Ulla Hefel Böhler: Putting her stamp on an ‘amazing opportunity’
They’re movers and shakers. Their contributions have changed and continue to change the nature of travel, both in Canada and around the world. In this week’s issue, Canadian Travel Press’ series of profiles on Women in Travel continues with Ulla Hefel Böhler, the global CEO of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold.
Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold’s global CEO Ulla Hefel Böhler, who grew up in small-town Austria, got a true taste for travel during a gap year living in London, UK, and as they say, never looked back.
“I realized Austria is such a tiny country. After living in London for a year, I realized the world is a very big and exciting place,” she recalls. “I made friends from nearly all over the world and decided there’s so much out there that I needed to see, so why not turn it into a career? I love travel, I love languages, so that then made the choice of my studies at university, and the rest is history. I’ve never looked back since.”
Ten months into taking over the reigns from John Boulding, Hefel Böhler, who studied tourism and economics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, says her 13-year history with The Travel Corporation (TTC) has helped her transition from an operational role to that of CEO.
“I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it,” she told Canadian Travel Press during a recent visit to Toronto. “It’s been a huge challenge. I’m a mover and a shaker, I like the challenge, I like to really put my stamp on things, and it’s been an amazing opportunity.”
So, what exactly does an average day in her role entail? According to Hefel Böhler, who has been in the industry for over 20 years, no two days are the same, which is what she loves most about her job.
“I’ve always loved it, I love the fast pace of it, I love the surprises, and it’s such a happy industry too, it’s about people’s holidays, it’s about their dreams and aspirations,” she says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than getting letters from your customers telling you what an amazing experience they’ve had.”
Highs and lows
Looking back at her start with TTC in 2005, Hefel Böhler counts her time at Uniworld as one of the highlights of her career to date. Since she joined the boutique river cruise brand shortly after TTC took it over, she came on board during a very transformative time.
“If you look at where Uniworld was under the previous ownership and where Uniworld is today, it is the leading river cruise line, and knowing I was part of the team that got Uniworld there is obviously very rewarding,” she says.
In a similar way, being on the operational side across multiple brands for seven years and counting was another high point, from helping the brands evolve to winning awards annually to witnessing the guests’ feedback improve.
“The initiatives we’ve done with our training programs, with our travel directors, in really systematically working together between operations, product development, the contracting, really trying to improve and making sure it’s right for the guest and the guest experience, and seeing it all come together, and seeing the improvements is really very rewarding,” she adds. “Back in 2013, at one of our global executive meetings, I was awarded the Executive of the Year award, which is a fantastic recognition and a highlight.”
Although there have certainly also been challenges, she says the key is in how one reacts, and trying to turn them into opportunities.
“I think we all thrive on challenges, and challenges are a part and parcel of what we do,” she says. “It’s a sad example, but thinking of the number of happening in the world, terrorist attacks and all the rest of it, it’s a matter of how you deal with it and how you manage it, and how you as the director of the company make sure you’ve got very solid processes and procedures, and you give your team the training to make sure your guests are taken care of in the best possible way. It can also be natural disasters or what have you.”
Strong role models
Reflecting on some of the figures who have had an impact on her career, Hefel Böhler is quick to name two individuals, both from her time at TTC. The first is Christine Sustreanu, her former boss at Uniworld.
“The river cruise industry, 10-15 years ago, it was a very male-domi-nated world, but she was one of the few female executives who just stood out,” she says. “She’s just unbelievable, a very smart lady, very down to earth, charismatic. She was my direct boss for four and a half years, someone I’ve learned a lot from. She works for a different company now, but we’re still very good friends, and if I ever needed any particular advice, she would be the kind of person I’d call up.”
The second is Fenella Bishop, who is in charge of worldwide contracting for TTC, whom she describes as another strong female.
“She’s got massive responsibility and she’s been with the company for over 25 years, she’s an incredibly
smart lady,” she says. “Probably, the most brilliant negotiator I’ve ever met. Just fantastic in every way, and working alongside her for many years, I learned a lot from her. She would be another one that I’d pick up the phone and get her opinion and get her advice. She’s got a world of knowledge and experience.”
Love it or hate it
For those thinking of joining the ranks of the travel industry, she says people typically either hate it or love it.
“I think travel is not for everyone,” she says. “It’s more than a job, it’s got to be in your DNA. Either you love it or you hate it. I do think travel has so many different opportunities – there’s the whole tour operating aspect, there’s hospitality, there’s so many different aspects and facets of it, I couldn’t think of a better industry to be in.”
While the mother of two says she likes to keep her work life and personal life separate, she says both of her kids love to travel.
“They’ve been probably on more flights than my parents have in their entire life,” she says. “And they’re such good travellers, too. They love exploring, they love tasting different foods. Both my husband and I, we love to travel, and I think they see that, they feel that and they’re absolutely very keen to be a part of that.”
As for the secret to her success, she says it’s quite simple: “I think whatever you do in life, you really have to give it your best shot.”
Crediting in part her Austrian upbringing of being very precise, and doing what they say, and saying what they do, she says the key is also to put in the effort.
“If I do something, I put my heart and my mind to it, I don’t do anything by halves,” she says. “I think it’s important to always give your best shot. I’m a big believer in team work and having the best team. I want the best team around me, that challenges me, that makes me a better person, that makes me a better leader, rather than so-and-so might be better than me, it’s really about bringing the team together and collaborating.”
Get to know the CEO
Ulla Hefel Böhler talks bucket lists, her favourite destinations, and more
How often are you on the road? I probably travel 90 to 100 days per year.
Favourite city or country to travel to? One country I’ve always loved to travel through, and I’ve spent a lot of time there, is Australia. I think it’s just so different from where I’ve grown up. Switching back to Europe, I’m 100% European. I’ve travelled a lot, but I do love the diversity of Europe. I love the fact
that each country, no matter how small it is, has its own unique character and history, cultures and language.
Where are you based and how often do you make it back home to Austria? I’m based in Switzerland. The nice thing is that Austria is very small, and Switzerland is very small, so essentially where we live at the moment, it’s only an hour and a half’s drive to my parents’ house, so you can easily pop over for Sunday lunch or drop the kids off for a weekend.
Do you keep track of how many countries you’ve been to? My husband and I have this world map on a big wooden board, and for awhile, we always kept putting a little nail into all of the places we’ve been to, but it needs some serious updating!
What’s still on your bucket list? One that’s very high on my personal bucket list is Japan. Never been there, really fascinating country and I’d love to go. We’re showcasing it in a very exclusive way in our new Luxury Gold Japan itinerary. Another one which always fascinated me is Costa Rica. The nature, the wildlife, I think it would also be a fantastic experience with the family because there’s a lot of stuff to do.
Do you ever jump on your tours? Yes, absolutely. That’s a very important and enjoyable part of my role. It’s fascinating and rewarding to see what you’ve got in your brochure, how it translates into these amazing holidays, and talking to guests and hearing about their experiences and the amazing times they’ve had, and hearing from our travel directors is very interesting.
Can you share a special travel memory? I think one that’s very unique and very special is when my husband and I were on our honeymoon, we travelled to South Africa. We did a lot of the iconic things, Cape Town, vine lands, and safari obviously, but in addition to that we also drove through the Kalahari desert ourselves. The landscape was incredible, the wildlife, and we stayed in those tented camps, it was just
an unbelievable experience. I would do it again anytime.
The Big trends
Ulla Hefel Böhler on what’s hot for 2018
Transformative travel. “People want deeper and richer experiences,” she says. “It’s about experiencing a place in an authentic way and also really getting the personal fulfilment and coming home a better person. That is absolutely a trend that is very strong that will continue.”
Food is key. “Food continues to be a very big trend. It’s something we will continue to challenge ourselves on because food is a very, very important part of any travel experience. In the last year we introduced the dine-at-home concept, we’re doing farm-to-table dining, we’ve done a lot on that front. It’s listening to our guests and their feedback and what resonates with them. And knowing how special it is to actually have lunch or dinner in somebody’s home. That is such a priceless experience.”
It’s about the human connection and personalization. “Yes, you’re traveling in a group, but, at the end of the day, what matters is that you as an individual get that personal experience and your personal dreams and expectations are met and exceeded.”
Agents remain important. “The travel agents, I’m 100% convinced will continue to play a very, very important role. Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold have always been very trade-centric, and I have absolutely no intention of ever changing that.”
Travel to Eastern Europe is hot. “If anyone wants to go to Croatia, they better book yesterday because we’re almost sold out.”
Bookings for France and Egypt have rebounded. “France is coming back, which is very nice to see because France has been a struggle over the last couple of years for obvious reason. Another destination which has been troubled for a few years, but is absolutely on the rise again is Egypt. There’s no place like Egypt. Think the Pyramids, the Egyptian museum, it’s so unique and special.”
Italy, Spain and UK are also hot. “Italy is an all-time favourite, but who doesn’t love Italy… Spain is another one which has been popular for the last few years and that trend continues. And, last but by no means least, the UK with all the royal things that are going on. The royal baby, the royal wedding, there is definitely a strong demand for the UK.”