While the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on many industries, the travel sector has undoubtedly suffered one of the biggest blows.
So, how did major travel tech companies get through 2020? Gillian Tans is the chair of Booking.com, having served as the companies chief operating officer for more than 13 years and subsequently appointed as CEO in 2016.
Tans’ contract as chair was due to expire in June 2020. However, her contract was extended through 2021. “I advise the company’s leadership on the long-term vision and operations for the business, key growth opportunities and core corporate social responsibility initiatives,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.
‘2020 put Booking.com into uncharted territory. In March alone, we saw more cancellations than new bookings’
– GILLIAN TANS, BOOKING.COM
Tans joined the tech industry just after the dot-com bust. She said that while the “entrepreneurial, scrappy spirit” in the tech industry has stayed the same, the mobile revolution has accelerated how customers live and work.
“Additionally, it’s been encouraging to see the increasing focus across the industry to drive greater diversity and inclusion in tech. I think it is fair to say that the industry’s workforce was largely homogenous in 2000 – something that has begun to shift over the past few years,” she said.
“Diversity is key to building an inclusive workforce and environment that fosters innovation, collaboration and creativity. And while strides are being made, we do still have a long way to go to further diversify the industry and make it a more appealing and inclusive space in which everyone can thrive.”
Goodbye global travel, hello global pandemic
Tans said that while Booking.com had many plans and processes in place for how its workforce would handle natural disasters and other unforeseen disruptions, handing a global pandemic was not something they had been prepared for.
“2020 put Booking.com into uncharted territory. In March alone, we saw more cancellations than new bookings – a first for us. The travel industry as a whole, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, has never seen such immense change and challenge.”
To combat the decline, Tans said the company took steps to conserve cash and increase liquidity, such as reducing marketing spend, cutting non-essential costs and reducing executive compensation. This raised more than $4bn in debt. “From there, we began to innovate our product to meet rapidly evolving customer and partner needs,” she said.
From an internal workforce point of view, Tans said leading remotely began with getting all employees from across more than 300 offices to work from home.
“This included 10,000 customer service employees from multiple CS centres, which is no small feat with the technology requirements, and the increased demand into CS due to travel cancellations and date changes,” she said.
“While the recovery of the travel industry cannot be confined to the next year – as it will take longer than that – I look forward to helping shape that recovery inside Booking.com and across the industry as well as collaborating and cooperating with governments around support and stimuli for the industry and to ensure that regulation in the sector helps, not hurts, the recovery.”
Shining a light on diversity
Tans is widely considered a champion of diversity in the workplace and she told Siliconrepublic.com that it remains one of her biggest passion points.
“The momentum of progress for women in leadership and the broader public attention to it over the past few years gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction, but this year has accelerated the broader conversation around diversity and I welcome that,” she said.
“There is always more to be done, and I alongside many others are not satisfied with the status quo. The solution requires us to look outside our own companies as well as the STEM field. We need input from all stakeholders – government, our education system – in addition to businesses of all sizes to bring about a meaningful shift.
Tans said there are plenty of ways businesses can improve the situation such as internal initiatives like mandatory unconscious bias training or external investments to shine a light on role models.
“Having more women, minorities and those from underrepresented communities in the room will empower more and more companies to do the same. And in reality, diversity – gender, racial and otherwise – should be a priority for every single leader and every single company no matter what industry – not just tech.”
One of the areas Tans hopes to address more is giving employees more access to senior leaders and managerial support, as it has residual effects on upward mobility and earning power.
She cited a study from the Lean In Foundation that found that for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position in the US, only 58 black women are promoted, despite black women asking for promotions at the same rate. She said this is a problem “largely attributed to lack of access and support”.
“Being accessible can seem daunting and comes with a great deal of responsibility and it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. But more importantly, being accessible to a diverse range of employees at all levels of an organisation should help to ensure that it isn’t just one type of employee that gets promoted and makes it to the top of the corporate ladder.”
As a tech leader, Tans’ key advice for anyone starting out in the tech industry is to not be afraid of new challenges and opportunities, even when they come with some uncertainty.
“My career path was not obvious, I had to make many twists and turns along the way to get where I am today. It required taking some chances, but those were the moments where I learned the most,” she said.
“Taking risks could take on many forms. It could mean taking the leap of faith to start your own business. Or it could be as simple as having the confidence to speak up in a meeting where a diverse point of view could have a meaningful impact. These moments can be nerve-wracking or uncomfortable, but I promise that these are moments of growth. And without challenging yourself, growth opportunities are limited.”
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