Being a female CEO during a pandemic

When I look back over the past twelve months, it is frightening to reflect on how much our industry has been through. We have been challenged like never before.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. As the leader of the UK’s largest independent travel agent group, I believe now is the time to start to look forward and embrace change as we enter a new world post-pandemic. With the vaccination programme continuing at a pace and commitment by the Prime Minister of a cautious and irreversible roadmap it certainly feels like signs of recovery are coming but how will we change as businesses because of this?

Have I changed personally over the last twelve months? I would say I definitely have, and I expect most business leaders would say they have too. As soon as a UK lockdown became a reality, I launched into crisis mode, with my senior team by my side we quickly prepared for the office to relocate to our team’s homes and I called the whole team together to face the stark reality of telling the team that things were likely to get pretty intense quickly. I remember being struck personally looking at all those faces altogether in one room that last day in March 2020 the realisation that I couldn’t promise if and when, we would once again all be in a room together again.

Being a female leader

No female leader can deny thinking about the stereotype that ‘female leaders are more emotional’ – something I think is a generalisation, but I do not necessarily see it as a bad thing and I like to think of this as being more emphatic. Throughout the pandemic I have stayed in close contact with my team, choosing to run a weekly Zoom call with the whole business (cameras switched on!) as I focused on the changing nature of my own role to adapting our business for the future and working around the clock to ensure that I did all I could to support our members, our industry and of course my central team.

Some weeks there hasn’t been much to say, and I’ll admit even I have found them tough; my team have seen me become tearful on those calls as I have had to deal with the tough decision we have had to make, particular where it has impacted on people. I have shared with my team the many frustrations around the lack of government support for our industry, we have shared personal stories of missing families and friends – all of which I believe has allowed me to keep a human touch when communicating through a screen.

At Advantage, we have always had a flexible working culture and being a mother of two myself I have always supported my team in adopting flexible working childcare policies and knowing first-hand the pressures of bringing up children and working full time I am really proud of how we enable working parents to balance this aspect of their lives. It’s been no secret that women have been more affected statistically in the pandemic due to increased childcare demands, home-schooling and industries adversely affected by having a higher female ratio, including the events and hospitality sectors. We have felt this ourselves at Advantage and I’ve had to watch primarily women (and some men!) struggle with dealing with looking after children while being on Zoom calls for most of the day – though I have to say it has been enjoyable to see a different side to my team and to have a glimpse into their personal lives and home décor! We immediately acknowledged the balance of childcare and working and adopted a flexible approach to working at home and being patient throughout the challenges that all parents have faced during this time. A hybrid, flexible working approach is the way I want to take our business moving forward

Amongst the membership I have spoken to a number of members who have struggled to balance tough decisions, financial pressure and personal challenges over the past twelve months with incredible dignity, professionalism and resilience and I am proud of them all. There are reports that this could be the biggest challenge of our generation and I know we have found it hard to encourage training, upskilling of our teams but I have been amazed at how many people within our industry have stepped up their own upskilling, often whilst facing personal challenges themselves.

As we look to consider how businesses will change coming out of this pandemic, I want us to really consider the culture of our workplace and what new skills will have emerged from the past 12 months that we will want to embrace and train for. 

Culture is really important, and for me, this has to start at the top of any organisation. The past 12 months I am so proud of my team, of how we have risen to the challenge, supported our members and whilst there are no winners, I can genuinely reflect back knowing we stood up and fought every step of the way.

For now, I will continue to fight the corner of the decimated travel industry – and would encourage any young person in school still considering which industry to join, the travel industry will welcome you with open arms joining an industry that I love and feel so passionate about.

Julia Lo Bue-Said is CEO of Advantage Travel Partnership


Julia Lo Bue-Said

CEO of Advantage Travel Partnership

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