Senior Leaders: Lessons from the Road
by Kate Simpson, President
Crafting beautiful itineraries is our forte, yet we all know that the real magic happens when we hand the reins to our travel directors–those who are charged with making it all come to life. This fall, two senior leaders in our study abroad division were assigned as travel directors on important trips with highly discerning clients. Randall Salisbury, our Vice President for CET Programs, led our Road & Track Road to Revival trip to the United Kingdom, featuring the Goodwood Revival. Shelley Jessee, our CET Senior Director of Marketing, led a VIP group to Iceland for Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. They shared some insights with us.
Randall: Unsurprisingly, the Goodwood Revival was the highlight of the trip for me. This is the only historic car event staged entirely in period dress and celebrates the glory days of racing. From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, it’s fully immersive and interactive. This is a unique experience that even people without deep car knowledge can thoroughly enjoy.
Shelley: The highlight of our trip to Iceland was a day that wasn’t even on our original itinerary! Weather required a last-minute change. Knowing that our group was interested in geology, our amazing local guide, Tryggvi, suggested we add Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve to our itinerary. Landmannalaugar is a geologist’s dream! The main attraction is the colorful rhyolite mountains, but in our 4×4 vehicles on the way to the mountains, we drove through lava fields formed by eruptions in the 15th century, admired the Ljótipollur (ugly puddle) crater which was anything but ugly, and counted waterfalls sprouting out of the canyon at Sigöldugljúfur. All were wowed, even the experienced geologists in the group.
Randall: Rolling with the punches, being flexible, and being fun yet firm are all things that have served me well when leading a tour. Setting expectations at the beginning of the program that, despite best efforts, things will change and that’s ok! If you roll with the punches and maintain a positive attitude, the travelers will follow your lead. Another key success factor is being a fun traveling companion, while also being firm in setting expectations. It is all about being an effective and clear communicator.
Shelley: Anticipation and communication. You need to read the itinerary critically and anticipate challenges, bumps in the road, and possible delays. When you anticipate what could go wrong, you can plan for it and liaise with our local vendors and contacts to mitigate any potential issues. Then, when problems can’t be avoided, communication comes in to ensure the group is informed. As a travel director, you’re acting as a connector: connecting the travelers and their interests, our local contacts, and the planned itinerary to create a meaningful experience for everyone in the group.
Randall: At ATA (CET), I am responsible for navigating different personalities, work styles, and group dynamics all the while setting the tone and leading by example. I must connect with individuals, connect them to the mission, and find (and lean into) the natural rhythm of my team. Honestly, acting as travel director requires all the same elements. I know the importance of being prepared, finding solutions instead of being overwhelmed by the problems, and focusing on quality–all very transferable skills when it comes to being effective on tour.
Shelley: Leading our marketing efforts, I focus on my target audience when building a campaign. And keeping your audience top of mind is one of the most important strategies in leading a successful travel program. Thinking of what the group is interested in, why they chose this particular tour, and what memories they’re hoping to leave the trip with helps to guide your decisions and view of the itinerary when making plans and last-minute changes. And as a senior leader, I always keep the big picture in mind: thinking two steps ahead, understanding how decisions will ripple through the organization, and anticipating how others will interpret actions I’m taking. Leading a travel program is an intense case study of being a leader in a dynamic, ever-changing business.
Randall: Does ATA operate any trips to New Zealand?! If so, I want first dibs.
Shelley: If I had the chance to be part of a Dinner with Friends trip, I’d jump at it! Getting to experience this food with amazing experts and hearing from the talented chefs would be an unforgettable experience.
Thank you, Randall and Shelley, for your leadership—wherever you are in the world! We would gladly follow YOU anywhere.