NEW YORK, NY --(Marketwired - October 18, 2013) - Going after your dreams sometimes means taking big risks; and when you combine those risks with the proverbial glass ceiling, as most women do, you've got quite the uphill climb. In the current issue of Premier Traveler, award-winning writer Janet Forman chats with four women in the travel industry who not only headed up that slippery slope in search of their dreams, but came out on top. With enlightening anecdotes about their businesses, their lives and their struggles, these women reveal a few hidden gems of wisdom for men as well as women.
Premier Traveler Special Report
Reaching the top tier in something as glamorous as the travel industry requires more than hard work and a competitive spirit: Each of the following groundbreakers jumped into the fast lane by taking what they deemed to be a frightening risk.
Corporate star Sara Kearney, now Senior Vice President of Brands at Hyatt Hotels, was unsure about giving up the only job she'd ever known. Liz Biden didn't just duck lions to build her first South African boutique hotel; she entered the hospitality field completely free of experience. Aubrey Tiedt, Vice President of Guest Services at Etihad Airways, traded in her childhood dream job as a flight attendant in order to fly a desk. And photojournalist Alison Wright turned her back on a comfortable staff position to risk her life in pursuit of the powerful images that now illuminate the pages of prestige publications like National Geographic and the New York Times.
These extraordinary women took a rare free moment to tell Premier Traveler what sparked their journey, how they cope with the pace and what they see in the future of travel.
SARA KEARNEY - HYATT HOTELS CORPORATION SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF BRANDS
The Corporate Star
Sara Kearney's rise up the corporate ladder has been neither fast nor direct. After nearly 30 years at the company, Kearney has reached the corner office via the scenic route. "I started as a night reservations agent in college and just never left," she laughed. Today, however, Kearney sees that twisting trail as a crucial foundation for her current post, where her missive is to strengthen the identity of all nine Hyatt brands.
When her career was just budding, Kearney worked in every different operations department at Hyatt locations in New Orleans, New York, Kentucky and Chicago. "It was a rare opportunity to stay at the same company with a different job every few years," she recalled. After spending 12 years with North America's Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Kearney was asked to fill bigger shoes at Hyatt International, which was a separate company then. "I remember thinking that I was making such a big decision because I had to be terminated by Hyatt Hotels Corporation and rehired by Hyatt International. Family and friends were saying, 'Why is this so difficult? You're still at Hyatt,'" she smiled. "But at the time, the companies had completely different management teams, and I kept thinking, 'I can't believe I quit my job!'" Four years ago, after she'd spent 13 years on the international side, the two Hyatt companies combined, and Kearney found that her once perilous-looking leap had paid off. "My current job runs more smoothly because I've made the transition myself and built relationships on both sides," she reflected. "You could say that I'm a bridge."
A Strong Foundation
While she is surrounded by corporate superstars, Kearney's most powerful inspiration has been her mother: "She was a single parent before it was common, raising six children by herself -- a daunting task. She taught in some of Chicago's most challenging schools and often brought students home, which helped us learn the value of embracing diversity," Kearney remembered. "At times, she worked three jobs to keep us all in private schools. She made sure that our lives didn't change as a result of the choices she and my father made, and she did it with such grace."
Men participate more in parenting these days, Kearney granted, but "it can still be a really tough balance for women, since there are some things that you feel are your responsibility as the mother. Today, for example, was my daughter's first day of high school, and I felt that I had to be the one to drive her." Traveling roughly three times per month, sometimes Kearney finds that juggling motherhood and her career can be "a crazy balancing act."
The Hyatt Women's Study
To understand the special challenges of female travelers, Hyatt ran an elaborate study -- incorporating 18 months of "intensive listening" through more than 40 focus groups around the world -- which uncovered some surprising gender differences for Kearney and her team. They learned that women often require checked luggage for two reasons: They use more liquids, and they can't heave as much weight into the overhead bins. "So we set out to turn that checked bag into a carry-on," Kearney declared, in part by "upgrading our bath amenities [and] at the same time making them biodegradable and chemical-free."
The study's most startling revelation was that women hesitate to call the front desk to request forgotten items, even essentials like deodorant. "When you realize that you've forgotten something," said Kearney, as she drew on past experiences, "you're usually already in a compromising situation," about to take a shower or go to bed. But women, especially when they're already in a robe, don't like strangers entering their rooms. "When I told a male hotel manager that I would get dressed and go to the drugstore to buy a toothbrush instead of calling downstairs, he was completely dumbfounded!" To encourage guests to check with the desk instead of leaving the property in order to forage for items on their own, the chain now prominently displays a Hyatt Has It card, offering gratis items like mouthwash, nail polish remover, electronics chargers and, at some Hyatt locations, yoga mats and free weights.
Confidence in Her Team
How much of Kearney's management style has been shaped by her gender? "I've never been a man, so I don't actually have a foundation for comparison," Kearney teased. Her M.O. is simply "hiring the right people, sharing your passion and vision -- and then getting out of their way." She is a strong believer in providing employees with an environment for growth. "Then, regardless of what people are doing, their passion and commitment will be so much stronger. Look at me! I still can't explain why I'm here," she admitted with a combination of humor, modesty, tenacity and compassion -- all of which make Sara Kearney's steady ascent no mystery to the rest of us.
AUBREY TIEDT - ETIHAD AIRWAYS VICE PRESIDENT OF GUEST SERVICES
The Airline Executive
"My biggest challenge was jumping from the air to the ground," declared Aubrey Tiedt, remembering the decision she'd made to leave her childhood dream job as a flight attendant for a post in management. "After 16 years, I felt quite secure in the air. I knew the job inside-out; I had a passion for it," said the Dublin native who has spent the majority of her career in the Middle East. She was facing a drastic change in lifestyle, going from no daily structure and different days off each week (with an abundance of free time for personal travel) to a regular workweek. "It was a huge risk," she confessed, "and I didn't know if I would 'settle.' But it was one of the best risks I've ever taken."
Tiedt didn't just "settle" into this new role, however -- she soared. Over the next few years, she moved quickly through positions in corporate affairs at Gulf Air, where she had been a flight attendant, to cabin-crew training, quality assurance, crisis management and safety at a number of airlines throughout the Middle East. It was her job at a private jet company, however, that transformed her concept of luxury. "A glass of Champagne could be luxury to one person and a glass of water could be [that] to another; caviar could be a luxury or a nice warm blanket. Luxury," she'd realized, "is different for everybody." This highly attenuated sense of service turned out to be the ideal foundation for her current position at Etihad Airways, where she leads a team of more than 4,000 cabin crew and lounge staff -- a number that will jump with this year's expansion. "It's been a really fast progression over the last 12 years," Tiedt acknowledged, "but a fantastic journey."
By all accounts, Tiedt has revolutionized Etihad's service. Now, chefs from five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants prepare bespoke meals in first class; food-and-beverage managers allow business-class passengers to dine at will; and, in economy, Flying Nannies keep children enthralled throughout ultra-long-haul flights. Tiedt encourages everyone to go the extra mile: Nannies create sock puppets from airline booties and cabin attendants will build a birthday cake from cookies and chocolate in the galley -- "anything we can do to create a remarkable moment for our guests. It's not just service," Tiedt asserted. "It's about bringing hospitality back into flying." Still, Tiedt's flight attendants learn that the most important part of their job is safety: "Being able to save a life, to evacuate an aircraft quickly, to fight a fire or whatever is going to be a threat aboard that aircraft at 35,000 feet" -- this is the crucial knowledge that Tiedt instills in her staff.
To accomplish all of this, Tiedt's days are packed. Witness the 36 hours leading up to our interview: "Yesterday: 8:30 a.m., on a plane for the Seychelles; 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., honored flight attendants at equity partner Air Seychelles; 2 a.m., returned to Abu Dhabi. [Today]: 7:30 a.m., awake for a day of nonstop meetings; then, on to an interview [after this one], in the evening."
Tiedt gets through it with copious cups of tea, a leadership style she calls "fair but firm" and chocolate fixes from her dedicated team. "An airline is a bit like the army, the police or firefighters: There has to be discipline. And [as] your organization grows, the discipline has got to grow with it." Still, Tiedt sometimes finds it challenging to balance regulation and encouragement -- especially since her staff spans 120 different nationalities, most living outside of their home countries. "So it's about making sure they have the right tools, the right training and good support."
Tiedt has come a long way from that wide-eyed young woman galvanized by her first "air hostess" uniform. "Still, it can feel quite daunting to sit in a room with 12 men and just one woman," she conceded. "But once you know your subject and have your business head on, there's no reason why you can't keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing!" She feels that boardrooms need "strong women who are willing to continuously fight, not give up and not back down. I'm quite tough, to be honest with you. Not hard, but tough," she clarified. "And it can be misunderstood if a woman is outspoken, or if a question comes across as a challenge, so I think women have to work that little bit harder to voice things in a way that's not going to intimidate people."
Tiedt has made trade-offs in her journey to the top ranks of a world-class airline. "I don't have children, so that's probably what I gave up, not specifically meaning to," she reflected, "but because of the lifestyle and the robust way of working. Some people think, 'Oh it's easy for you, since you don't have children.' But, actually, with children, you know you can go home and get your cuddles and your hugs. Each way has its positives and negatives," she acknowledged. "I think it's whatever suits the individual. You adapt to a lifestyle, and if you're not happy, you're going to change it. I would, anyway.
"I can't stop the years rolling by, and they're going very fast," she smiled, "but I'm happy at what I'm doing. Someone recently asked, 'Do you have children?' I said, 'No, but I have a massive family.' For me, all 4,000 people I manage at Etihad are my children."
LIZ BIDEN - FOUNDER AND OWNER, THE ROYAL PORTFOLIO, SOUTH AFRICAN BOUTIQUE HOTELS
Wild game roaming her land wasn't the only dilemma Liz Biden faced while building her first hotel, the Royal Malewane. An instinctive entrepreneur, Biden started her first businesses as a university student, and by the 1980s she and her husband Phil were key players in the wildly popular South African fashion brand, Jenni Button. After selling their stake in 1997, Biden embarked upon a new challenge-that of a luxury hotelier -- which turned out to entail a bit more than just hosting travelers.
Taming the Wilderness
Her initial plan was quite modest: Take in a few guests to help pay the staff at her family's new holiday home on a private game reserve. "I knew nothing about running a hotel," Biden recalled; nevertheless, she felt that her worldwide travels for her fashion business would turn out to have been adequate preparation. "The fact that I'd never been in this industry before didn't cause me to hesitate for a moment. It must have been a fit of madness," she admitted in hindsight.
First, the property had to be rebuilt, "but we had no architect, no project manager and no plans." As they began putting in roads, power and water across many kilometers of bush where wild animals roamed, Biden and crew "always kept a vehicle close [at] hand, in case we had to dive for shelter from lions or elephants. Then we built decks around the trees; and I personally put pegs where each separate unit should be." Nine months later, working only with locals from surrounding villages, Royal Malewane was opened for business. "We employed the best staff we could find during the building months and, 13 years later, most of them are still with us, now like part of the family."
Their first piece of luck came from bad weather. "There were heavy rains in 2000, the year we were building," Liz recounted. Fortunately, her property was built on a dam, minimizing the effects that neighboring lodges weren't so lucky to avoid. "Our nearby competitors closed, and that's how I received my first guests!" The venture was so successful that Biden and her husband turned two more of their private properties into hotels. "Birkenhead had been our beach house for 12 years. Our children were not at all happy with me for taking away their holiday home, even though by then they were off on their own."
Building Three Lavish Roosts
As it turned out, Biden's gifts as a designer and real estate developer more than compensated for her lack of hotel experience. The location of Birkenhead House, perched on dramatic cliffs overlooking the rugged Cape Coast in the whale-watching haven of Hermanus, is ravishing. At La Residence, a 30-acre estate ideally located in the wine country surrounding Franschhoek, Biden has imbued each main house accommodation with its own intoxicating atmosphere: Antique Tibetan wall hangings define one suite that has sweeping views of the vineyards; the Huguenot Suite, with a mustard-gold antique four-poster bed, recalls the region's first settlers; while the Maharani Suite, with its lavish crystal sconces, features two balconies overlooking the lawns, olive groves and mountains. Meanwhile, Biden brings a touch of Old Africa to Royal Malewane, where guests can return from game drives to soak in claw-footed Victorian-era tubs, or toast before a crackling wood fire.
Staff Is Key
Just 13 years ago, the Royal Portfolio had 25 employees. Now it has more than 250, and for Biden, "staff is the single most important factor" in the hotel company's success. In every position, she "hires for attitude before qualifications," seeking people who will instinctively follow her maxim to "be open and honest to oneself and to others, and to give of one's time whenever possible." With a management style she defines as "soft on people and strict on standards," it's no wonder that employees stay.
Biden is decidedly hands-on. "As far as I'm concerned, this is not a job. It's a 24/7 way of life," she declared. "I try to sleep in a different room each time I visit a property, and I keep a black book with everything that must be updated, fixed or replaced, so the hotels stay fresh and up to date" (something the staff knows will be assiduously checked upon her return). "Nobody is allowed to buy anything besides perishables. Nothing must be moved, either," to ensure that each hotel's aesthetic stays intact. "My travels inspire my sense of creativity, and my mind explodes with ideas every time I see something clever or different."
And while Biden sees no difference between men and women in the business world, she brings a decidedly feminine touch to accommodations: "Women need hangers, magnifying mirrors, good lighting and plugs for a hair dryer near a mirror," she maintained. "We also need good-quality shampoo, conditioner and plenty of cotton-wool pads to remove makeup!"
Biden did all the international marketing for the company's first decade, which kept her traveling nearly half of every year. Now in her sixties, Biden is only quickening her pace. "We're looking at adding two more properties to the Royal Portfolio: one in Cape Town and one at Victoria Falls." The hotel career Liz Biden began at age 50 is now moving into top gear. All the better to stay well ahead of the lions (and competitors) who would sink their teeth into a less lively foe.
ALISON WRIGHT - PHOTOGRAPHER, WRITER
Alison Wright creates her piercing, life-affirming photographs by putting herself in jeopardy. Never mind the robbery attempts a five-foot, two-inch woman carrying valuable photo gear might attract, or the near-fatal bus crash she survived in an isolated corner of Laos. To Wright, the most frightening leap toward her life as a freelance photojournalist was giving up her newspaper job to take a three-week assignment in Nepal. While Wright's haunting images now illuminate the pages of highly regarded publications like National Geographic and the New York Times, her work life is often in flux. "At times, I don't really know what I'm doing from one week to the next, or even when the next paycheck is coming," Wright admitted. "Being a freelancer is not for the faint of heart."
Before the Beginning
"I must have developed my wanderlust in utero," Wright mused. "My mother was a British flight attendant for Pan Am when she met my father, a Belgian research chemist with doctorates in physics and chemistry from the University of Cambridge. They immigrated to the U.S. to create a foothold for me on each continent." Wright obtained her first passport while still sucking a pacifier and learned to love the smell of jet fuel.
"Flying back and forth to Europe visiting relatives, I watched my mother stride through airports with confidence, wearing stilettos, furs and Chanel No. 5," Wright recalled. "The sound of people chattering away in strange languages was exhilarating, and when I received my first Kodak Instamatic for my tenth birthday, I fell in love with taking pictures. It became a key to the door of other people's lives."
A Glimpse of the End
That three-week assignment in Nepal turned into four years. "Living in Asia was the life I'd always dreamed of," Wright avowed. "Every morning before I opened my eyes I'd think, 'This is exactly where I want to be, exactly what I want to be doing.' That's when life throws you a curve ball. On January 2, 2000, my life was almost cut short by a horrific bus accident on a remote jungle road in Laos. I was sitting right at the point of impact, pinned by the giant logging truck that sheared our bus in half. Of those who survived, I suffered the most extensive injuries: multiple broken bones, collapsed lungs, herniated heart and more life-threatening internal damage that I didn't learn about until later. Locals brought me to their village and sewed my damaged body together as best they could. There was no hospital, no phone, no painkillers of any kind. Ten hours passed. When it seemed that I was not going to make it through the night, I wrote a note to my family, telling them how and where I had died. As I closed my eyes and surrendered, an amazing thing happened: My body took on a lightness and was released from its profound suffering.
"Miraculously, I survived -- with the help of two benevolent British aid workers who drove me eight hours in the back of their truck to Thailand. After three weeks in intensive care, a medevac back to San Francisco, thirty surgeries and years of rehabilitation, I was motivated by the desire to return to the work I love."
Into the Future
"Not a day goes by that I don't remember, with gratitude, that I am alive because of the kindness of strangers." To give back, Wright created the Faces of Hope Fund, which brings medical care and education to the communities she photographs. "So little money can do so much in these countries," she affirmed. "The first thing I did was bring five American doctors from Dr2Dr and $10,000 worth of medical supplies to the villagers in Laos who saved my life."
These days, Wright spends three-quarters of each year on the road; even this interview was conducted while she was working in a small town in Spain. "I get antsy when I get too comfortable," she revealed. "I love traveling and shooting photos, but marketing the images is just as important. I have presentations, exhibits and photo tours coming up, and I'm working on a global project that focuses on the spirit of philanthropy and travel. I'm a huge proponent of personal projects," she added. "Those are the ones that you'll be most passionate about and where your work will really shine."
On some projects, Wright finds that being a woman can bring special access, as when photographing an apprentice geisha (or maiko) training with her "older sister" (or onee-san) in Kyoto. Wright also feels privileged to have spent time with the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India, where his simple words, "Good intent -- most important in all that you do. Never forget," helped Wright form her lifelong credo: "Challenge yourself. Do something every day that you've never done before. Keep your senses aware and your heart open. And," she stressed, "have medevac insurance."
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AWARD WINNING JOURNALISM (
has received 3 first place Awards for editorial excellence in 2013):
- 2013 "Best Magazine Article: U.S. Travel
- 2013 "Best Magazine Article: Foreign Travel
- 2013 "Best Business Travel Media Award
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