Neurodiversity is the Final Frontier for Inclusion + Other Takeaways from the IWTTF Conference
The fourth annual, sold-out Women in Travel CIC International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum (IWTTF) held in London this week celebrated the joyful highs about progress for women in travel, beautiful allyship, and learning about impactful business reasons to be more inclusive of all genders, identities, and abilities. Yet, did not shy away from some scary and sobering lows about how the climate emergency disproportionately impacts women, the realities of the wide gender pay gap, and a dearth of women in leadership globally and in all sectors of travel.
IWTTF 2023 was an incredible experience, drawing the largest crowd to date––over 400 people across two events. This year saw the addition of the first-ever IWTTF Awards evening celebrating both companies and individuals hosted by Expedia, followed by a full day at Google HQ filled with presentations, panels, and important conversations, with lots of time for networking in between.
Opening Keynote: Be Braver, Bring Joy, and Add Value
A highlight was keynote speaker Jaz Ampaw-Farr, who urged us all to be “positive disruptors” by being “just 10 percent braver.” Her hilarious, thought-provoking, and inspirational speech centered on her personal struggles navigating racial discrimination, and foster care, and the impact of a primary school teacher, who planted a seed of hope within Jaz that she “could be more.”
Weaving in funny childhood photos and videos of her entering (and losing) UK reality TV shows Blind Date and The Apprentice, she stunned the crowd by sharing her realization of sexual abuse and how those words from her primary school teacher gave her the courage to escape. After hearing Jaz, it is no wonder she was named 2022 “Speaker of the Year” and had a viral TEDx talk. Her uplifting presentation left us all inspired to “add value and bring joy” in travel, an industry that has the power to change lives.
The inspiring leader of Women in Travel CIC, Alessandra Alonso along with her partners Zina Bencheikh at Intrepid Travel, and Finnbar Cornwall of Google Travel, crafted an incredibly engaging day that not only shared learnings but also fostered difficult conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Here are the top takeaways from the sessions:
Neurodiversity: Talent’s Final Frontier
The most talked about sessions of the day were the two on neurodiversity. The first, moderated by the energetic Lindsay Garvey Jones, National Sales Manager, Holidays Extras between four neurodiverse panelists: Max Siegel, LGBTQ+, Transgender & Neurodiversity inclusion speaker & consultant, Caroline Clark, a product leader working with start-ups & scale-ups across industries, Tiffany Casson, client relationship manager Inntel and ambassador for the charity Neurodiversity in Business, and Helen Moon, Chief Executive, EventWell, a company that creates quiet spaces at meetings and events for neurodiverse attendees.
IWTTF featured an EventWell space, which was essentially a chillout room equipped with different zones for meditating, noise-canceling headsets, some brain games, and herbal teas, as well as comfortable seating.
Each panelist shared their lived experiences of coping with challenges ranging from ADHD to autism and how workplaces can better embrace people with neurodiversity. Caroline Clark spoke about her own late-life diagnosis of autism and the comfort it brought her to know why she behaved in certain ways. Now she knows better how to cope in various situations. Caroline also referred to the success of JP Morgan’s Autism at Work program, which showed that neurodiverse employees are 48% more productive than neurotypical employees.
Similarly, Helen Moon shared challenges living with ADHD until her diagnosis, which also inspired her to create EventWell. “Usually, if you need quiet or to take a moment at work or an event, the only option is to go to the toilet.” said Helen.
Panelist Tiffany Casson noted that “schools have accommodations for neurodiverse kids, we need to take that into the workplace. What are the reasonable adjustments we can make? Changing schedules, different desk environments, quiet spaces for eating…the most important thing is companies need to have the conversations.”
A perfect segue for Alessandra Alonso to interview Olly Nicholls, CEO, Attraction World Group, who credited his ADHD for allowing him to work differently, more creatively and ultimately rise to be a successful CEO despite struggling through school and never attending university.
Bottom line: Neurodiversity needs to be on your radar. When accommodated, neurodiverse employees can drive innovation and be more productive than neurotypical employees. Companies need to talk about, define and create “neurospicy” inclusive workplaces. Everything from recruiting and scheduling to office design and operations–can be changed for better business.
Sustainability: The climate crisis is impacting women in travel and tourism and everyone should be concerned!
Despite so many challenges with the climate emergency, the panel had many hopeful notes. Experts included Dr Susanne Etti Global Environmental Impact Manager, Intrepid Travel; Martina Rogato Sustainability and Diversity Advisor / Women7 (G7) Climate Justice Co-Chiar; Kathy Morrissey, Director of Planning and Insights at London Stansted Airport and Lara Meliki Vokai, Resort Manager, Nukubati – Great Sea Reef, moderated by Juliet Kinsman, sustainable-travel Expert & Impact-led Consultant.
Sobering stats shared by Juliet Kinsman, “80 percent of people being displaced from climate will be women and the evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable that the climate is changing for the worse.” Panelist Kathy Morrisy noted, “We’ve got so much to lose if we don’t act and so much to gain by moving to a green economy.” There was agreement that ESG offers opportunities and we need more women educated in STEM subjects, “There will be 60 million new jobs in ESG in the coming decade, and women need to be educated and qualified to fill those jobs,” said Martina Rogoto.
Already faced with challenges as Fiji is at the forefront of climate change, panelist Lara Meliki Vokai shared examples of programs in Fiji teaching indigenous women to make soaps and the business skills they need to be successful entrepreneurs, “Buying local products reduces the supply chain and creates jobs in our community.”
Kinsman summed up the conversation, “Sustainability is a mindset you need in all areas of business. Be an activist. We need to bring everyone into the conversation––from the top down and bottom-up––and most importantly, bring women into the decision-making. The climate is an emergency.”
Bottom line: The climate is an emergency, the science is irrefutable. Climate action must be a shared responsibility within the travel and tourism sector. Women can be influential agents of change in sustainability and we need to invest in women-led businesses, promoting sustainable practices, and supporting biodiversity conservation for a greener future.
Technology: Fostering innovation by removing barriers to entrepreneurship and harnessing DEI
The panel on the intersection of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship was moderated by Shayna Zand, Head of Partnerships, WeTravel and included successful start-up owners Erika De Santi, Co-Founder, WeRoad, Dr. Noreen Nguru, founder, What the Doctor Recommends, Vanessa Karel, Founder & CEO, Greether; Iris Serbanescu, founder of incubator WmnsWork, and established travel agency leader Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO, The Advantage Travel Partnership.
Tech has been a boon for women and the conversation centered around opportunities and challenges. Erika De Santi, of the adventure tour operator and community for Millenial travelers, WeRoad said, “we can have remote workers anywhere and tech has enabled us to scale in multiple countries.” Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO, The Advantage Travel Partnership, shared a recent survey they conducted with their member travel agencies, “50 percent found it difficult to get support during the pandemic. Post covid, tech helped move their businesses forward and they are investing in more technology.”
WmnsWork incubator founder Iris Serbanescu, stressed the importance of diversity in the sector, “Women represent the largest group of travelers worldwide, and we’ve seen there are opportunities in niches, for example, a business for queer female-identifying travelers in Kenya.” Greether founder and CEO Vanessa Karel was inspired to create a global platform of female hosts by her own experience of feeling unsafe on a trip to Morroco, similarly, Dr Noreen Nguru saw an opportunity to “perscribe travel” as a way of improving overall wellness.
In terms of advice for other entrepreneurs, the panel advised women to be intentional about their mindset. “You are going to come up against barriers, surround yourself with great people because being an entrepreneur is a lonely place,” said Julia Lo-Bue.
Bottom line: Technology has emerged as a powerful tool for empowering women entrepreneurs in the travel sector to help overcome barriers, access resources, and connect with supportive communities. Diverse experiences have inspired women to explore and pursue niches of specific interests in travel, with much success.
DEI: On a Journey to Inclusion - Belonging in Travel and Tourism
Overcoming obstacles was a continued theme in the conversation on inclusion with Abu Bundu-Kamara, Senior Director of Inclusion and Diversity Expedia Group, Juana Ortiz Basso, Tour & Travel Manager, Los Cabos Tourism Board Aizaz Sheikh, Head of Community, TourRadar, Anthony Daniels, MD for UK, Hurtigruten Norway, Tolene Van der Merwe, UK & Ireland Director, Malta Tourism Authority, moderated by Meera Dattani, Senior Editor, Adventure.com.
“When you have a voice at the table you have to be the voice for those that aren’t at the table,” said Aizaz Sheikh, Head of Community, TourRadar
Discussion centered around how the industry can tackle differences, be more intentional and address issues for under-represented groups head-on. “When you have a voice at the table you have to be the voice for those that aren’t at the table,” said Aizaz Sheikh, Head of Community, TourRadar. Companies need to make diversity a priority, look at unconscious bias in the workplace, track efforts, and lean into programs that work. Expedia has seen success in developing female leaders with their Women’s Network, “We focus on training, sponsorship, and ways to amplify female voices, and we are making progress on our goal of having women make up 50 percent of management,” said Abu Bundu-Kamara.
Bottom line: Creating inclusive environments that value all individuals was a key theme throughout the conference. Fostering inclusion enhances employee well-being and drives organizational success.
Allyship: Presentation of findings of the first-ever investigation into allyship in the travel and tourism + panel discussion
The final sessions of the day were on allyship. Simona Listvanaite, Allyship Coordinator, Women in Travel presented new research on the topic. 76% of all respondents believe allyship is highly valuable in the workplace. Other takeaways:
Allyship starts at an individual level and companies have the opportunity to embrace it
Education, training, and mentoring remove barriers and foster allyship
Being an ally is rewarding and allies are highly valued in the workplace
This was followed by conversations between allies from the most recent cohort: Jools Sampson, Owner, Reclaim Yourself Retreats paired with Shaon Talukder, CEO & Founder, Geotourist; Sharon Bershadsky, Director, Israeli Tourist Board (UK & Ireland) paired with Clive Wratten, Chief Executive, The BTA and Akvile Marozaite, CEO, Expedition Cruise Network paired with Sam Clark, Managing Director, Experience Travel Group, with a discussion moderated by Daniel Pearce CEO and owner of TTG Media.
The progress this group of women made with their allies to level up their businesses and leadership skills was mind-blowing. Definitely, a program to get involved with if you would benefit from advice and structure from experienced men in travel–who wouldn’t!?! Contact Simona firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bottom line: Collaboration and allyship are crucial to drive meaningful change. By working together, the travel industry can create a more equitable and inclusive landscape. If you would like an ally, sign up for the program!
Meaningful Networking + Conclusion
Another highlight was meeting innovative female entrepreneurs including Vanessa Karel from Greether, Iris Serbanescu of WmsWork, Hilary Matson from sustainable travel site Yugen Earthside, and Fiji hotelier Lara Maliki Volkai, manager of Nukubati Resort, and seeing some herteliers IRL — contributor Nelma Neto, Soul of Travel podcaster Christine Winebrenner Irick and of course, the fearless Chris King of Lightning Travel Recruitment.
In closing, Finnbar Cornwall of Google Travel summed up the day, “If I could bottle the energy in this room today, I’d have the most powerful energy drink in the world.”
This recap is really just the tip of the iceberg, the Women in Travel IWTTF is an incredible experience for learning, engaging conversations, and meaningful networking. Alessandra, Finnbar, and Zina announced the IWTTF will happen again next year, so plan to come to London in June 2024 and follow Women in Travel CIC on LinkedIn for news and information.