Booking.com chair on navigating the unchartered territory of the pandemic

13 Jan 20211.15k Views

Gillian Tans. Image: Booking.com

Gillian Tans discusses how the tech industry has changed in terms of diversity and how she helped lead Booking.com through Covid-19.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on many industries, the travel sector has undoubtedly suffered one of the biggest blows.

So, how did major travel tech companies get through 2020? Gillian Tans, chair of Booking.com, said her company was thrown into “uncharted territory”. While Booking.com had many plans and processes in place for how its workforce would handle natural disasters and other unforeseen disruptions, handing a global pandemic was not something the team had been prepared for.

“In March alone, we saw more cancellations than new bookings – a first for us,” Tans told Siliconrepublic.com. “The travel industry as a whole, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, has never seen such immense change and challenge.”

To combat the decline, Tans said the company took steps to conserve cash and increase liquidity, such as reducing marketing spend, cutting non-essential costs and reducing executive compensation. It also raised more than $4bn in debt. “From there, we began to innovate our product to meet rapidly evolving customer and partner needs,” she said.

The latest quarterly results from Booking Holdings reported revenue that was better than analysts’ estimates, buoyed by cost-cutting and staycations during the summer months.

‘2020 put Booking.com into uncharted territory. In March alone, we saw more cancellations than new bookings’
– GILLIAN TANS

From an internal workforce point of view, Tans said leading remotely began with getting all employees from across more than 300 offices to work from home.

“This included 10,000 customer service employees from multiple CS centres, which is no small feat with the technology requirements, and the increased demand into CS due to travel cancellations and date changes,” she said.

“While the recovery of the travel industry cannot be confined to the next year – as it will take longer than that – I look forward to helping shape that recovery inside Booking.com and across the industry as well as collaborating and cooperating with governments around support and stimuli for the industry and to ensure that regulation in the sector helps, not hurts, the recovery.”

Shifting the needle

Tans previously served as chief operating officer of Booking.com before being appointed as CEO in 2016. She stayed at the helm of the company for more than three years, before stepping down and taking on the role of chair. Her contract was due to expire in June 2020, but was extended through 2021.

She joined the tech industry just after the dot-com bust. Tans said that while the “entrepreneurial, scrappy spirit” in the tech industry has stayed the same since then, the mobile revolution has accelerated how customers live and work.

Additionally, it’s been encouraging to see the increasing focus across the industry to drive greater diversity and inclusion in tech. I think it is fair to say that the industry’s workforce was largely homogenous in 2000 – something that has begun to shift over the past few years,” she said.

“Diversity is key to building an inclusive workforce and environment that fosters innovation, collaboration and creativity. And while strides are being made, we do still have a long way to go to further diversify the industry and make it a more appealing and inclusive space in which everyone can thrive.”

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Tans is widely considered a champion of diversity in the workplace and she said it remains one of her biggest passion points.

“The momentum of progress for women in leadership and the broader public attention to it over the past few years gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction, but this year has accelerated the broader conversation around diversity and I welcome that,” she said.

“There is always more to be done and I, alongside many others, are not satisfied with the status quo. The solution requires us to look outside our own companies as well as the STEM field. We need input from all stakeholders – government, our education system – in addition to businesses of all sizes to bring about a meaningful shift.”

Support systems

Tans said there are plenty of ways businesses can improve the situation with internal initiatives such as mandatory unconscious bias training or external investments to shine a light on role models.

“Having more women, minorities and those from underrepresented communities in the room will empower more and more companies to do the same. And in reality, diversity – gender, racial and otherwise – should be a priority for every single leader and every single company no matter what industry, not just tech.”

One of the areas Tans hopes to address more is giving employees more access to senior leaders and managerial support, as it has effects on upward mobility and earning power.

‘The industry’s workforce was largely homogenous in 2000 – something that has begun to shift over the past few years’
– GILLIAN TANS

She cited a study from the Lean In Foundation that found for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position in the US, only 58 black women are promoted, despite black women asking for promotions at the same rate. She said this is a problem “largely attributed to lack of access and support”.

“Being accessible can seem daunting and comes with a great deal of responsibility and it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. But more importantly, being accessible to a diverse range of employees at all levels of an organisation should help to ensure that it isn’t just one type of employee that gets promoted and makes it to the top of the corporate ladder.”

As a tech leader, Tans’ key advice for anyone starting out in the tech industry is to not be afraid of new challenges and opportunities, even when they come with some uncertainty.

“My career path was not obvious, I had to make many twists and turns along the way to get where I am today. It required taking some chances, but those were the moments where I learned the most,” she said.

“Taking risks could take on many forms. It could mean taking the leap of faith to start your own business. Or it could be as simple as having the confidence to speak up in a meeting where a diverse point of view could have a meaningful impact. These moments can be nerve-racking or uncomfortable, but I promise that these are moments of growth. And without challenging yourself, growth opportunities are limited.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com