Travel CEO’s making an impact

Having a strong figurehead as the recognisable face of the company is an essential part of any communications strategy, and Travel CEO’s are no different.

For example, Elon Musk at Tesla, Richard Branson at Virgin and Steve Jobs at Apple are some of the founders that are instantly associated with their brands.

Not every business has such an identifiable person at the top. But every company MUST ensure they have solid spokespeople who can speak on behalf of the company.

This is never more important than in a crisis. Having spokespeople lined up who are media trained and rehearsed is vital. Furthermore, companies need to know who can be deployed quickly to get ahead of any difficult situation.

In most cases it will be the CEO or MD. But what if they are on holiday? Having a few key people from within the organisation who can speak to the media with authority, staying true to brand values, is crucial.

More generally, having identifiable leaders with a media profile, is an extremely effective communications tactic, especially in the travel sector where trust, familiarity and likeability are so important.

But who are some of the most outstanding Travel CEO’s and Founders in travel? Here we pick five of the best who continue to make their mark – for different reasons:

Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb

After is became apparent how hard his business would be affected. The Airbnb chief received high praise for how he communicated with his staff during the pandemic.

Brian explained in a ‘letter’, drafted from his home, that Airbnb were having to pay off a quarter of staff and cutting investment in any activity outside the core business. He emphasised how people leaving the business would be treated with compassion.

The letter was a great example of how crisis communication can be done effectively. His priority was to address staff, knowing, of course, that the letter would be shared with the media and pored over. This is in sharp contrast to the tone-deaf approach taken by P&O Ferries recently who sacked all of their workforce using a pre-recorded Zoom video.

Bruce Poon Tip, Founder of G Adventures

The Canadian boss of G Adventures struck the right note when he made a plea for peace in Ukraine. Whilst announcing that the operator was cancelling all tours to Russia, Bruce issued a statement to say the company would no longer be accepting Russian nationals residing in Russia on to its trips nor take bookings from Russian agencies.

His statement continued: “Travel is the most powerful way we can open our hearts, minds, and eyes to the beauty of the world, especially in the darkest of times. Let us continue to stand together, for peace.” G Adventures, which was founded by Bruce in 1990, works to a very strong set of values rooted in freedom and happiness.

His statement echoed that longstanding vision. Many brands have wondered whether to issue statement or react to the Ukraine war. In most cases it is not relevant to their core business, and you question with what authority they could speak. Travel companies, however, are directly affected with many questioning whether to pause on travel to Russia. For G Adventures, taking this stand made absolute sense and was the right thing to do.

Stephen Heapy, CEO of

Having a strong figurehead has a long tradition in aviation. Many of the big bosses become household names – whether it’s Willie Walsh, Michael O’Leary or Freddie Laker. Tony Douglas from Etihad was one of the Travel CEO’s who emerged strongly during the pandemic and became a recognisable face of the travel sector during Covid.

Another voice who strengthened their profile during the pandemic was Stephen Heapy, the CEO of Jet2. He took a strong stand against the delays in issuing refunds for cancelled flights which many companies were guilty of.

He is also a classic travel business figurehead who regularly comments in the media across print and broadcast. Furthermore, he continually received praised for the way he communicates effectively to customers. Under his leadership Jet2 has remained the third largest scheduled airline in the UK, behind EasyJet and British Airways.

Steve Heapy Travel CEOs press release

Charlie Cornish, CEO of Manchester Airport Group

The travel sector was arguably more affected by the pandemic than any other. It’s hard to think of another sector whose fortunes were so dependent on government decisions.

There were weeks where the sector was waiting by the second for decisions on the traffic light system for travel or testing requirements. Entire workforces were at the whim of a decision from the Department for Transport.

The hardest hit during this time were the airports and a few key spokespeople rose to the occasion. John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow Airport, was a regular commentator throughout the crisis.

The CEO of Manchester Airports Group (which also operates London Stansted and East Midlands airports), Charlie Cornish stepped up  became one of the loudest travel CEOs during the pandemic.

He called on the government to support the aviation sector during lockdown. He also criticised excessive costs of Covid tests as a barrier to recovery. Charlie has also been vocal on plans to achieve net zero in aviation by 2050.

Justin Francis, CEO and founder of Responsible Travel

One of the most vocal travel CEO’s. Activist and social entrepreneur Justin has been on a 20-year mission to make the travel and tourism industry a force for good. He was one of the first people to see the value in responsible tourism.

He is a long-term campaigner on global heating and the climate crisis. After joining The Body Shop as a marketing manager, he persuaded founder Anita Roddick to invest in his new travel business in 2001. In the lead up to COP26, Justin led the UK Government’s Council for Sustainable Business’s work on nature and biodiversity.

He is a regular commentator in the media on the need to reduce carbon emissions and protect nature.

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