Anzcro Snow Highway side lock up
Anzcro Snow Highway
Home Travel Industry Hub

Travel Leaders: Wendy Van Lieshout, CEO, Active Adventures

Wendy Van Lieshout is the CEO of Active Adventures based in Queenstown, New Zealand. We caught up with the hugely inspiring Wendy to glean her leadership wisdom on how to be a "guiding light that the team look to for inspiration, motivation and purpose."

Wendy Van Lieshout is the CEO of Active Adventures based in Queenstown, New Zealand. We caught up with the hugely inspiring Wendy to glean her leadership wisdom on how to be a “guiding light that the team look to for inspiration, motivation and purpose.”

Originally from the Netherlands, Wendy immigrated to New Zealand with her family as a child and is now very much a ‘kiwi’.

With more than twenty years of experience in senior management roles in leisure and corporate travel, Wendy’s passions include inspiring positive culture in the workplace, hiking, biking, and paddleboard with her family in all the beautiful spots around Queenstown.

An avid runner, Wendy has completed five full marathons, is a graduate of the University of Canterbury, a previous board member of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand, and a current board member of the Tourism Export Council NZ.

What are you excited about right now Wendy?

Our team has worked so hard over the last few years to hold it all together and keep all stakeholders super engaged. Now it’s so exciting to see all that come to fruition with trips full of happy guests all over the globe.

We’re like kids in a candy store; the energy and excitement are very high. Never has cutting commission cheques to agents been so exhilarating! Our hard work and resilience are paying off and that’s very satisfying.

What trends are you seeing that are driving change in your business or across the industry?

The biggest trend we’re seeing, not surprisingly, is around reconnection.

Travellers are desperate to reconnect not just with people, but with their passions: being active, exploring, and having authentic experiences. This is driving change as we deliver even deeper experiences with more authenticity and connection to local communities. 

We are also seeing an increase in premium, bucket list bookings for iconic hikes and experiences like Mont Blanc, Everest Base Camp, Inca Trail and more.

We’re super excited and humbled to breathe life back into these precious communities that rely so heavily on tourism.                                        

What are the biggest challenges right now for travel?

Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash

As I keep telling our team, we can’t expect the world to return to “the way it was before.” There is no such thing.

The biggest challenge for travel right now is continuing to adjust to the changing world. Our customers have changed, travel destinations have changed, agents have changed, and suppliers have changed. 

Nothing is predictable, and there is no longer a solid path of historical data to rely on for decision making. That means always having a growth mindset and being comfortable with adjusting, flexing, trying and sometimes failing, only to try again.

And that’s ok – together we’ll embrace the explorer’s mentality and find a new path.    

What about the biggest opportunities?

Our biggest opportunity in travel is to listen very carefully to our guests. Their needs and wants have changed, and we don’t know if it is a temporary reaction to the challenges of the last few years. 

We need to adapt and continue to adapt with the guest at the heart of every decision we make. 

There is a collective opportunity to do the right thing when it comes to our environment and the communities we visit. The cycle has been broken while tourism and travel took a breath. 

We must use that pause to start as we want to continue. Don’t go back to old ways if they didn’t serve our planet, or local communities well.

As a leader yourself, how important is leadership right now? What are some solid values you admire?

Hiking near Mt Cook with Active Adventures

Leadership is the guiding light that the team look to for inspiration, motivation and purpose. Coming out of the pandemic is an amazing time to be a leader, with so much hope and positivity to share and celebrate.

There is the temptation to just go hard and fast and deliver results, but it’s never been more important to celebrate individual and team wins and successes.

Teams need to know that their leaders always have their backs too, particularly as we find our way in this new world.

The ride will be bumpy, and that’s ok.

What would you like to see change? Or more of?

Photo by Drew Dizzy Graham on Unsplash

I would like to see more clever young people attracted to the travel and tourism industry. It’s one of the most rewarding industries on the planet and worthy of talented, passionate people. 

With this reset, we have the opportunity to re-invent our offering to potential team members, and to value their expertise and passion. Travel companies need to adjust their business models so they can cater to talent and justly reward them for their contribution.

That’s not just remuneration, but also work environment, flexibility and future development pathways.  I’m also enjoying seeing more women leading travel and tourism businesses, which is something I’d love to see more of, as well as more diversity in the workforce.     

How key is collaboration in the industry?

Picnic near Mt Cook with Active Adventures

Collaboration builds collective success. It’s always been important in the industry, and became the lifeblood for many businesses throughout the last couple of years.

As we now forge a new path, collaboration will continue to be key. 

But it takes time and energy, and those who are willing to put in the hard work will reap the rewards. The easiest and most effective way to form the right collaboration is when you and someone else share the same challenge.

Identify the challenge, connect with others who have the same challenge, and you’re off and running!  Good stuff will happen.         

Do you think enough emphasis is being placed on sustainability in travel and addressing the climate crisis?

Kayaking near Milford Sound with Active Adventures

I think we need “a little less conversation, a little more action,” as Elvis Presley famously sang. And that needs to be led by the large, key players in travel, including the airlines. It needs to be inherent in how we live our lives. 

Unfortunately, the older generation appears less driven by sustainability and climate change, and many travel and tourism businesses target this market as they have the means to travel. 

It’s only when there’s a true and high demand from the customer for more sustainability that we’ll see a meaningful shift in the industry. And we need to be ready to meet that moment.        

What are your personal learnings from the last two years?

Yosemite with Active Adventures

There is no such thing as over-communicating. Human beings have an intrinsic need to comprehend what’s going on around them. It makes us feel secure, it gives us purpose, and we’re motivated when we understand context and expectations.

I’ve learned that no matter how difficult or unsure the message is, you’re always best to share it openly and unconditionally. That extends to team members, guests, advisors and suppliers. 

Tell it like it is, tell it over and over, and authentically share what you’re feeling. Nothing matters more, and although it can be challenging, it’s also incredibly powerful and cathartic!

What would be the one miracle change you wish you could see in the travel industry?

Photo by Drew Dizzy Graham on Unsplash

We need better technology across the board so there is more opportunity for independent travel agencies to be profitable and reinvest in their people who are connecting directly with their customers. 

Fewer links in the chain – from supplier to franchisor to wholesaler to agent (to sometimes broker) to customer. And more of just the advisor directly to the customer, with clever technology taking care of the other steps.

That’s pretty controversial, but I think this level of disintermediation and disruption is needed. It shifts the focus to the customer’s needs.

What’s your message to the industry?

Photo by Tim Stief on Unsplash

Hold on tight, there’s a lot more change coming, and those who are adaptable and open to change, and know-how to not only navigate it but also thrive on it, will prosper. 

If you’ve made it through the last couple of years, you’ve already proven you’re resilient and flexible, so celebrate your successes and wins, and look after yourselves, your people and your customers.