Paula Twidale, the executive v.p. of Collette, prays for peace, embraces social responsibility and hopes that her new position as the first female chair of USTOA inspires other women not to take a back seat in their professional lives. We chatted with her during the 2015 USTOA Annual Conference & Marketplace, which took place in Chicago in early December.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): What are your thoughts regarding your new position as USTOA chairperson—the first woman to hold that position?
Paula Twidale: (PT): I am absolutely ecstatic, but overwhelmed at the same time, and I don’t overwhelm easily. Maybe I was a little shocked myself that I would be that overwhelmed, but once it was upon me, the nervousness started to come in. It’s been such a long journey. If I go back the 30 years or whatever [of my professional life], I didn’t have this vision that I was going to do this, but I was always the type of person that strived to be the best I could be and kept moving forward, so it’s a natural progression.
PVR: What is the significance of you being the first female chair?
PT: I think being first, I’m really learning to accept that as a role and responsibility beyond me; embracing it in a certain way that means so much to other people. It means a lot to me, because, obviously, there’s a personal element, and I expected it would be important to other people, but I’ve learned in the last couple of days [during the USTOA Conference], that it’s so much more important to other people, because so many people have come up to me. I think I can give inspiration by virtue of the position to other women who may take a back seat, or think they are not ready, or think they shouldn’t bother or compete. We should all compete.
PVR: And do you think it’s overdue?
PT: Yes. The organization is 43 years old, and if I went back 43 years, I’d say it’s par for the course, because I was in this industry 37 years ago, and I know what it’s like as a top manager with all males—the good ol’ boys network. But it’s 2015, so yes, it’s certainly overdue. I’m fortunate to be the one who’s in that seat, but there are so many talented people who are going to follow, certainly Dana Santucci [v.p. of development, EF Education First] as vice chair. So I’ll do it for two years, and she’ll come into the role in two years.
And there are talented women in the active membership that are in great positions and who can certainly do the role that I’m in and be one of the future leaders of this organization. I think it should be the best person for the job. USTOA is very progressive; they promote diversity, they allow that diversity to come forward, and they recognize a talent and a person who could do the job.
PVR: You are really passionate about this new role.
PT: The passion, because it’s a milestone for me, maybe because I’ve been in it for so long, maybe it’s my age, my career…. I’ve always plowed forward. I’ve always said, be the best you can be. When I was in college, I was this overachiever. I was always this type A personality. Even with [Eastern Airlines]—I went to the airline by default; it wasn’t my role of study in college—when I got in there, I wanted to do more, be a sponge, learn more, do more. By that nature, I ended up getting into positions and taking on more responsibilities, because I wanted to do more. I made myself a chameleon to do it. The fact that you are being recognized to this extent—850 people here [at USTOA Conference]—and I’m not afraid to speak in front of the crowd, that’s not the case, I’m not intimated by the number, but I’m intimidated by the number of people who are going to witness a milestone in my life, so the spotlight is on me in that sense.
You can give me a world crisis and I can handle it. I can react and get in front of people and do things, and be the leader; I’ve been doing that for a long time. I get in the room with these 850 people*, and suddenly the spotlight is on me with the recognition, that’s why it’s overwhelming. But it’s a happy tearing up and a happy time.
PVR: What are some of the challenges going into this new role?
PT: I don’t think that the role will give me challenges that would give me pause, because with Jerre [Fuqua, CTC, president, TRAVCOA] being the past chair, he was very collaborative. My two years as vice chair, we collaborated on everything, so there’s a nice turn over because I’m in the know. It’s a great collaborative team and you can’t ask for more than that, so I don’t have any trepidation about the role. I worry about the industry, so I pray for peace and I want the industry to thrive, and [it’s important] we make sure we are giving the right message. We are focusing on supporting travel worldwide. We have our ears to the ground; we all work together to share information; and we want to help each other out.
The best networking we’ve ever had is not on creating product, because that’s proprietary, it’s how we can help each other give the consumer a better experience because we are taking care of them and that we have integrity ourselves as an organization.
PVR: What are your thoughts on travel today with the fears of terrorism, and how do travel advisors play a significant role in that? What do they have to tell their clients?
PT: I hope that the agents tell their clients that they are going with a great company. The choice of company is very important, because if you don’t have an infrastructure, and you don’t have a 24/7 operation, if you are calling someone on a Friday after 5 p.m., are they going to answer the phone? How about 2 in the morning? So these things are important. The agents need to be intimately involved with the tour operator they are choosing and understand what their [security] plans are.
PVR: USTOA members are optimistic about 2016, even with everything that’s happening around the world that can impact travel plans. What do you attribute that optimism to?
PT: Certainly the information [in the USTOA member survery] came out before the Paris attacks, but certainly the optimism is still there. There’s pent-up demand for people to travel. The economy is a lot better, the dollar is stronger—that goes a long way in many, many markets. So there are a lot of destinations you can choose from and still get a strong buy. The oil prices are down, which over time affects air pricing. People want to take their holiday. They need that relax time. And if you look at the survey we presented to the media, it’s about that relaxation, about decompressing. When it’s a stressful time, everyone wants to decompress. They need that.
PVR: Collette has been in the Cuba game from the start, so what do you think about all these other tour operators starting programs to Cuba and is there really the infrastructure to withstand it?
PT: Yes, we’ve been in the Cuba game, we have a program and we have all the structure in place to meet all the license requirements, so we’ve done all that. In terms of other companies now adding Cuba programs, it’s the demand, it’s where people want to go and it’s a competitive space. I think we are going to see that spread out a little bit.
In terms of the infrastructure, that’s a tough one. I have been concerned from the get-go. The more people who come from the U.S. in droves, they are going to have a hard time keeping up. They are investing money and they are trying to expand, but I don’t know if they are going to be able to do enough in the short amount of time to maintain the quality of the brand, so we have to be mindful of that.
PVR: What are some of the new developments at Collette that travel agents should be aware of?
PT: A couple of things. Spotlight tours are doing very well. We launched those last year, and we have about 15 Spotlight tours. Paris is one of them, London, Dublin, and in the U.S. Those are going well, because of discretionary time—sometimes people just don’t have enough time, they want to be away and they don’t have to do a lot of different things. That’s been very positive for us. Explorations—the small tours—we are expanding on that. We are adding a couple of more programs in the Piedmont region, which will be nice. We are also adding one in Morocco, southern France, and northern Spain and Portugal. So we are adding a few more Explorations, small group touring.
On the agent side, be on the lookout for something similar to Book Your Own Bonus, which was very successful. We also have a new National Parks tour, Winter in Yellowstone. It’s seeing the park through a new lens. It’s a different time of year, so it will be fun. We want to support [the park] during the off-season and give a new perspective. People should go to a destination at different times to see it differently.
Additionally, one of the core values of Collette is social responsibility, so for 2016 we are working in cooperation with Tourism Cares to give money to the National Parks. This effort with Tourism Cares is a way to help with sustainability and give back.
PVR: In one word, what does travel mean to you?
PT: Oh, let me think about this one. Awakening. You get up in the morning, you open your eyes and you see the world in a new light, so it’s an awakening. I love different cultures and different destinations. I always enjoy seeing people in their culture and that inspires me, so that’s an awakening.
*There was a champagne toast for Paula’s new role during the conference.