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The Hidden Market of Female Travelers

Women are a rising force among frequent business travelers. They also make a majority of decisions for their families' personal trips. So can the travel business get in gear?

Try this on for size: A female executive recently changing planes at one of the world's busiest passenger airports, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, suddenly realized she'd forgotten to pack her extra pair of shoes. With luck she found a shoe store at the airport, but its selection was limited to men's footwear. When she asked where she could buy women's shoes, the clerk told her, "Sorry, not anywhere here."

It's a real experience and a metaphor for a larger quest that women as a segment of the traveling population frequently endure. Despite their numbers as a growing force in the marketplace, women business travelers are still often shoehorned into a model designed for men. Hotel rooms for business travelers offer downcast décor and so-so amenities; the hotel's social area may consist of a bar that is at best uninviting or at worst, vaguely creepy. In addition, women travelers often perceive that airline employees treat them more grudgingly than the guys.

As a result, a valuable market is still waiting to be served; that goes double when one considers women's substantial role in organizing their families' leisure vacations. So said five travel professionals who spoke at a panel session of the Harvard Business School Dynamic Women in Business Conference, held January 22. Laura Begley, style director for Travel & Leisure magazine, moderated the session, whose theme was "Women Exploring the World."

The two identifiable market segments—business and recreational travelers—are not even mutually exclusive, panelists agreed. "There is a trend for incorporating family: taking a business trip and adding a family component," said Jenifer Ziegler, senior vice president of brand management for Holiday Inn Express.

Any company that understands its female travelers' experiences and wisdom is likely to succeed, everyone agreed. Rewards for the travel and hospitality industry overall will come when women occupy more senior management positions, added Kathy Stewart, a program director for Butterfield & Robinson, a company based in Canada that runs high-end, active trips. "The more we talk about women as travelers, the more it will be clear that these positions need women," she said.

Taking off
Females are estimated to comprise 50 percent of frequent fliers, according to Travel & Leisure's Begley. If a woman has a family, she may make 70 percent of all her family's personal travel decisions, Begley continued. Forty percent of business travelers today are women, while just thirty years ago female executives comprised only one percent. A glance around any airport or train station confirms that things have changed.

But as an industry, however, travel is mature, said Ziegler. It is very operations-intensive with a lot of moving parts, making it difficult to change. "As an industry, we're a little slow to recognize these [demographic] trends," she said.

What do women want compared to men? On the one hand, both genders expect the same high quality of service and efficiency. Peggy E. Stirling, vice president of the Safety, Security and Environmental division of American Airlines, said female travelers—particularly women with children—complain to American that flight attendants are not responsive enough to their needs compared to men. "Flight attendants should be [more responsive]," Stirling said. "We spend a lot of time with our flight attendants educating them about this issue.

Women who travel are clearly a rising population and all the statistics show it.
— Peggy E. Stirling, American Airlines

"As professionals, we are obliged to meet all expectations," she continued. "By and large, the airline industry has come a long way. American Airlines will be focusing on women and travel. Women who travel are clearly a rising population and all the statistics show it."

As travelers, women do seem to distinguish themselves from men in several important ways, so it makes business sense to spend more to attract them, said the panelists.

Holiday Inn Express (and the segment in which it competes) estimates that male guests make up 70 percent of all stays in its hotels, said Ziegler. But when her company conducts consumer research on how to 'enhance the guest experience' in order to learn why customers would visit the hotel more often and spend more money, it found that women often provide the best insights.

"The men indicate that they are already quite satisfied with what they're getting from the hotel," said Ziegler. "But we know there's so much more we could do, so that's a little frustrating. Women [respondents] see a lot more opportunity in improving the guest experience. Hotels have been very much a male-designed experience, I would say. There are sports magazines in the lobby, et cetera. When we wanted to update all of our bathrooms, the men said the bathrooms were just fine. The women pointed out that we could do a much better job with the towels." Holiday Inn Express ended up overhauling 100,000 guest rooms, "and now all the bathrooms have larger, white (with the sense of clean), fluffier, more absorbent towels. There are now better amenities with an upscale scent and quality." Men reported that they like these changes, too, and research indicates they would consider prolonging their stay.

Ziegler's parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group, recently launched a new brand that is more female-focused called Hotel Indigo. The first Hotel Indigo is in Atlanta. "We didn't want to abandon men, but we wanted to give more attention to the things many women appreciate. So instead of enlarging the space of a guest room, we enlarged the space of the bath area. We decided to bring some color rather than stick with 'hotel beige' and to rotate some of the designs regularly. And we have created a guest area where women can congregate and feel safe and comfortable. Instead of going to the hotel bar, maybe they'd like a place where they can grab a salad and a glass of wine; a place where they can do some business or read a book. Hotels can focus on some simple improvements like that," she said.

We didn't want to abandon men, but we wanted to give more attention to the things many women appreciate.
— Jenifer Ziegler, Holiday Inn Express

Panelists acknowledged that a sense of personal security can be more important to women than men. In certain hotels, women business travelers may be offered the option of a room on a floor just for female executives. Travel & Leisure advises women traveling alone to never accept a room on the first floor of a hotel, nor one too close to (nor too far from) the elevator, added Begley.

Among the leisure-travel crowd, "we find that women solo travelers take comfort from going in a group," said Stewart. "Women want to go to exotic places, they want to have exotic experiences, but they feel much more comfortable when there's a guide or an experienced person there to make them feel safe in a foreign country."

With that caveat in mind, women are even more adventurous than men in terms of the destinations they want to go to and the experiences they want to have, but they like to know there is a security backup, she continued. When her company designed women-only group trips, they were not big sellers. Mixed groups are much more popular, she said. "Women want a fantastic experience and it doesn't matter who else is there. There might be women there, there might not. We say, 'Bring your partner, spouse, your children; or come by yourself, and you'll all have a great time."

There also seems to be a trend for learning while on vacations, Stewart said. Women express an interest in gaining new skills, such as how to mountain bike, ski, or kayak; or learning languages. Stewart's impression is that women in particular love how foreign travel enriches and expands their minds. Women also seem to enjoy getting closer to another culture by joining such activities as helping to build a bridge in Costa Rica or visiting an orphanage in Sri Lanka. There's been "astronomic growth" in the area of such volunteer vacations, she said.

When the panelists were asked where they prefer to journey in their downtime, everyone enthused about their favorite destinations, from South Africa to Thailand, Vietnam, France, and Italy. "I definitely could go to Italy every year for the rest of my life," said Stewart. "But where I would like to go is somewhere I've never been before, and for me that would be South America."

"When you're a business traveler, really try to take advantage of personal time in a foreign country," Ziegler advised the audience. "It's hard because you're busy and have lots of work to do. But it's so worth it."

The annual, student-run conference was organized by the Harvard Business School Women's Student Association. About 900 participants attended this year.