Home » Africa: Nigeria’s Lola Akinmade named among 2023 Most Influential Women in Travel by TravelPulse, USA

Africa: Nigeria’s Lola Akinmade named among 2023 Most Influential Women in Travel by TravelPulse, USA

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Most Influential Women in Travel

Nigeria’s award-winning visual storyteller, international bestselling author and travel photographer, Lola Akinmade has been named among 2023 Most Influential Women in Travel by TravelPulse.

According to travelpulse.com, at a time when the planet faces an increasing number of challenges ranging from climate change to environmental degradation and the massive loss of biodiversity, the travel industry holds a uniquely influential position.

At nearly every point in the travel journey, the industry has the opportunity to be part of the solution—from planning itineraries to the business processes and procedures implemented, and the selection of hotels, entertainment, employees, suppliers, and even the modes of transport used. All of these touchpoints, and more, present an opportunity to take meaningful action for good.

The exciting news is that many women in the industry have recognized this reality and are rising to the occasion. Women the world over are thinking deeply about how the travel industry can be a force that uplifts individuals, supports communities, and protects the planet, as well as the many species that we share this Earth with. Whether they’re creating their own start-ups focused on the issues at hand, or stepping into leadership roles at existing travel companies and brands, women are at the forefront of some of the most exciting ideas and innovations unfolding in travel today.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re shining a light on some of the most influential women in travel for 2023. Each individual on this list was named by peers as a leader, change maker, and visionary in her own way. At TravelPulse’s request, the fascinating women on this list shared insights about what motivates them, what inspires them to keep going each day, and what gives them hope.

Rose O’Connor, Founder & CEO of Sustainable Wanderlust
Sustainable Wanderlust is among the many bold new start-ups in the travel space. A consulting and education firm, Sustainable Wanderlust was launched to help support the preservation of the planet and its people through the power of travel.

As part of that mission, CEO and founder Rose O’Connor works to help businesses assess, develop, market, and promote sustainable practices to both travel professionals and travelers themselves. Most recently, that effort has included working with Avenue Two Travel to develop an industry-first sustainability strategy for the entire agency and sustainable travel training for the company’s travel advisors.

Her work with Avenue Two is just the most recent example of O’Connor’s efforts to bring about change. She spends her days working with clients —from hotels to tour operators, travel agencies and individual advisors—developing robust, measurable, and impactful sustainability strategies to ensure businesses promote travel that leads to dramatic and positive change for the planet and its communities.

It’s a mission that couldn’t be more critical at this moment in time.
“I’m motivated by a sense of urgency, a sense of hope and a profound sense of optimism,” says O’Connor. “Now is the time to act—the evidence abounds. I speak to dozens of travelers and travel professionals on a weekly basis and most agree with this sentiment. However, there’s a gap between owning this knowledge and putting it to good use. However, I believe this is shifting. Through my consulting and education work, I see more and more travelers demanding responsibility from their travel providers and more and more providers heeding the call.”

Nelly O. Gedeon, Founder & CEO of Wayaj
Nelly O. Gedeon grew up in Haiti and immigrated to the United States in 1982. An electrical engineer by trade, her current line of work as founder of Wayaj, a company focused on Earth-friendly travel, is a long way for her educational beginnings.

Another travel-tech start-up, Wayaj provides innovative and effective solutions to the hospitality industry to help hotels reduce their impact on the environment.
As part of that mission, Wayaj works with more than 470 hotel members spread across 109 countries to deliver resources, tools, and expertise to empower the accommodations sector and travelers to make informed choices to support sustainability.

During a visit to Togo, in West Africa, Gedeon had a very eye-opening experience. While having dinner one evening, she noticed a large structure out at sea. To Gedeon’s surprise, the structure turned out to be the area’s main roadway, which was now overtaken by the ocean as a result of climate change. From that day on, Gedeon decided she wanted to be more involved in finding solutions to protect the environment and local communities against the impacts of climate change.

That effort has also recently grown to include the creation of Alright.Travel—a business-to-consumer sustainable accommodations booking platform. Designed to meet the demands of a growing market of ethical travelers, Alright.Travel offers sustainable accommodation options and smart trip ideas.

“I am hopeful. As more travelers become more sensitive to the role they play in protecting the planet, they are showing more commitment to helping communities in need,” says Gedeon. “And travel providers are looking into ways they can reduce their impact…I’m also excited to see the younger generation playing a greater advocacy role in these conversations.”

Dr. Susanne Etti, Intrepid Travel, Global Environmental Impact Manager
As global environmental impact manager for one of the world’s leading travel companies, Dr. Susanne Etti’s work centers around decarbonization, and specifically around climate change, performance, biodiversity, carbon reporting, and transitioning the global tour operator to the low-carbon economy.

That’s no small task. And still that’s not all Etti is focused on. Her role also involves climate advocacy and engagement with Intrepid’s worldwide staff and the wider travel industry. While these takes may be daunting, the role is a perfect fit for Etti, someone who’s been a passionate advocate for the environment from a young age and was always interested in the natural world.

“The good news is that there is still hope—because the travel industry can still take meaningful collective decarbonization action. We have the knowledge, the tools and the innovations” says Etti of the challenges that lie ahead for the industry. “I believe that working in this space is about creating the ripple effect. If I can share my knowledge and learning and help others to do the same, that will help create the changes that are so needed.”

Kalukanda House, Sri Lanka
A London-based interior designer with clients spread across the UK and abroad, Gibson is also the creator of the well-known boutique hotel Kalukanda House in Sri Lanka. Kalukanda offers getaways focused on soul-nourishing, experiential, slow travel and its mission has not only been wildly popular, but is especially critical in the face of the climate and environmental challenges facing the planet. Slow travel offers a far more eco-friendly and meaningful approach to exploring the world and in may ways, is the future of travel.

But Gibson’s efforts are hardly limited to Kalukanda. She runs multiple businesses that are service-related and sit within the luxury spend category. The common thread throughout all her efforts is working to redefine the word luxury by gently guiding clients and guests to consider how they spend sustainably, consciously and with emotional connection.

“We need to redefine travel and then walk the talk,” says Gibson. “Words like ‘luxury’ and acronyms like ‘UHNW’ (ultra-high net worth) imply an aspirational life with the connotation of loftily gadding around the world, deliberately separated from the locals and having limitless expectations,” says Gibson. “We need to bring terms like ‘compassionate travel’ and ‘positive impact’ into our travel lexicon. Destinations and travel designers should encourage people to travel lightly, engage with other cultures and ensure that travel spend truly trickles into local economies. If we need to mandate donations to grassroots charities as part of the booking process, then let’s start there. Travel should be synonymous with circular economy.”

Andrea Wright, Playa Resorts, Vice President of Travel Industry Sales
Andrea Wright is a well known travel industry leader who’s responsible for managing the USA sales team that markets Playa Resorts. As Wright describes it, her role is arming Playa Resorts with the best sales team possible and connecting at the highest level with the travel industry. She’s also responsible for hiring, training, and assisting her team in achieving their annual goals.

Wright also personally works with each of Playa’s individual resorts, and executive teams to create their strategic goals. She’s highly visible throughout the travel agent community, frequently speaks at events and engages in trade shows.

“My ultimate goal is to see each and everyone on my team succeed and get to the place in their career that they feel excited and a sense of accomplishment,” says Wright. “I had the very best mentor and while he may have had other goals on his plate, he made me feel as if my accomplishments were on his daily list of things to do. He taught me to be a strong leader and was instrumental in my success… I want to continue to keep the travel industry strong and successful and encourage more individuals to make this their career choice.”

Sahara Rose De Vore, Founder and CEO of The Travel Coach Network
Sahara Rose De Vore’s long-held goal has been to reshape how travel is marketed, booked, and sold. To help achieve that lofty mission, she founded the global Travel Coach Network (TCN) and created a platform and program where she could educate, inspire, and empower other passionate travelers to do more with their love of travel. This includes helping individuals to stand out in the industry, and align their interests and expertise in travel with how they help people to embrace travel as a tool that can help in all aspects of life.

De Vore also educates companies about the benefits that traveling can have on employee well-being and company culture. In addition to all of that, she also works with tourism and hospitality companies to help them rethink marketing and travel agent materials in order to include a more emotion-based, human-centric, and holistic wellness approach.

The Travel Coach Network has been wildly successful and grown to include a worldwide community of certified coaches, as well as an online platform centered around the belief that travel can be personally and professionally transformative and healing.

“From the moment that I started both of my businesses, I have blinked and it’s five years later. The reason being is that I absolutely love what I’m doing and the mission that I am on. From the day that I had my ah-ha! moment, I’ve always had a gut instinct that this is what I’m set out to do in my life,” says De Vore. “Not a day has passed that I question it. As my Travel Coach Network continues to grow and I get messages on the daily from other travel professionals on how my platform is what they’ve been looking for all along and as I get to know why more and more people believe in the transformative and healing benefits of travel, my vision strengthens. I have a grander picture in mind and am working towards it every day.”

Denella Ri’chard, Executive Producer and Television Host
Denella Ri’chard is the powerhouse at the center of Traveling With Denella Ri’chard. Her days are spent filming destinations and cruise stories around the world for her award-winning, nationally syndicated broadcast, which streams globally. When she’s not filming, Ri’chard is busy speaking at conferences about the future of travel, women in travel, innovations in travel and diversity in travel.

Ri’chard was inspired to begin her own television series when COVID-19 eliminated her job in the cruise industry. That reality forced Ri’chard to re-invent and re-create her career in a bigger, more fulfilling way.

“The young people coming up behind me are my motivation. When they share their excitement for what I’m doing, a woman with her own television show, traveling the world. I’m helping to break boundaries through this show by traveling the world and helping viewers see, we are more the same than we are different…no matter where you go in the world,” says Ri’chard. “The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate how our similarities far exceed our differences; we are all so much the same in the way we laugh, we cry, and the way we love. For each person I can inspire to travel to experience a different culture, and yet appreciate our kinship, we are one step closer to eradicating the ugliness of racism and discrimination, so we can elevate the beauty in discovering our shared humanity.”

Tiffany Turner, CEO, Adrift Hospitality
Tiffany Turner’s journey in the hospitality and tourism industry began at the age of 24. Turned and her husband owned one hotel, and she and her husband were its only employees. Since then, Adrift has grown to include eight properties with 150 employees.

Today, the Adrift portfolio encompasses boutique hotels, restaurants, and a grain-to-glass distillery. Not only does that make Adrift one of the largest employers in its county, but the company has also earned the daunting B Corp status, an exhaustive process that involves meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance.

“There have been many micro-moments where I’ve been able to realize the positive impact travel and hospitality can have on people’s lives. We all know the positive power of travel and of seeing new people and places. However, the reason I get up in the morning excited about my work is the impact that our company has had on our industry, our communities and our employees,” says Turner.

Jessica Blotter, CEO & Co-Founder of Kind Traveler
When it comes to individuals in the travel industry who are well-known powerhouses and forces for good, Jessica Blotter hardly needs any introduction anymore. As the co-founder of Kind Traveler, she has made headlines repeatedly for the past several years running with her efforts to revolutionize not only the hotel booking process, but more broadly the way people travel.

Years ago, the Kind Traveler platform pioneered a unique give + get model of booking hotel stays that allowed travelers for the first time to simultaneously reserve a hotel stay, while also giving back to the destination being visited through a network of more than 150 vetted, local non-profit organizations. In exchange for making a charitable donation when booking a hotel with Kind Traveler, consumers receive perks from the hotels they’re visiting ranging from early check-in, to a welcome bottle of wine, free breakfast, and more.

Equally importantly, the Kind Traveler platform mindfully showcases hotels and resorts that are focused on operating sustainably, supporting their local communities, helping to fight climate change, spearheading ocean conservation, and many of the other most pressing issues being tackled today around the world. Year after year, Kind Traveler is recognized with awards from organizations around the globe for its bold, innovative remaking of the hotel booking process.

“The United Nations reports there are currently 1 million species currently at risk of extinction. The climate crisis is fueling environmental degradation, natural disasters, weather extremes, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, conflict, and terrorism,” says Blotter. “Sea levels are rising, the Artic is melting, coral reefs are dying, oceans are acidifying, and forests are burning, according to the United Nations.”

“Travel and tourism, one of the world’s largest economies worth 1.3 trillion in 2021, has the potential to return a positive net good and positively impact destinations by helping to preserve and protect them for future destinations if resources are directed responsibly,” Blotter adds. “I’m personally motivated by the ways travel can enrich one’s life experience and knowledge, create multicultural understanding, and encourage peace and individual empowerment—and at the same time, when done responsibly and sustainably, help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.”

Carolyn Ray, CEO, JourneyWoman
Carolyn Ray has been a driving force in empowering women to travel solo and fostering a well-connected community of women travelers. In 2019, after 25 years in senior consulting roles, she took over JourneyWoman, the world’s first publication for solo women travelers.

While JourneyWoman has always been an important source of inspiration for solo women, under Ray’s leadership the brand continues to expand as Ray works to empower women to live their best lives, while also supporting women entrepreneurs and small businesses through the publication’s Women’s Travel Directory.

“As the CEO of the world’s largest and oldest solo travel publication, I feel a deep sense of responsibility and accountability to continue the legacy of JourneyWoman,” says Ray. “I also want to represent my readers and give mature women a voice in an industry that they feel has ignored them. I also love that we’re leading discussions that aren’t happening at all at any other women’s solo travel publications, around issues like human trafficking, ageism and accessibility. Four years ago, I transitioned into travel and full-time travel writing, and I have loved every single moment of it.”

Lola Akinmade, Co-Founder of Local Purse and Owner of Geotraveler
An award-winning visual storyteller, international bestselling author and travel photographer, Lola Akinmade has amassed an inspiring list of accomplishments and accolades.

In addition to her work being featured in such illustrious publications as National Geographic, The New York Times, BBC and CNN, she was recently named the 2022 Hasselblad Heroine, and is the recipient of the 2018 Bill Muster Travel Photographer of the Year award. Akinmade is also the author of Due North, a book that earned the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for Best Travel Book. In 2018, she was also honored with MIPAD (Most Influential People of African Descent) recognition.

If all of that isn’t not enough, Akinmade is also co-founder of Local Purse, a company created to support local travel guides and artisans through live video shopping. And she’s also currently in the midst of launching photography experiences around the world and focusing on the online academy she founded, Geotraveler Media, which helps individuals bring their own stories to life through visual storytelling, multimedia and digital publishing.

“A sense of urgency in fighting inequity while fostering connection through my work is what keeps me going and provides that fuel and drive,” says Akinmade. “As an optimist and idealist, my vision of the world is one where people can fully thrive within whatever spheres they find themselves. As an empath, seeing people continually marginalized, not supported, and forgetting our promises to do and be better during the pandemic, affects me quite deeply.”

Claudia Vecchio, CEO, Sonoma County Tourism
While Claudia Vecchio’s business card reads president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the work of destination organizations like the one she heads in Sonoma County continues to expand and evolve on a daily basis. For Vecchio, that means her days run the spectrum of serving as urban planner, social worker, land manager, collaborator, consensus builder, politician, coach, and marketer.

Living in a place like Sonoma County over the past five years, has also meant first and foremost, that she’s a community advocate and crisis manager. When she arrived on the job in 2017, the area was in the midst of dealing with a devastating wildfire – the first of three subsequent major autumn wildfires. This required a complete change in the direction of Sonoma County Tourism to become a destination stewardship rather than a destination marketing organization. And as a result, occupying the CEO seat has meant becoming a steward for change, integrating sustainable and responsible travel initiatives and taking a much closer look at protecting the human, cultural and natural resources of the area.

Through this critical evolution, Sonoma County Tourism organization has started to be at the table for important social, industry and cultural conversations, for which tourism was never previously seen as having a part.

“Sonoma County is a destination that lives and breathes tourism. Tourism and agriculture are the two leading, and symbiotic industries in this region. During five years marked by crises that materially changed the physical and mental health of this area, I feel enormous responsibility to help this region heal and move forward with a shared sense of purpose,” says Vecchio. “In many ways, Sonoma County is a region of artisans. Whether these artists create wine, distill craft spirits, curate culinary masterpieces, shape raw goods into fine apparel and other decorative pieces or engage in maritime arts, it is a place that celebrates small businesses and makers.”

“For Sonoma County Tourism, the responsibility on us to create compelling reasons to come and experience this place is not just to drive the economy, it’s to ensure the livelihoods of these extraordinary artisans, families and individuals who pay a significant price for a stellar quality of life. That, in large part, is a responsibility I take very seriously,” adds Vecchio.

Alix Collins, Center for Responsible Travel, Director of Marketing and Communications
As director of marketing and communications for the Center for Responsible Travel, (CREST) Alix Collins works to create the communications strategy for an organization dedicated to minimizing tourism’s negative impacts on the environment and maximizing the positive contributions tourism can make in communities around the world.

She also serves as the project manager for one of the organization’s destination stewardship projects and serves on the Future of Tourism Coalition’s communications committee. In addition to all of that, Collins is the assistant managing editor of the Destination Stewardship Report.

But long before she arrived at CREST, Collins was engaged in traveling and helping the world in meaningful ways. At the age of 23, she spent months living with a small elephant-keeping Karen community in Northern Thailand. The community had 60 elephants, many of whom were used to generate income at riding camps. The Karen community wanted to bring their elephants and mahouts home to earn a more sustainable living.

To accomplish this, the community partnered with a global volunteer company to set up a community-based tourism project. Collins served as a volunteer during this effort, which involved conducting observational studies on the elephants, living in a local home-stay, learning the Karen language, taking cooking classes, and participating in community events.

The elephants, meanwhile, formed a semi-wild herd and got to roam mostly free in a nearby conservation forest. The entire experience was life-changing for Collins and showed her profound power of community-based tourism.

READ: Africa: South African Tourism host Fam Trip for African American group the Black Travel Professionals

“For me, tourism is personal. When I think about the work we’re doing, I think about the Karen family I lived with for three months, my hiking guide in Rwanda, the women farmers I met in India, and the woman who taught me to make tortillas in Costa Rica,” says Collins.”Tourism for me has always been about the people, and their stories and experiences motivate me every day. I believe in tourism’s ability to do good and I’m proud of the part I get to play in making that happen.”

Emily Goldfischer, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of hertelier
A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Emily Goldfischer is the creator of the essential industry publication and online media platform hertelier. The platform was created to inspire women in hospitality and help them pursue, navigate and nurture their careers at every stage. The platform’s content is curated through the lens of supporting women in their hotel industry careers, including sharing valuable lessons and stories from rising stars, as well as focusing on important business skills, work-life balance topics, and industry news.

As part of that mission, Goldfischer spends her days connecting with women in all aspects of the hospitality industry—from operations to technology, entrepreneurs, interior designers and everything in between. Day after day, Goldfischer elevates the stories of the women who are making bold strides in the hospitality industry, women that are shaping the industry’s future at every level and serving as a force for change.

“Emails from readers and comments on LinkedIn and social media keep me going. What began as a hunch, that women were craving content relevant to them and their careers, has proven, in fact, to be a NEED,” says Goldfischer. “Have there been days I want to quit? So many. Without fail, on the very day when I am ready to throw in the towel, I’ll get a nice email or comment…those and Nancy Mendelson who has been a HUGE support and smart advisor, keep me going.”

Christine Winebrenner Irick, Founder of Lotus Sojourns, Creator of Soul of Travel podcast
Christine Winebrenner Irick’s passion is finding ways that sustainable tourism can support gender equity. She works toward this goal on multiple fronts including through her travel company, Lotus Sojourns, and her podcast Soul of Travel. In both spaces, she focuses on creating a global community of women and amplifying the voices of women who are changing the world through tourism.

At Lotus Sojourns, she designs journeys with a concentrated focus on offering travel that builds a strong connection to each destination and community visited, while also sharing the experience of being a woman and discovering ways to support gender equity in such destinations.

Her compelling podcast, Soul of Travel, is dedicated to showcasing the stories of industry professionals and seasoned travelers who know travel is more than simply a vacation. Each episode features a heavy emphasis on tips and tricks to make sustainable travel easy, as well as how best to travel the world.

“My motivations have changed over the years. It started from this fire to seek equality and visibility for women and a dream of travel that was an equal exchange between travelers and destinations. Now, I have three daughters and my daily motivation is working to create a world where there are no barriers to their success based on their gender,” says Winebrenner Irick. “There are so many social issues I feel drawn to address, but this comes from a very primal need to create a place where I feel they, and their peers, will be safe and have more opportunities when I am gone.

I do feel more hope than despair. I see the world through their eyes and while there is much going wrong, I sense they see things more clearly and will be both less tolerant of injustice and more accepting of differences.”

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity Cruises CEO
As president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo is responsible for leading a high-performing and culturally diverse team of employees to drive the growth and performance of the Celebrity brand.

Since taking over the role of CEO for Celebrity in 2014, Lutoff-Perlo has spearheaded an increase in equitable opportunities that has seen the cruise line go from 5 percent to 32 percent female officers on the bridge over the past seven years, and from zero female engineers to 15 in less than two years. She’s also one of a very few women leading a multi-billion-dollar company, and is a recognized trailblazer in the hospitality industry. That includes efforts to transform and redefine today’s luxury cruise experience, while also establishing and leading the industry-first consolidated Global Marine Organization to maximize efficiencies and best practices across 62 ships and six brands.

“The world is thinking about sustainability and travel will need to up its game here as consumers look for trips and brands that are thinking and acting responsibly when it comes to ESG,” says Lutoff-Perlo. “This needs to be reflected not only in the infrastructure that enables the vacation (cruise ships, planes, trains etc.) but also throughout the entire travel experience. How are we being responsible destination partners? Taking care of the planet and each other? Sourcing products and partners? The cruise industry, like many others, already does so much, but we need to keep innovating and we need to do a better job sharing what we are doing.”

Carla Danelutti, Ecosystem Resilience and Spatial Planning Manager, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) & Executive Secretary for the Mediterranean Experience of Ecotourism Network (MEET)

Carla Danelutti’s efforts are focused on conservation, environmental preservation, and supporting protected areas. A significant portion of her work is focused on the Mediterranean region (which is her home), where she works to plan and promote a different and sustainable form of tourism—one that respects and preserves natural assets.

Her day-to-day role includes working with partners throughout the Mediterranean region to define a new path forward for tourism, as well as identifying funding opportunities and implementing actions on the ground. Much of this work is done through MEET, a network of Mediterranean protected areas that joined forces to establish and promote a common, conservation-centric and community-based ecotourism model in the region.
“I’m motivated by a sense of urgency. I work primarily for the conservation sector and the damage we’re doing to ecosystems and species with our behavior, it’s already reaching the limit (climate change, mass species extinctions) and the need to act seems to be already passed,” says Danelutti. “I’m also motivated by a sense of hope as well, because in my work I get to collaborate with amazing people, especially in the local communities and one can feel things are changing. But maybe not as fast as needed.”

Christina Flores, Managing Director of Aviation Recruiting & Programs, American Airlines
At a time when just 3.4 percent of airplane pilots are women and 96.6 percent are men, Christina Flores holds a critically important position. As managing director of aviation recruiting and programs for American Airlines, she is the head of recruiting programs globally.

She oversees recruiting efforts for positions unique to the aviation industry including pilots, flight attendants and maintenance technicians. Her role includes developing the future of aviation talent through key pipeline programs such as American Airlines Cadet Academy. Through her work, Flores has the opportunity to position American’s next generation of team members. It is a position she uses to significantly diversify the airline’s workgroups.

“I’m motivated by the impact of the work my team and I are fortunate to drive,” says Flores. “It aligns beautifully with American’s purpose of caring for people on life’s journey. Not only are we positioned to strengthen the airline through our results, but we also transform lives and communities by exposing individuals to the power of flight & ultimately hiring the next generation of aviation professionals.”

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