You began your career in the physical hotel industry before moving to Booking, which at the time was a very small start-up. Why did you see such potential in the travel tech space?
I had a passion for travel really early on, working in accommodations all over the world. But in my last job before Booking, I was basically responsible for marketing and sales for a hotel chain, and that’s when I realised that finding and booking accommodation, and finding customers all over the world to bring into these properties, was so very complicated.
When the internet grew, I got really fascinated in the opportunity that could bring, and when Booking came along, I didn’t doubt it for a moment. I could see how it could help consumers into the next phase in terms of making booking travel easier. And yeah, that’s the reason why I changed direction and joined the company, really.
You were only the seventh employee at Booking. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of joining a company at that early stage?
If you think about the one thing that sets start-ups apart, it’s taking risks. And at that moment, I took a risk. Many people didn’t think it was a very obvious career choice to make at that time, but my career path has not been very obvious. I took many twists and turns, and I’ve found that these are the moments in which you grow and develop.
Risk-taking I always say, comes in many forms. It could be that, just like me, you join a start-up. It could be that you start your own company. It could be that you speak up in a meeting. It can be little things as well, like asking for feedback. And I think these are the moments that feel very uncomfortable, but these are the moments in which you really grow and learn.
And for me as well, if you think about joining a start-up, you really experience so much more, so much faster. These companies grow fast. But also, because these companies are not so organised in the beginning and don’t have all the departments – I always say it’s like organised chaos – you learn so many more things. I mean, if I think about myself, in the beginning, we were all doing customer service and helping customers on our weekends. You’re all in this together. And I’ve seen it with so many people at Booking as well, people growing faster than you even think possible yourself. And you only notice that once you start recruiting for a certain role, and you have both internal and external candidates. You realise that these people internally have grown so fast, that they’re actually able to do these roles as well as anyone. And that’s why I think joining a small company is a very good experience to try in life.
There are people you interview whose jobs you envy. Whose paths you admire, or whose work you like to imagine yourself doing in future.
And then there are those whose shoes you simply can’t imagine standing in. Gillian Tans is one of those people.
A former hotel industry staffer, she joined Booking.com when it was a tiny start-up, only its seventh employee. By the time she slid sideways from her CEO-ship to become the firm’s chairwoman, it had grown to employ more than 17,500 people across 200 countries. Then, 2020 arrived, decimating the travel industry along with so many others.
But while exponential growth might be Tans’ calling card, it’s her passion for promoting inclusivity that brings her to my Zoom screen today. An inexhaustible advocate for expanding women’s representation in the tech space, now more than ever, she sits down to talk to our editor Jennifer Crichton about the urgent need for equality – and her optimism for the future of travel…
Women remain very much underfunded and underrepresented in the technology sector, and you’ve said you think it could take a century for us to catch up. What are the key challenges in getting to where we need to be?
If you think about technology and how fast it evolves, you realise how crucial this is. If we already, today, don’t have enough women working on these topics, then the problem will get bigger, faster. It needs even more attention at this moment. We could take this whole session to talk about this one subject, but I think the good thing is that so many people, collectively, agree that this is such a big challenge, that we have a lack of women in technology, and as leaders.
And if you think about where you see that, you have to go back to the beginning and ask why, in STEM subjects, there’s not enough women choosing to study there. That’s already a big challenge. Then you see it in the lack of role models, right? Every year, we do the Technology Playmaker Awards for Booking.com and you see women doing such an amazing job in technology everywhere – it could be in their own companies, it could be in education, or in different type of topics or in bigger companies. But it’s important we keep showcasing these women because that will inspire other women to take these steps as well.
Then, I think it’s about accessibility to managers. Women need to get the right feedback to develop promotional processes. I’ve seen research from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation where, in the US, they concluded that for every 100 Black men that were promoted, only 58 Black women were promoted when they applied for the same jobs. So, in diversity on every angle, there’s still so much work that needs to be done.
What do you do personally to encourage that culture of inclusion?
The first thing I would say about that is that it’s so important that you stay true to yourself. As women leaders, it’s important that we think about our own values. It’s not that we need to be somebody else. And I think I can’t emphasise that enough, because it’s only when we stay true to ourselves that we actually show our identities and that’s what people need to see. They need to see that you’re authentic – that builds trust as well. That, for me, is super important.
I’ve always sat on the floor at Booking – you need to show you’re accessible as a leader, that you have nothing to hide. I think empowerment, too, is so important because empowerment actually creates people who can explore their own ways to accomplish things, but who can also make mistakes and therefore grow faster.
Trust is a very important part of my leadership style – you have to trust the people that are working with you so they’re actually able to show success. They need to be able to grow, but also know that they are allowed to make mistakes, that they actually get rewarded for doing that.
2020’s been a horrific year, with Booking Holdings recording a $700 million loss in the first quarter. How you would summarise the challenges you’re facing?
Yeah. I think if you think about 2020, both Booking.com and the whole travel industry went into unchartered territory. This is something that we have never seen before, and it’s had an impact on huge numbers of people all over the world – ten per cent of jobs rely on travel.
And I must say, if you think about the culture of Booking and how people really, in this situation, thought about innovation, thought about new ways of working with customers, I’m extremely proud how the company has dealt with this. How our people have thought about, okay, how do we make sure we really change with those changing needs, with people staying closer to home and wanting to make sure that, wherever they go, it’s safe?
What do you think it’s going to take for people to feel secure in traveling again?
Well, that’s a lot. There need to be effective treatments, vaccines, so it will take some time before people feel fully confident to cross the world. And that’s what we’re already seeing in the behaviour of people, in terms of them taking different types of trips. Then there’s the whole economic impact and the financial situation, which could have a longer-term impact on travel as well.
But I think the biggest issue is uncertainty ,and uncertainty is something that people have been forced to deal with in facing COVID. We don’t know how long it’s going to take to overcome that, but it will certainly be a couple of years, I think, before the travel industry will be back to pre-COVID levels. We’ll take time. But the good thing is that I think once people can travel, people will travel. We already saw that in the summer – people still want to explore the world.
Travel has been getting cheaper and more accessible for a number of years now. Will COVID reverse that trend?
I think we’re going to see people making choices carefully about where they spend their money. But travel broadens people’s horizons and creates memories of a lifetime, and I think that’s not going to change. I think the industry will grow through change and maybe, in a few years, things might look different. But it’s very hard to tell what exactly that will be at this moment, and I don’t think anybody can predict that.
What I do think we’ve seen this summer is people really staying closer to home. We’ve had to give a lot more information around safety and about the hygiene of properties, for example. And if you think about what people are looking for, we saw an increased interest in different types of accommodations as well. I think long haul travel will indeed be delayed, and it will be very hard, but I think eventually people will make those trips again. I’m certain.
I apologise for asking you to gaze into a crystal ball, but I would love to know what you think travel is going to look like by, say, 2030. Are you optimistic about the future?
It’s difficult to say what the industry will look like by 2030, I think nobody can predict. What’s sure is it will look different than it does today. But, if you think about it, many things have changed in travel over recent years already. When I was young, we only took maybe a camping trip a year, and very close to home in the Netherlands. And if I see what I do with my children, they’ve already seen a different side of travel. I think there will be change that’s for sure, but I’m confident travel will remain an important part of people’s lives.
Jennifer and Gillian’s conversation will be broadcast as part of Web Summit’s Women in Tech forum on Tuesday, October 20. For more information or to buy tickets for Web Summit 2020, visit the website.