sector. Many of the beauty companies she worked with were created and built by women fostering a staff with majority female staff — which is different than what she’s observed in her six months at Andrew Harper’s helm.
“In beauty, women clearly have equal to greater representation, and their voice is a credible and impactful one among their peers, investors and consumer set,” Bailey said.
Unlike Bailey, Edie Rodriguez, Americas brand chairman and corporate special advisor at luxury cruise line Ponant, has built her career in the travel industry, but shares a similar observation.
“I see many women moving in to business leadership roles, but the numbers and percentages are small still today compared to men. The challenges are the same for women across the business spectrum, not just in the luxury space,” Rodriguez said.
One segment of luxury travel where women have led is in communicating luxury experiences.
Melissa Biggs Bradley was an editor at luxury lifestyle publications including European Travel and Life and Town & Country Travel before founding membership-based luxury travel company Indagare.
In Bradley’s experience, there is a predominance of female executives in the luxury communications sphere.
“At many of the international luxury brands, women executives have been shaping the image and the message for years, and I think that has to do with their appreciation for nuance, talent for listening to others, and ability to capture the essence of places and trends and boil them down in an articulate vision,” she said.
Her company today not only has an all-female executive team, but 80 percent of her 70+ person staff are female.
Natural Disposition to Lead
The executives we spoke to said empathy and careful attention to detail were important elements of their ability to understand and transform luxury brands.
“The luxury market is driven more by the intrinsic and emotional value of the experience rather than the actual product. Sublime beauty and exquisite quality are also key factors in the luxury market, and many women are characteristically more in-tune with these more intricate and ethereal qualities of luxury,” said Ho, of Raffles.
Women are also the main buyers for luxury experiences and goods making them more attuned to the needs of their customers.
Women influence 85 percent of all purchasing decisions and account for 58 percent of online sales, according to Skift’s Trends Report: The Rise of Female Business Travelers.
Bradley also highlights the importance of segmentation in the luxury market.
“Women— more often than not — think about life and thus travel in chapters,” she said. “They’re uniquely able to see segmentations in the marketplace such as honeymooners, young families, and empty nesters. They are also natural matchmakers so they can assess people, discern their desires, and then pair them with the product that fits a particular purpose.”
Many of the women we interviewed highlighted that men also hold these important traits.
Opportunities for Growth
All of the executives spoke positively about the growth of opportunities in the luxury sector. And brands are beginning to realize that diversity in all senses is integral to creating experiences relevant to today’s sophisticated luxury customer.
One of Skift’s 2017 Megatrends describes a shift in the industry in which products designed with a predominantly female audience in mind are no longer sufficient. What is needed, it says, is female executive leadership that ensures products and services are created for all customers.
“Luxury is taking so many different shapes that diversity will be essential to embrace all the new trends, starting with gender diversity,” says Roquefort, the MGallery senior vice president.
Rodriguez, who recently resigned from her role as CEO at Crystal Cruises to join Ponant, is often quoted as a female executive. We asked her whether whether gender can be too emphasized here.
“I always say that I find it sad that we are approaching 2018 and the gender issue still comes up. However, it does as it is still a man’s world,” she said. “The world needs to work harder to change that for all women, and I am certainly doing my part as a female executive to help women and with this effort moving forward. At the end of the day, I get hired and judged for the performance I deliver and gender is irrelevant when it comes to that.”
Skift previously reported on the way female leaders in the travel industry are coming together to support and foster one another’s careers through organizations and conferences.
One such organization is the Association of Women Travel Executives, which organizes events and professional development opportunities for female leaders.
Sarah Hanan, AWTE board member, said: “The challenges in luxury are the same as the challenges across the travel industry as a whole — lack of flexible working and gender pay equality are the two most pressing challenges.”
The challenges faced by those operating in the luxury market are similar to those challenges, which are slowly shifting, in other industries. But invisible factors persist.
“While many barriers are no longer relevant as women receive equal education and many companies believe they practice equality, ‘unconscious bias’ remains a challenge that may slow down the selection of women to the very upper echelon of the leadership hierarchy,” said Ho.
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Photo credit: Women who are executives in the luxury travel space spoke to Skift about leadership gaps and equality. Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley is pictured here. Indagare