Hundreds of the travel industry’s most-forward-thinking executives will gather for our third annual Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30. In just a few years,  Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”

Focusing on responsible travel practices and other key issues, Skift Forum Europe 2019 will take place at Tobacco Dock in London. The Forum will feature speakers, including CEOs and top executives from British Airways, IHG, Thomas Cook, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Silversea, Uber, and many more.

The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.

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After travel company Intrepid Group announced plans in 2017 to double the number of female tour guides it employed around the world by 2020, Zina Bencheikh knew she had some work ahead.

At the time, she was regional finance manager for Peak DMC, Intrepid’s destination management company, operator, and product developer, but soon after she became general manager of Europe and Morocco. And there were no women working for the company as tour guides in Morocco; in fact, she said, only 4 percent of the country’s guides were women.

Morocco had an especially high bar to entry because of stringent regulations in place to earn a license to be a tour guide. So Bencheikh lobbied the government for help and went about finding women to prepare for the test; now, the company employs 13 women as tour guides in the country. She said the company has increased its overall number of female tour guides by 77 percent so far.

Now regional general manager for Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, Bencheikh said increasing the number of women who work in the role is important because many who start as guides, or tour leaders, go on to build careers with the company.

“We have a lot of general managers who started as tour guides, a lot of department managers,” she said. “If we actually tackle this issue from the very beginning, then that means that we promote and we give career development to more women, in a sense, because we give them access to a job. And it can be very good start to have a career within that company or that business or that industry in general.”

Bencheikh will speak at Skift Forum Europe along with Hafida Hdoubane, a mountain guide in Morocco. She spoke to Skift from Morocco, where she is based.

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Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Skift: Can you talk about some of the obstacles you have faced as you’ve tried to make this change?

Zina Bencheikh: The first one is this short-minded kind of answer that it’s not a job for woman, or that women are not interested. I think a lot of men think that, either because they think it, or because it’s just easy to answer like this, and not try to actually push it hard. Within our office, even, sometimes I had to challenge some of the male guides because they don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. … We’ve managed to get through this by showing them the good impact on our business. …

The challenge of training, because we have now a lot of new licensed females [who are] often not experienced because they’ve never been given this job before and there is no training center, there is no school for guides in Morocco at all. So you can become a guide if you pass the test, but then what’s happening next? So then we as a business have to put them up to standard, so they can run and then become great leaders.

Skift: Do you have to find women and really talk them into it, or once you have made it clear what you’re looking for, do you have a lot of people coming forward?

Bencheikh: Yes. We do. We have a lot of interest and the thing is, a lot of the girls who work with us now, they heard of us from a driver, they heard from another leader, that we are this company who is pushing for female guides. And so they just came naturally. So that was the best outcome of this, is that our reputation has been made true. That we are this company who is going to take care of them, give them work, give them training, give them time.

Skift: What kind of backgrounds are they coming from?

Bencheikh: It’s different because there are two kinds of guides: There are the mountain guides, and those are the rare resource. … A mountain guide is a woman or a man who’s from the mountain, who knows the mountain like his pocket or her pocket, and it’s a very active job. It requires more active abilities than educational background. So they just need a high school diploma basically, and they need to pass the physical test, and an oral test, because they need the language skill.

However, the other guides — which are the tour leaders, maybe we call them more city guides — those are more into the history, the culture, guides that will go on the trip and who will tell about the stories of the monuments and stuff like that. … The local guides, because they are more educated, they will have a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in English studies or history or culture, or tourism school, there is an institutional tourism school which is government-run. So this is what they would be coming from often.

Skift: Gender parity isn’t obviously just a tour guide issue. Do you think that what you’re doing can translate to the larger travel industry? Is there anything about your approach that you think could be applied more broadly to even other sectors?

Bencheikh: Totally, yes. Totally. I think the approach that we have had that has led us to this success is the fact that we set a target. Basically, we said, ‘OK, let’s double this number.’ As a business, we can be an impressive force for good. So if we have a target in a business that is as global as this, and say OK, let’s increase the number of suppliers that are female, for example, let’s increase the number of leaders, let’s increase the number of  entrepreneurs in your supply chain, whatever it can be, the impact can be very big. So this is where I think it can be applicable to any industry, in my opinion. It’s one of the ways. There are other things. It’s not just about having a goal or a target. Lots of other things, like training is important, mentoring is important, providing the right workplace or environment. All of this is important. But just to start with a target and a goal, I do believe it can have a bigger impact for any industry.

Skift: There is a case that it is the right thing to do, to encourage more women to join the workforce in travel or in anything else. What is the business case for these kinds of goals and efforts?

Bencheikh: Of course, it is good for our business. We have a purpose-beyond-profits kind of strategy. And we’ve seen in the numbers in the last three years that we have the strategy that our profit is increasing massively and our business is growing massively. We attract people and businesses to work with us because they feel and they share the same values as us. …

So just the example of Morocco right now, we are the DMC that employs the largest number of female guides. If you are a tour operator and you want a DMC to work with you that has a female guide, there is no other choice, in a sense. And what’s happening now is our competitors now are contacting our female guides to work for them, which is the funny part. So it’s a business case that this purpose-led strategy has brought a lot of growth to us. … So I think it’s important to us that we keep doing it because I think that we found that it was the right thing to do and doing the right thing often helps to grow the business.

Skift: And you have expanded your women-only tour offerings, right?

Bencheikh: We started to do it with one departure per destination, and only three destinations.

Interest has grown so fast that just in Morocco, we went from one to five departures, so it’s a 500 percent increase. Then overall, we have expanded to I think six other destinations. [Editor’s note: There are four new trips this year, in addition to three introduced last year.] We do Nepal, we do Iran, we do Jordan, we do Turkey … destinations where it’s kind of challenging to be women, so we select those places. In 30 year of existence in Intrepid Group, it’s the fastest-growing product idea. It’s good business, that’s what I mean.

Hear More From Zina Bencheikh at Skift Forum Europe

Photo Credit: Zina Bencheikh, regional general manager for Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, will speak at Skift Forum Europe next month. Peak DMC