“The workplace is changing, whether companies like it or not.” A chat with Vicki Cunningham.
At the 2019 Annual General Meeting and Industry Panel ratifications of WYSE Travel Confederation, held ahead of the World Youth and Student Travel Conference (WYSTC) in Lisbon, Vicki Cunningham, Group Director, Work Abroad at STA Travel was ratified to the WYSE Travel Confederation management board as a Member at Large. We caught up with Vicki ahead of International Women’s Day to discuss the importance of youth travellers to the travel and tourism sector, the role of WYSE Travel Confederation and being a woman in travel.
Tell us a little about your career trajectory. How did you come to work within the youth travel industry?
I started out working in the events and marketing industry, specifically managing the marketing for a portfolio of graduate recruitment exhibitions, which was my entry into the youth market. At 26, having never travelled other than for holidays, I quit my job and bought a flexible return ticket to Bangkok. As a solo first-time traveller I was terrified but went on to have the most amazing and life-changing six-month experience. Two weeks after arriving back home, I was approached by BUNAC to be their head of marketing. As a company that makes Work & Travel accessible, easy and stress-free, it felt like the perfect fit for my new-found love of travel and previous exposure to the youth market.
We’re delighted that you are now part of the WYSE Travel Confederation management board. What role do you see WYSE Travel Confederation playing in the youth travel landscape?
Youth travellers play such a positive and crucial role in the tourism and travel sector; they’re the trail blazers, they put new destinations on the map, they’re eager to escape the crowds of overtourism and they’re the most likely to embrace sustainable travel practices. WYSE Travel Confederation plays a huge role in ensuring that the youth travel market stays front and centre for governments, tourist boards and businesses. If travel doesn’t embrace and nurture the youth market, who will grow up to the be the older luxury market?
How do you hope [together with the board and sector panels] to contribute to the future direction of WYSE and represent the interests of our members?
I’m constantly banging the diversity drum; diversity in the workplace, diversity in the products and destinations we offer and diversity in our customers. There are so many businesses within our organisation [WYSE] hiring amazing people to help make amazing experiences happen for young people around the world. I look forward not only to helping WYSE shine a light on those businesses so governments and businesses continue to see the value in youth travel, but also to share best practice so we can all keep learning from each other.
According to the UNWTO’s 2019 Global Report on Women in Tourism, 54% of people employed in tourism are women, however still concentrated in low-level employment*. Have you seen any increase in female leadership within the industry in recent years?
I believe that the desire is definitely there to ensure that there are more smart and capable women in leadership roles. That said, until companies commit to implementing concrete policies addressing flexible working practices, unconscious bias and levelling the maternity and paternity playing field, progress will continue to be slow. However, it feels like there is much more discussion about how we can improve the situation than ever before and that can only be a positive thing.
How is STA Travel leading the way in regard to equality in the workplace and considering the needs of employees?
STA Travel head office has a great flexible working policy. The whole team can flex their start and finish time, which then makes fitting in other commitments – in my case, kids bedtime and pick ups – so much easier to juggle. Most of the team have the ability to work remotely and a lot of people work from home one or two days a week. Making this available to the whole team, not just working mums, levels the playing field. The team were so accommodating when I wanted to return from maternity leave in a part-time capacity, and I’m incredibly grateful for that flexibility when my children were so young. STA has some some incredibly smart, energetic and ambitious women in senior leadership positions who are smashing the glass ceiling, which is very motivating and inspirational for myself and the next generation of female travel industry leaders. You see a lot of companies jumping on the female equality bandwagon with various marketing campaigns, but it’s the real changes to working policies that make a difference for women. All we need now is for all companies to implement the same paid paternity leave as Finland!
Do you have any experience of acting as a female mentor in the workplace? Or perhaps you were mentored by a female further back in your career?
I’m lucky to have worked with some smart and very patient female leaders who’ve had the time to coach me and help me climb up the ladder. I hope I’m a positive female mentor. I try to lead by example and am incredibly committed to ensuring that the teams working with me are engaged and feel able to progress and develop, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. One thing that is clear is that the workplace is changing, whether companies like it or not! It’s not about presenteeism or the number of hours you work, it’s about impact. Diversity of opinion, ideas and experiences is the best way to challenge the status quo and move a business forward. And most importantly for me, equality isn’t always about treating everyone the same. It’s about treating people fairly; I listen hard to what’s important or challenging for every individual in my team and try to be flexible and accommodating to what’s going on in their life at that moment.
And finally; what advice would you give to a woman looking to become a leader in the youth travel industry?
Stay true to yourself and don’t be afraid to let your true personality or vulnerabilities shine through. Keep asking for the opportunities and know your worth; so many women I’ve worked with seem to find it very hard to ask for a raise. There is no shame in knowing your worth and asking for it. And finally, keep talking about issues around equality; not just to women but to everyone in the workplace – this isn’t just a women’s issue. Progress is being made and it’s my hope that when my daughter enters the workplace, she won’t even know what a gender pay gap report is!
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