Women Leading Travel & Hospitality is proud to present its first annual list of top women executives in
the travel and hospitality industry. The 2021 Top Women Leading Travel & Hospitality report features women leaders who continuously showed resiliency, perseverance and grit through challenging times, none more so than what 2020 delivered.

Honorees were chosen by the Women Leading Travel & Hospitality editorial team based on several criteria, including position within their organization, scope of responsibility within that position, career achievements, and involvement within the travel and hospitality industry. The women featured in this year’s report are leaders of various departments and/or teams within their organizations, including marketing, operations, diversity and inclusion, among others.

This report is meant to honor the women who have helped shape the travel and hospitality industry, and are positioning it for future growth even amidst today’s challenging times. One such woman is Gillian Tans, chairwoman of Booking.com. The below interview is featured in the 2021 Top Women in Travel & Hospitality report. To learn of the other honorees in this year’s report, as well as read in-depth interviews with each, download the report today.

Women Leading Travel & Hospitality: Why do you love travel and hospitality?
Gillian Tans: Growing up in a very small country like the Netherlands, I was very quickly exposed to the possibilities and opportunities of travel. If you drive more than a couple of hours from my home in any direction, you’re in a completely different country, with a different language, traditions, food, everything. Each experience abroad enhanced not only my understanding of myself, but of the vastness and diversity of the world around me. And that’s the true power of travel — it’s an amazing force for change and discovery. 

WLT&H: What’s the biggest challenge you encountered while rising in this industry? How did you  overcome it?
GT: I joined the travel technology industry just after the dot-com bust — a world away from where we are now. In many ways, the entrepreneurial spirit of the industry remains the same while the mobile revolution over the past 20 years has accelerated technology’s role in the way consumers live, work, learn, shop, play and more. Furthermore, the use of data to drive decision making has only become more and more important. Adapting fast enough to continually deliver against consumers’ evolving needs along the way has been a constant challenge, and one for which flexibility and resilience are important to ensure you stay ahead and can accommodate emerging trends and innovations.

It has also been encouraging to see the increasing focus across the industry to drive greater diversity and inclusion. I think it’s fair to say that the industry’s workforce was largely homogenous in 2000. This is something that has begun to shift over the past few years. Diversity is key to building an inclusive workforce and environment that fosters innovation, collaboration and creativity. And while strides are being made, we do still have a long way to go to further diversify the industry and make it a more appealing and inclusive space in which everyone can thrive. 

WLT&H: Who is a woman leader that you admire, and why?
GT: Accenture’s CEO Julie Sweet is a leader I’ve really enjoyed following and admire greatly. As a woman at the helm of a truly global business, she has struck a balance between being accessible and approachable, while also driving enormous results for the business. I also have great respect for Accenture’s agility as a company, which was showcased when it leveraged its services to help connect more than a million of the U.K.’s National Health Service workers remotely and joined forces with Salesforce to work on contact tracing and vaccine management technology. We both recently spoke at Web Summit 2020 in December, and her session on embracing change to deliver better products and services, particularly during this time of great challenge, really stood out for me. 

WLT&H: How would you describe your leadership style?
GT: I believe that being accessible allows any leader to be held accountable and remain active in the work that needs to be done every day to break down barriers. I’d like to think that it has become a really key facet to my management style over the years. It’s important to remember that your employees, of all backgrounds, titles and roles, are watching how you respond to situations and hearing the words you speak, as well as what you do — whether that’s in an interview, a virtual town hall meeting, or saying yes to a video coffee chat. This responsibility is key to keeping teams engaged, empowered and ready to take on new challenges as a unit, and is a concerted way to make progress towards a more diverse workforce at all levels. 

WLT&H: What advice would you like to share with the next generation of women leaders?
GT: The advice I’d give to any leader, and it’s one I challenge myself to do regularly, is to truly empower your team. This looks different for every leader and every team, but if you don’t grant your team the space to do their best work and to push themselves to try new things and take risks, your outcomes won’t ever change. Your team shouldn’t fear failure if they see failures as opportunities. If they’re not empowered, though, failures will remain failures and that can lead to a toxicity that can affect an entire culture. 

WLT&H: How do you balance your work and life responsibilities?
GT: Prioritization is an art and it takes practice to get the “balance” right between how much of my time and energy gets devoted to any one part of my life. There’s no magic recipe, and I certainly don’t always get it right, but what I’ve learned is that I need to be present and really in the moment wherever I am. I make sure that the time I’m dedicating to my kids or my husband or my friends or to any important project at work is always of quality. Along my journey, I’ve also learned that you cannot control everything in life, whether in your personal life or in business. Once we accept this as leaders, we can empower and trust the people around us to make the right decisions when we can’t be present, and support them even when they don’t. 

WLT&H: What’s your favorite hobby?
GT: As a Dutch native, it comes as no surprise that riding my bicycle is my favorite hobby! It’s a great way to clear my head, get around my city or even out into the countryside of the Netherlands, and it has been a daily part of my life since early childhood. I also love walking, sailing and reading. 

WLT&H: What’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?
GT: My favorite trip ever was this past summer when my family took a good old-fashioned road trip around Europe. As travel restrictions lifted within Europe, rather than traveling by plane, we  opted to drive from Amsterdam to Baden Baden, Germany, then onto Switzerland to spend time with my parents, who I had not been able to spend time with since the start of the pandemic. Then, we drove on to Spain for some sun and beach. It was such an incredible trip, and a great reminder of the diversity and incredible destinations within Europe that is all within reach. I also believe there’s a nostalgia that comes with any road trip — listening to old music or a great audiobook or podcast series, playing car games, and enjoying new treats along the highway. I’m so grateful to have had the experience and the time to explore with my family. 

WLT&H: What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while leading through the pandemic?
GT: While we had many plans and processes in place internally for how we handle natural disasters and other disruptions, managing the business through a global pandemic wasn’t something we’d done at a global scale simultaneously, and certainly not while managing a huge influx of inbound queries from customers and partners.

Leading during this time started with managing to get all employees across more than 300 offices to work from home to help keep people safe. This included 10,000 customer service employees from multiple CS centers, which is no small feat with the technology requirements, and the increased demand into CS due to travel cancellations and date changes. I’m so proud of all our employees, in every role, who worked around the clock to support our customers and partners. Our global leadership teams and crisis management teams also worked to communicate regularly with all of our people, ensure they have access to the information and resources they need, and know where to go when they have questions. To me, that was the most important hurdle to clear at the start of the pandemic to ensure that we can communicate effectively with our teams, keep employees informed and engaged, and tackle these immense challenges ahead together.

WLT&H: What technology or trend do you believe will have the biggest impact on the industry in  2021?
GT: Making people feel safe and comfortable travelling is a big hurdle to clear for the industry in 2021. All travel providers, whether it’s us at Booking.com, airlines, individual properties or destinations, have a responsibility in helping to reassure travellers, especially given that our research shows that 70 percent of tourists will only book a particular accommodation if it’s clear what health and safety policies it has in place. This is something we’ve already adapted to on our platform, but our research shows will be a long-term priority for travelers. Over 14 million property listings on Booking.com have implemented health and safety measures so far, and we expect to see that number continue to grow. We’ve also seen that, on average, partners who implemented these measures have received more bookings than those who haven’t.

That said, there will be ample innovation and change to the entire travel industry in the decade following this pandemic, and while I think it’s too soon to say what those exact changes will be or how long they’ll stay with us, whether it’s around safety or flexibility or anything else, being open to change and flexible to developing new products and services that respond to our new reality is going to be key in attracting and supporting travelers. I believe, if we can do that, we’ll see a more resilient travel industry.