Sisters doing it for themselves


Yes, it is a man’s world. Well, at least it used to be, and if you look at the African business travel industry, a host of powerful women have made their mark on a traditionally male-dominated space, and changed the landscape significantly. Business Traveller Africa takes a closer look at some of the women who have changed the complexion of the industry and charged to the top of areas such as travel management, car rental, airline and hotel management.

At the helm of Harvey World Travel, general manager Rosemary Moss finds the travel industry one of the more progressive industries, as shown by the high concentration of female employees, and the growing number of women running travel-related businesses. “There will continue to be positive change in the way the industry operates,” says Moss. “As business methods embrace technology, and service levels improve, women are well-positioned to be at the forefront and play a significant leadership role.”

After a 12-year stint at Budget Rent A Car that garnered numerous awards for the company, Moss was appointed general manager of Harvey World Travel in 2009. She insists it is the ‘people-centric’ skills of women that have taken them to the top jobs in the industry. “Consumers, men in particular, believe a continually high level of service, value for money and, especially, efficiency can be delivered by women in a far superior way.”

According to Moss there has always been a high level of female participants in the industry. “The battle has been to overcome the age-old prejudice of the male-dominated industry. But the opportunities for entrepreneurship and service levels that women bring to the table are changing these mindsets. More women are embracing the favourable conditions of the present, and proving that they bring a level of thinking and service delivery that’s new to the consumer.”

Dawn Nathan-Jones, CEO of Europcar, agrees. “Women in all areas of corporate travel are excelling,” says Jones. “Case in point: about 70% of Europcar’s senior management is female.” Jones says this is not simply evidence of the company’s commitment to empowering women, but shows that the ability of a woman to manage is being recognised. In 1980 Nathan-Jones began what was to become a lifetime career with Imperial Car Rental, when it was just three months old. In 2007 she managed the huge merger of Imperial and Europcar to become the leader of one of the most powerful car rental brands in South Africa.

 “Most business leaders – men and women – face similar obstacles in achieving success in business, and the world of travel is no different,” she says. “Yes, there used to be a disparity, but this country has adapted and progressed so rapidly. There’s no point left to prove. Nowadays, it makes no difference whether a man or a woman is the leader. You get to where you are through merit. Your reputation is based only on your achievements”, she says.

But Zahra Peera, CEO of the Hotel Formula 1 Group, a subsidiary of Accor Southern Africa, feels the South African travel industry is still way behind much of the world, particularly Europe, when it comes to female empowerment. “There is a gradual shift taking place”, she says, “but it will take quite some time. For now, men still seem to lead the management teams.”

Peera believes the travel industry is undergoing a transformation, with women playing an increasingly significant role. “Their capabilities are being recognized, but not necessarily put to use. They need more management opportunities.”

According to Peera, women have an enormous contribution to make to the travel industry. “Interestingly, women are the key drivers of the hotel industry, and the majority of staff is female. I anticipate this will filter through to management in time, and the value of their contributions will be recognised”, she says. Based on her experience, she says guests enjoy seeing women as general managers of hotels, as they know that women always give great attention to detail. “Clients seem to have an immediate sense of hospitality when they deal with a woman and when they know a woman is in charge.”

Not being listened to in the workplace was one of Peera’s biggest obstacles. “If I expressed an idea, people around me would acknowledge that I had said something. If a man expressed the same idea, he would be listened to and the idea would be acknowledged as a good one. Finally, this is changing.”

Whether in family or business, Peera firmly believes women are the nurturers of society, because they perpetuate what they believe contributes to growth. “They add value to the industry, as they make decisions not just to instigate, but to implement, monitor and review what is needed for growth”, she says.

Robyn Christie, CEO of the Association of South African Travel Agents (ASATA) calls herself a late starter, who only took her career seriously from the age of 30. “Before that I travelled extensively, lived a little wildly and had a lot of fun,” she says. “But there was nothing that I regret today, because much of that time prepared me to get to where I am now. Within my role today I can safely say the challenges excite me, the adversity drives me, and the people delight me.”

Many’s the time Christie heard that an Old Boys Club existed in the travel industry. “But that can be claimed in any industry,” she says. “And let’s face it, there’s also very much an Old Girls Club here. I caution against putting people into boxes, but women do seem more capable of multitasking and are perhaps better with the attention to detail requirements of demanding leisure and corporate clients.”

Christie is adamant the ability to further growth in your life is no longer determined by gender, a concept she finds ‘so last decade’, and her conviction remains that, as in any career, it is ability that counts. In her opinion, obstacles within the industry today are non-discriminatory. “It’s an industry that creates wonderful opportunities for young people, but it is not an easy job and carries a load of responsibility. These days, business owners are looking for skills, not gender, and this requires someone determined, organised and robust, who executes a professional service. Gender irrelevant. Times have changed. Chivalry is not a given and respect has to be earned”, she says.

Christie agrees that the travel industry is dominated by women, but on a closer analysis of the business ownership angle, says it is clearly ‘managed’ by women, but led by men. “Traditionally, a travel business was started on the back of a dream by an entrepreneur who loved to travel. Funding is always the tricky part, which is why we would have to fall back on our fathers, partners, etcetera.”

Having reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, Kedi Maponyane knew about flying high, well before her January appointment as Head of Region in South Africa for Wings Travel Management, the high-end corporate travel management company. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that she describes her career as nothing short of exciting. “I have the full support of my company and have not had to overcome any gender-based obstacles during my time here,” she says. “There’s a good gender mix in general in the industry. It has been hugely receptive to men and women succeeding, and opportunities are there for whoever can do the job well”, she says.

Along similar lines, staff at Avis describe Jessica Branco, recently appointed the company’s divisional learning and development manager, as a ‘dynamo’, the ‘ideal leader’ and ‘inspirational’. Branco, who has been in the travel industry for 23 years, says, “there used to be the perception that men had to be the leaders in this industry. Certainly there once was much doubt about the value women could bring to the party, but this has changed as women continually show success.”

Branco says women at Avis have been given numerous opportunities to succeed. “Here, they are encouraged to take up the challenges of a variety of positions that once were thought to be filled by men only”, she says. Michi Messner, regional manager Africa of Qantas Airways agrees that this can be seen across the industry. “Women dominate, but mostly in numbers and not necessarily in top management positions”, she says. “Now, more women are becoming CEOs, managing directors or regional managers.”

For Messner, it simply amounts to the right person filling the right job, regardless of gender. “Women in this industry have worked themselves from the ground up, gaining vast experience through travelling, establishing sound relationships and getting their voices heard through different industry bodies. They deserve to be recognised.”

While discrimination against women might well have reigned in the past, Messner cannot recall ever being treated differently by male clients. “No offence to anyone, but I think men can sometimes be easier to negotiate with than women.”

Her firm conviction is that the industry has to continue being receptive to women getting ahead, and she sees this advancement as a tribute to the ability of women, many of whom manage two careers – one at home, the other at the office.“What can I say, but that we have the power,” she says exuberantly.

Julia Lloyd

Previous articleUp at the sharp end
Next articleQ&A: The try harder approach