Interview: Women in Travel’s Alessandra Alonso

The social enterprise founder tells Samantha Mayling how employers can tackle ‘brain drain’ in the travel sector

If you keep doing the same things, you’ll get the same outcome – and that’s a problem for the travel sector’s recruitment crisis.

That’s the message from Alessandra Alonso, founder of Women in Travel CIC (Community Interest Company), a social enterprise that works with travel employers to provide training, mentoring and employment opportunities for women, particularly those who are marginalised and vulnerable.

Many travel agencies and tour operators lost staff amid the pandemic and over the past six months or so have struggled to woo people back – or find new recruits – as business recovers.

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“There’s an opportunity to think outside the box,” says Alonso. “Travel agencies and operators may go down the traditional route, but now there’s an opportunity to expand their horizons and it can bear great fruit.”

She says recruitment issues are not unique to travel, but the sector is seen as awkward for employees who may prefer a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday role. Travel and hospitality have also been hit by Brexit, as many workers from Europe left the UK and are unlikely to return.

Alonso points to reports from the World Travel & Tourism Council, which estimated that more than 200,000 travel jobs across the UK remained unfilled in December 2021.

“Employers need to look at a more diverse range of candidates,” she adds. She urges firms to work with her company to tackle the “brain drain”.

Personal challenges

Women in Travel works with candidates from diverse backgrounds, many of whom have faced challenges but are eager for opportunities.

These women may be out of work for personal challenges such as illness or elderly care, while others might have recently arrived in the UK.

“Some refugees can be very well qualified and have lots of transferable skills,” she says. “They are a pool of talent that needs to be discovered.

“Unless you invest in training, you are unlikely to get the flow of talent to promote from within.”

She also says 80% of consumer decisions – including holiday choices – are made by women, so it’s important that workforces hear female voices.

Furthermore, younger staff are more likely to ask employers about diversity and inclusion policies.

“We can help you be more diverse – and gain credibility as an employer committed to diversity and inclusion,” she advises.

The pandemic has also shown how workers can be flexible and work from home. “Make sure you offer flexibility, in return for commitment, especially for single parents,” she adds. “Flexibility does not mean lack of commitment.”

As well as helping with recruitment, Women in Travel helps employers with male ‘allyship’ (men who champion gender equality and female advancement) and mentoring programmes. Women in Travel has about 70 mentors in companies such as Intrepid Travel and easyJet, while the male allyship network has 10 senior leaders matched with women across the industry. Over the past five years, Women in Travel has supported more than 1,200 women, but the challenges of Brexit and Covid mean its work is becoming increasingly important.

Case studies

Women in Travel placed one candidate at Diamond Air International, which offers concierge services at airports and railway stations, at the height of arrival and departure testing last December. Working from home and supporting the operations department, she was quickly able to share much of her line manager’s workload, and was praised as “brilliant” for her commitment and attention to detail.

Christina Lawford, DiamondAir chief executive, said: “To be able to give opportunities to marginalised women who may have more-challenging life circumstances is a ‘win-win’ for everyone.”

Another successful partnership has been with Intrepid Travel, which trained three tour guides in London.

Two moved to full-time jobs thanks to their new-found confidence.

One of the guides, Sefanit, now runs Shepherd’s Bush market tours, highlighting the culture of her home country Ethiopia, and is doing work experience with Intrepid.

She says the training and mentoring have “transformed” her life. “I am also studying and can see a bright future for myself and my daughter,” she added.

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