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International Women’s Day: Interview with Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, Valerie Wilson Travel

We’re keeping the conversation going with our special International Women’s Day Q&A series! We got to speak with a fellow woman in travel who you’ll be sure to aspire to be like one day. She means business.

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg is ready to take on the cold… and the world at the Northern Lights in Iceland! (Photo courtesy of #gocollette)

Meet Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg! As Co-Owner and Co-President of Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT), one of the largest private woman-owned and family managed travel management companies in the US, Jennifer manages the company’s corporate travel division. Regarded as an expert in the field, she is regularly invited to speak as a luxury travel expert at conferences and frequently quoted in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times, and Condé Nast Traveler. She is actively involved with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) as Co-Chair of their Government & Political Affairs Committee and spearhead of ASTAPAC fundraising, as well as former Chair of the ASTA Corporate Advisory Council, and former member of their Board of Directors and Executive Committee. She is also a travel advisory board member for Abercrombie & Kent, AccorHotels Group, Aman Hotels & Residences, AFAR Travel Magazine & Guide, The Chatwal, Global CommUnity, Luxury Travel Advisor, Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, Travel Market Report Editorial Advisory Board, Collette Board of Advisors; a member of Harvard Business School’s Alumni Board and OPM Reunion Campaign Committee; and on the board of Tourism Cares’ Hearts of Travel Awards Committee.

Jennifer staying warm at the Northern Lights in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of #gocollette)

Darley Newman: How did you begin working in your current position and what is your role there?

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg: Before I worked at Valerie Wilson Travel, I had established a career in corporate sales from the hotel side, where Valerie Wilson Travel was known as one of our most valued agency clients. It was a short leap and an immediate fit: I have grown with the company for twenty-eight years and counting. In this time, I have helped grow VWT’s corporate presence in the 1990s, build its technological engagement and toolkit in the 2000s, originated the Suite Access program in 2014, and continue to drive our future forward in the present. Today I am Co-Owner and Co-President, with oversight on business development, corporate sales, airline relations, and strategic initiatives.

Darley: What was your first job in travel? What was your biggest challenge?

Jennifer: I began my career as the Director of Corporate Sales at the former Westbury Hotel in New York City, where I found that my greatest challenge was personal and professional growth. Professionally, I grew restless and wanted to sell to more than one market, rather than be restricted within my role in corporate travel sales, and personally, I wanted to grow into a role that would empower me to do so. However, I was both lucky and (within the timing of the job and structure of the role) “unlucky” to have a wonderful boss in the Director of Sales – who was not going anywhere! I left on excellent terms, and when I departed, she gifted me with a Tiffany crystal cut diamond, to remind me that every role in a workplace is a single facet that enables the work as a whole to shine its brightest.

Jennifer channeling her inner Jane Goodall in Uganda.

Darley: How do you see the representation of women within the travel industry?  Have you noticed any changes to this over the years?

Jennifer: I have certainly seen positive change in the three decades from the start of my career to the present: in trailblazing women entrepreneurs and smaller to midsize agencies within the travel advisory community, in an uptick of women general managers in luxury hotels, in cruise leadership and Celebrity Cruises’ appointment of the first woman cruise captain this year, in the rise of female airline pilots. However, progress has been incremental and is nowhere near its necessary end. There are not nearly enough woman-owned sizable travel businesses, and we have a long way to go before we achieve gender parity in the boardroom. The journey toward equality is just that – a journey, wherein we are progressing along the path rather than having arrived at the destination.

Darley: What specific challenges have you encountered throughout your career?

Jennifer: When I joined Valerie Wilson Travel, it was easy for my peers in both the office and the industry to look at me and see “the boss’s daughter,” rather than my track record, my hard work, my dedication, or my ambitions of growth for the company and myself. To gain my footing as an individual with her own voice, rather than the daughter of a woman who has already earned (and well deserved) iconic status, I have had to work twice as hard from the beginning: since I joined our office, I would stay late, work weekends, and try to think ahead of the curve with a plan A, B, and C in mind.

Over the course of my career at Valerie Wilson Travel, there is no single job I have not performed, from hands-on administrative tasks to the ins and outs of booking travel to the nuances of management. To that end, my personal challenge as an owner and co-president has been understanding when to remove myself from the details and entrust matters to our wonderful team, to empower them and enable them to grow as I have grown.

Darley: Do you have any advice for women looking to start careers in the travel industry?

Jennifer: Good mentorship is the cornerstone and emotional bedrock of any thriving career: both finding your own mentors and then mentoring your own young talent in turn. Realistically, every aspiring woman will still need to work at least twice as hard to gain her footing and rise to a leadership position, so finding field leaders that can provide honest advice and guidance is crucial – as is finding someone you can call on your very worst day, whom you know will have your back.

In addition, it has been said before, but the saying is true: it is hard for a woman to “have it all” at once. Life is full of trade-offs, and with that in mind, when it comes time to make a hard choice, it is important both to be honest with yourself and – again – to find people whose frank advice you can trust.

Jennifer at the Northern Lights in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of #gocollette)

Make sure to check out all of our International Women’s Day Q&As below:

  1. Interview with Peggy Murphy, Executive Vice President of the USTOA
  2. Interview with Victoria James, Beverage Director & Partner of Cote NYC

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