Blog post by Fiona Anderson, Company Director at GEC PR

When GEC PR’s client Women in Travel CIC decided to run its global International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum event virtually this year, I must admit, I was apprehensive.  The inaugural IWTTF that took place in Iceland in January 2020, was an in-person event, and the connections and authentic, frank debating that happened there would, I thought, be difficult to beat. Women and men from 18 countries had hedged their bets against the stormy Icelandic weather to make it there and certainly there was a sense of ‘triumph over adversity’ about getting there. Swapping tales about cancelled flights were conversational icebreakers that helped the bonding process as we discussed diversity, inclusion and our localised and global experiences of those issues.

Could 2021’s IWTTF event, necessarily virtual thanks to covid restrictions, live up to that? Back to that old friend adversity…

Perhaps controversially, I believe the financially and emotionally painful year that those of us who work in travel and tourism lived through played a key role in IWTTF 2021’s bumper participation and engagement.

The event, which took place 10-15 May, was attended by over 350 senior leaders and next-generation tourism and hospitality industry figures from 29 countries. The video platform made the event more readily accessible from all corners of the world. But I believe the timing of this event – taking place just before local and international travel was set to resume – meant that those who attended had a lot they wished to share. A space to vent about the challenging experiences of the previous year, and a place to disclose intentions to resume working and building organisations back for the better.

More time for reflection in 2020 meant that at last those of us too busy pre-pandemic, now had time to reflect on what was working for them within travel and tourism – and what never had. Why were so few women at senior levels of the industry? Why was there minimal representation of persons of colour across the industry and notably in marketing campaigns? Why were those from LGBTQ+ groups feeling consistently marginalised? And what were we collectively going to do about it?

Time and again throughout the Forum sessions, spokespersons, panellists and attendees asserted that they were passionate about change and felt it needed to happen right now and as we open up. As Women in Travel’s Founder Alessandra Alonso shared: “If not now, when?”

However, talking is one thing, and doing another, which is why I’m pleased Women in Travel pledge to carry out three tangible actions following the Forum in 2021. These were: More storytelling initiatives to amplify lesser-heard voices, like those of women who run local tours celebrating their heritage and encouraging more localised and sustainable tourism; The launch of an industry-first Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Leaders in Travel and Tourism Network for those who attended the Forum and want to really drive change; and the formation of another industry-first, a Male Allyship Network, borne of a Forum debate attended by men who wish to champion women in travel companies that included Battleface Insurance, Expedia, DNATA Travel, Google and ATPCO.

As mentioned previously, I was concerned that tangible connections and actions would be difficult to achieve virtually for an event such as this. However, I do think there was something more intimate about delegates sharing their lived experiences of navigating issues around diversity and quality from a safe space – their own homes. Perhaps this was the magic ingredient that allowed the global industry to come together, and really open up and commit to radical change. As our industry takes tentative steps on the road back to recovery, I do hope the stories shared at IWTTF 2021 and the pledges made there result in this wonderful industry of ours building back better. In turn, I hope this will truly make all those who love to travel and work in this industry feel seen, valued, and understood.