“You forget how to be a couple when you’re pretending not to be together”
BY MYGWORK, IMAGES BY ROBYN ELLIS
Robyn Ellis understands just how important it is to be able to freely be yourself when you travel. Robyn is the Global Manager of Leadership and Delivery at Booking.com and spoke to Zoe Schulz from myGwork about why the travel industry is fundamental in ensuring that LGBTQ+ people can explore the world safely, as well as their new initiative, Travel Proud, which is set to help make sure exactly that is possible.
Folkestone in the ‘90s wasn’t the Folkestone many may know today, Robyn shares. She grew up in the quaint seaside town when it was still an area of coastal deprivation. They had moved the ferry industry away, she explains, leaving many residents with very few work opportunities. Since then, the launch of a direct train to London has meant the town has been completely reinvented. “There are now amazing Victorian terraces being snapped up, renovated, and looking glorious,” Robyn says. “But in the 1990s it was a really different picture”.
Robyn’s family worked in social care and law, an interesting combination she admits. It was then, at age 14, that she began to become aware of her sexuality but told herself: “Puberty has not been kind to you, you don’t need to be gay too”. It wasn’t until 12 years after this that she decided something needed to change. “By the time I got to 26, I was like, I just can’t. I’m just not going to do this anymore”, says Robyn.
Coming out later in life came with its own privileges, Robyn admits. In part, because she has an incredibly supportive family and friends, but also as she was financially independent with her life relatively established.
“I think there’s something really meaningful about my coming out journey as, by the time I came out, I was already financially independent. I already had my own life, my community, and that’s a really different set of choices to if you’re coming out a young teenager, so I’m aware of that”.
This nuanced difference in circumstances, she believes, made acts such as holding your partner’s hand in public, to her, close to a non-event. Yet she quickly became strikingly aware that this wasn’t the case for so many in her community. With her first few girlfriends, she would notice at times their apprehension of public affection or an underlying sense of danger navigating the world as an LGBTQ+ person.
“The first time I went on holiday with my girlfriend, for example, I was just joyously googling hotels to book. And then she was just like, ‘shall we first check on this website for the safety element and then read the police reports?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean the safety element, I’m sure that’s fine?’ But as we went through this and as my eyes opened as we travelled together, I realised, ‘Oh, crikey, this is a whole new thing that I need to really think about.’”
Robyn and her then-partner are hardly the only ones to feel this added pressure when travelling. The excitement of a holiday, in a precarious battle with the anxiety of wondering if you will be safe in an unknown environment, is commonplace for many LGBTQ+ people. New research from Booking.com has shown that 65% of LGBTQ+ travellers consider their safety and wellbeing when picking their destination, and over half (58%) believe their identity means that some locations are off-limits.
It is precisely this that has sparked Robyn and the team at Booking.com to make sure that they are doing all they can to support LGBTQ+ travellers using their platform. Travel Proud is on a mission to transform travel for the LGBTQ+ community, ensuring that everyone, no matter their identity, can revel in the experience of exploring the globe.
Robyn couldn’t be prouder of the project, which is one of the first in the travel industry. “At Booking.com, we want to make sure that everyone has the chance to explore the world safely,” she explains. “The key tenet and the absolute heart of the Travel Proud programme is education. It’s about saying what are the practical tools and knowledge that you really need as partners to enable our customers to experience the world safely with you”?
As a part of the initiative, they’ll be highlighting inclusive properties with the Travel Proud badge, so travellers can feel reassured from the moment they arrive they can safely be themselves. They’re also raising industry standards by supporting properties with training, delivered by inclusivity experts, so they have additional tools to create that extra welcoming environment. And lastly, they’re ensuring they use the right language by removing the need for gendered titles and profile markers. The amalgamation of these well-thought-out elements come together as a force for tangible change across their industry.
Career-wise, education has been a recurrent theme for Robyn. From working on the entrepreneurial side, where she created leadership programmes and facilitating these internally, to meeting the Dalai Lama, Robyn has succeeded in a wide variety of roles, most of which centre on education and learning. Before Booking.com, she worked for a charity that supported schools dealing with challenging circumstances by bringing in great leaders to work there. Then she started as the Leadership and Talent Manager at Booking.com and, over the past four years, she has grown to now be covering this on a global scale.
Throughout, Robyn has realised her speciality lies within working with subject experts who have been elevated into leadership roles. One lesson she has always taken with her, however, is that although quantifiable results are necessary, they should not be the only focus.
“Working in leadership it’s really easy to stay connected to the top line: what’s glamorous, what’s shiny and push results that we’re getting here, there and everywhere,” says Robyn. “But what’s perhaps even more important is remembering the human moments and the fact that a huge part of your role is about making people’s lives better”.
Now living in Manchester, Robyn’s found comfort in the city’s “brilliant sense of community”. This sense of community is also present throughout the Booking.com office, she explains. With the Manchester team made up of over 60 different nationalities, you often hear languages from around the world, and can learn about one another’s culture. This creates an environment where you are all always learning from each other, she shared, and then on top of this, working with those in offices around the world only increases this further.
“What’s been so fantastic is that we’ve got offices around the world in a huge number of countries, and I can connect with colleagues that work across these countries. And the playing field is completely level, we get to really talk to each other. This hybrid way of working is a really important part of the future with Booking.com. We currently have a lot of open roles as well and I can’t recommend working here strongly enough. It’s a place you can work and just be able to be yourself, hang out, and have a laugh, while achieving really great things.
“We’re not about creating a kind of factory pushing people through, what we want to do is create an environment where everyone can bring their full selves to work, and that they then meet with other people who bring their full selves to work: that’s where the magic happens and that’s why Booking.com is so successful”.
As a leader whose expertise is in moulding the future of leadership, Robyn has a unique lens into what creates success. For her, this has involved being able to truly accept herself, and through this experience, she is better able to understand how she can support those around her to truly flourish.
“Since coming out and being able to properly share who I am, I have felt so much more secure as a leader”, Robyn shares. “But it also makes me think about the myriad things that are probably going on with each person. That’s what we think about when we’re looking at leadership development and management capability training. Our employee experience and the role of managers also has to consider that individual, and the individuals that they’re working with.”
Working within leadership, Robyn also knows the importance of diversity and inclusion that goes all the way to the top. Because diversity within leadership paves the way for others to then pursue careers they may have otherwise seen as inaccessible to them. “There is a disproportionate rate of self-harm and suicide among the LGBTQ+ community, particularly among young people”, she says. “And research shows the importance of role models: because it’s much harder to be what you can’t see.
“We need to be really talking about it, as well as talking about intersectionality within that, such as ‘What does it mean to be a gay woman of colour?’ Or all the myriad of other intersectional elements? And that comes right back to authenticity and the importance of if you can bring your whole self to work. Because then your capability around compassion and empathy at work is so much more effective. And if we’re all having a good time in the workplace, we are doing much better work. And we want to work longer, we want to do better things, and support our colleagues more”.
With travel slowly opening back up, creating a safe environment for all to enjoy has never been more important. And although Booking.com’s recent research revealed many shocking statistics when it comes to inclusion within travel, it also showed that 57% of LGBTQ+ travellers have felt welcome most of the time, with 50% pointing to a positive experience with staff, and 44% a pleasant check-in as the most important factors in creating a welcoming stay. This shows that the travel industry holds a huge amount of power in creating a world where everyone can travel freely. And for Booking.com that is pushed forward by initiatives such as Travel Proud, but it also starts in spaces the public can’t see, by creating a workplace where all their staff can freely and authentically be themselves.
“For me, the steps on the journey to equality are all always about education, exposure, and just folks meeting each other”, explains Robyn. “And I think, naturally as human beings, we are adaptable, and we are humane, in so many ways. We really just want to connect, have a good time, and a good human connection with other people. And that’s the same thing in the workplace for me at Booking.com. In my area of the business, I can just be completely myself and I think the inclusion feeling is about everyone being able to do that and to talk about their experience authentically and to keep pushing, but at the absolute core of that is listening. It is about all of us listening to each other and saying actually ‘What is your experience and how can I support you effectively as an ally?’”
DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.