6 Steps the Travel Industry Can Take Right Now to Start Changing the Landscape for Women

Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash

There have been a lot of articles lately that sensationalize the perils of women traveling alone. I thought they were over, but they keep popping up like bad zits. It’s a shame that even until now our society continues to promote a discourse of fear.

But perhaps equally shameful is that most of these articles continue to put the responsibility on women, proposing solutions for women to better protect themselves instead of challenging the wider cultural norms that make violence against women acceptable. As if the only reason we’re getting prodded, manipulated, harassed, and even assaulted is simply because we didn’t pack the right pepper spray.

And for the record, this isn’t a travel problem — for many of us, this happens just as much at home as it does abroad in all spheres of our personal and professional lives.

But this is also not a problem that women must solve on their own. The treatment of women is an issue for our society at large, and the private sector is a huge part of that.

When I founded Wanderful, it was because too much of the narrative about women and travel seemed to be about fashion or safety — and not much else. But there are so many dimensions to a woman’s experience in the world, and they cannot be stereotyped into two categories.

With the way society approaches women’s travel (as a sort of variation on men’s travel), you’d think it were a cute, flouncy, vulnerable niche.

You would never think that it actually was the majority market.

Women in Travel: Stop Calling Us A Niche

Women make 80% of travel decisions. Two out of every three travelers are female. The solo female travel market is now 11% of the entire travel industry with solo female travelers spending $800B per year on their travel.

It goes without saying, then, that I lose my mind when people talk about women in travel and call it a “niche”.

If 80% of your audience is a niche, that’s an overwhelmingly big niche. And it’s not going to be satisfied with a few “lady” modifications to an existing product or an article on which pepper spray to buy.

These solutions run much deeper — and it’s our job as an industry to change them.

Why?

Believe it or not, you don’t even need to care about ethics to get on board the “let’s stop stereotyping women” bus. The only thing you even need to care about is doing good business. It doesn’t matter what segment of the travel industry you’re in — a significant portion, if not the majority, of your decision makers are women.

In this era of marketing, you need to speak to your consumers in an authentic and real way to persuade them to buy what you’re selling.

If you’re not considering the real needs of real women, you’re missing out on enormous opportunities for growth in your enterprise.

Here are a few places you can start.

1. Increase your representation.

Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

If you really want to improve how you market to women, you have to make sure you have women at the table helping to make these decisions.

Not just one. Many.

And from a diverse range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences.

Take an honest and real look at your senior leadership team, and the levels that trickle below that. Examine who you see. If you see a few rockstar women who just need another year of experience, don’t wait anymore. Promote them.

If you don’t see enough women, you might want to consider:

  • What might be wrong with your pipeline such that women are not rising to the top the way they should (at what point are women leaving your company, and what can you do to fix it?).
  • Hiring from the outside to get some new blood pumping through the veins of your company.

How much representation is enough? Half, at least.

2. Seek outside counsel.

As a business owner, I recognize that hiring and firing aren’t as easy as they sound. So if you’re not in a position to make drastic HR changes, you need to find other ways to incorporate diverse voices into your corporate strategy and marketing.

A way to do this is by putting together an advisory board with some of these voices to guide you.

Reach outside your network to find voices that can provide real feedback on your ideas. Sign an NDA and give them all the juicy challenges you’re facing in your company. Compensate them appropriately. And have them help guide you.

This is where working with the right creator can also be helpful to you. There are a number of incredible creators in the travel industry who not only have significant amounts of data from their immediate audiences, but also have the network to help create and sustain solutions that you work on together. Check out Carol Cain, Annette Richmond, and Kelly Lewis to start.

Let me clear: this is not an alternative to hiring the right people to make those decisions from the inside. But it’s a good shorter-term solution while you work on long-term change that needs to happen within your company.

3. Check your words and pictures.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Take a quick scan of your website. Who is there? What do they look like? Are they representing — truly representing — the customers that are using your product? Are they stereotypical — skinny, young people on mountains, beach bodies, men doing “rugged” stuff and women in heels?

Think intentionally about the real bodies of your target customers. If you are bound to using stock photography, work with platforms that aim to showcase diversity in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, body shape and size, and other qualities.

The trick is, you have got to be authentic at the same time. If you’re a tourism board promoting a mostly homogeneous city, your goal shouldn’t be to incorporate a bunch of diversity into your marketing and create a false expectation that will ultimately hurt your brand. You’ll fall into the same trap as a cute town that tries to attract more women and therefore promotes itself as a shopping destination.

At best you’ll attract the wrong customer. At worst you’ll piss people off.

That’s where reaching out to creators, community builders and voices of some of these less-represented groups is essential. Never, ever speak for someone else’s audience. That’s where tips #1 and #2 come into play.

4. Know your blind spots

I once had a video production company tell me that focusing on the experiences of women in the travel space was a hard sell to the Travel Channel because their audience is mostly male.

I don’t doubt their data, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a causal relationship here. If you’d ever spent time watching the Travel Channel, you’d see what we all saw: Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain. Talented hosts, but, frankly, a lot of white dudes.

I wondered if the assumptions they were making was wrong. Was it that only men were interested in the Travel Channel, or that women had been completely left out?

While I fully believe in using data to drive smart decision making, I also caution you not to let numbers fool you. The data shows something that is, but not necessarily something that should be. If you’re seeing far more men watching your station than women, you may want to dig deeper into why that data is coming up the way it is, if key strategic opportunities are being missed, and, if so, if you should be doing anything to change the status quo.

There is a caveat: I am of the belief that sometimes, leaning into your strengths is much more valuable than trying to fix your weaknesses.

But if your weakness is 80% of your market opportunity, you may find it valuable to examine that for the sake of your business.

You see, even the Travel Channel has changed some of its ways. It’s recently incorporated the voices of a lot more women of color, including the very talented Kellee Edwards and Oneika Raymond. So even they realized that leaning into the white male status quo wasn’t the best idea.

Where are your blind spots?

5. Start changing the narrative

It’s easy to perpetuate stereotypes when everyone else is doing it.

It’s our job as a society to resist this kind of sensationalism and tell nuanced stories instead. It’s our job to speak up when we see something in error — a marketing campaign gone awry, women being cat-called and harassed on a street, laws that govern the public use of women’s private bodies.

It’s our job to react to the things we see that are wrong. But it’s also our job to be proactive about solutions before they become bigger problems.

That’s where having a close connection to your community, a strong customer support team, and an intentional social media strategy will give you valuable information through the experiences of your customers. If you’re listening to them and have a system to incorporate their feedback quickly and efficiently, you’ll be able to pull out problems by their roots before they become worse.

6. Spark productive dialogue

Andrea Richardson of Hilton speaks on a panel called “Talk About It, Be About It: How Travel Brands Are Embracing Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)” at WITS ‘19

This one is for all of us, whether your represent the industry or not.

Progress is not measured on a hockey stick. There are great developments, then hurdles, then steps backward, then redirection, then more development.

We may see marketing campaigns, products, or solutions that fall short. Companies that create change — but not enough of it.

It is important for us to understand, as industry and as consumers, the difference between falling short on the right intention, and having the wrong intention in the first place.

When we see someone who creates a solution that isn’t perfect but is progress, we have to stop shaming them. Shaming discourages risk-taking and innovation. And risk-taking and innovation are exactly what we need.

Instead, encourage even more dialogue and more solutions. Make recommendations for what they could do from here. Give feedback and recognize what they did right, then offer tips for how to go further. Recognize their efforts, and encourage more of it. The last thing you want is for someone to give up.

We all come from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s our knowledge together that will change the narrative for women around the world. We can stand to learn from each other.

And with it, we will all grow.

Change may be slow, but it can start now

Change cannot and will not be made overnight.

If you want to start reaching women better, any solution that takes you a few hours to implement will not make any sort of lasting impact.

These are real shifts that need to take place in your company culture, in your marketing strategy, and in your product development.

They are habits that you need to build into your business that are practiced and executed daily — not quick fixes that put you back on track.

Lucky for you, you can start working on some of this now.

Especially if you’re a senior leader in your company, or, best, a business owner, you can start taking these steps at this very moment to create change. You will slowly see how that change affects your business — your employees, your customers, your bottom line.

But if you’re lucky, you’ll also see it extend further than that. You’ll see the rest of the world noticing. You’ll see your company leading innovation, rather than following it. Most importantly, you’ll see a world where women are traveling the way we want to, not the way we’re told to.