30 Influential People in Travel

American flag waving in front of the U.S. Capitol. (photo via rarrarorro / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Rich Thomaselli
by Rich Thomaselli
Last updated: 6:00 AM ET, Thu January 14, 2021

Influential People in Travel

There's no question that 2020 was the most challenging year ever for the travel industry.

Airlines, cruise lines, railroads, car rentals, amusement parks, museums, hotels, restaurants, cab drivers … everybody suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic. Anything even remotely connected to travel and tourism has taken a hit - including some of the most venerable names in the sector.

But the tough times tend to bring out natural-born mentors who step to the forefront, those that have helped with their guidance and leadership.

Last year was no exception.

Whether embedded in the industry or working on the periphery, these people are among the most influential in travel right now. In no particular order.

U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Meet the 'Gang of Five,' the bipartisan group that led the breakthrough to the second stimulus package that passed in late December. If not for these five and their compatriots in the House of Representatives, it's likely Congress would have continued a stalemate instead of coming to an agreement that gave the airlines another $15 billion to work with.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Fauci has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and for about 35 of those 36 years he has operated in relative obscurity. But as the premier immunologist in the country, Fauci shot to the forefront this year. Along with President Trump, Fauci helped make or back difficult decisions about curtailing international travel and warning the public about travel in general and large gatherings.

Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO

Nelson, previously a flight attendant with United Airlines, has risen to one of the most powerful union leaders in the nation. She oversees 50,000 flight attendants at a variety of airlines, an influential bloc when it comes to making their voices heard in the industry.

Martinique Lewis, President of the Black Travel Alliance

In a turbulent year for racial equality in America, Lewis - already an award-winning travel consultant - helped make inroads for black travelers through a call for more diversity in the industry. Her patient but determined attitude brought focus and clarity to the need for a variety of voices representing the travel sector.

Roger Dow, President/CEO US Travel Association

The U.S. Travel Association is based in Washington D.C., and that means Dow is right in the thick of things, especially during the pandemic. Oh, he won't take credit, nor will he like being called a 'power broker' in the travel industry, but Dow was just that as he used the considerable weight of his office to keep the pressure on Congress to pass both stimulus bills in 2020.

Richard Fain, Chairman/CEO of Royal Caribbean Group

With a series of videos addresses to travel advisors during the pandemic, Fain - the elder statesman of the modern cruise line industry with 32 years aa the head of Royal Caribbean - was a calming, almost grandfatherly presence during the pandemic. He also helped set the stage for a return to cruising by partnering with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. to create the high-profile Healthy Sail Panel that presented recommendations to the CDC.

The Stewart Family, Sandals Resorts

Gordon "Butch" Stewart was more than just a legend in the hospitality business. He was an icon who set a precedent in the travel industry with the founding of Sandals Resorts. Stewart passed away on Jan. 4, but not before leaving a legacy after he took an old, run-down beach hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and turned it into what would become the first of the high-end resorts known as Sandals. His son Adam, who called his father a "marketing genius," will almost certainly continue that legacy with his own ideas and innovations.

Zane Kerby, President/CEO of ASTA

Under his leadership, the Society has lobbied for travel advisors throughout the pandemic and called for a revision to the way in which commissions are paid. In addition, Kerby was a big player in terms of keeping the pressure on Congress to approve a second stimulus package, a large part of which went to the airlines and will help keep the nation flying.

The Travel Advisor

Perhaps never before has the travel advisor been more in demand - and more needed - than now. With people wanting to fill their desire for wanderlust, even in the midst of a pandemic, they have turned to the travel advisor to help them navigate the ins and outs of what's open, what's closed, what restrictions are in place, and more.

Rodrigo Esponda, Los Cabos Tourism Board

If there was a playbook on how to reopen a resort destination, Esponda wrote it. The head of the tourism board set forth a strategic, but realistic, plan on how to reopen. It was detailed, and Los Cabos was always out front on communication with all vested parties, including agents.

Jeff Jenkins, Founder of ChubbyDiaries

It's hard to find a niche in the well-documented travel world, even harder for a person of color. Jenkins, a black man, found it and has been thriving. Jenkins founded an online community for plus-sized travelers at chubbydiaries.com. The site offers tips and real-life experiences from Jenkins and some of its travelers to pass along to those who also love to get out and about.

President Donald Trump

All politics aside, and despite questions about whether it was too early, Trump was quick to close travel to China and put restrictions on travel to Europe in the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic. He was also able to help push through the March CARES Act that helped the airlines get through the spring and summer.

President-Elect Joe Biden

Biden doesn't take over as No. 46 until Jan. 20, but he certainly has laid out some ambitious plans. He wholeheartedly backed the second stimulus package that passed in late December, and he is already on record as saying the country will likely need a third relief bill to truly get back on more solid financial footing.

Ed Bastian, CEO Delta Air Lines

Bastian has been one of the most open, most communicative travel CEOs around. It was Bastian who started the consistent monthly newsletters - sometimes more than monthly - known as "Letter from Ed" - to Delta customers, keeping them all updated and in the know as the pandemic progressed. He was also at the forefront of a determined, precise cleaning and sanitizing campaign for the airline.

Samantha Brown, Television Host

Brown has appeared on the TravelPulse podcast and talked extensively about her love for travel and how it will remain changed after the pandemic. She is also best known for her work on the Travel Channel and now hosts the Emmy award-winning "Samantha Brown's Places to Love" on television. Brown is far and away one of the industry's greatest advocates.

Letitia James, New York State Attorney General

There's no doubt the pandemic played politics at times. In early February, the Trump administration through the Dept. of Homeland Security banned New York residents from using the majority of its trusted traveler programs. It was because New York prevents Homeland Security from viewing data from the Department of Motor Vehicles and using it to enforce immigration. James filed suit and won, allowing tens of thousands of New Yorkers to keep their trusted travel status.

Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue President and COO

"In the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, safety took on a new meaning," Geraghty said earlier this year when the pandemic first hit U.S. shores. "This is the new flying etiquette." Indeed it is, because of her. In late April, JetBlue became the first U.S. carrier to require all passengers to wear masks or face coverings during the entire airline experience, from check-in to boarding to being in flight to deplaning.

Frank López Reyes, Director General de Turismo de Cancún

Like Los Cabos, Cancun fully realizes its reliance on tourism. It was Reyes who helped spearhead a quick return to the resort destination's main source of income. It was also Reyes who, before the pandemic, helped lead the effort for more "luxury tourism," or the idea of creating more high-end resorts and attractions for the big-money traveler.

Moses Kirkconnell, Cayman Islands Tourism Minister and Deputy Premier

Kirkconnell was among the Caribbean's earliest identifiers of the impact of COVID-19, banning cruise ships from docking in the Caymans and restricting travel to the islands. He has also been quick to embrace it - in October he helped push through a remote-work program for visitors for up to two years, allowing tourists to avoid normal visa requirements to live and work in the territory.

Stephen Dickson, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration

The most important, literal life-saving decision that was going to be on Dickson's plate all year, was what to do with the Boeing Co. 737 MAX. The aircraft suffered two crashes killing 346 passengers and crew, and was grounded in March of 2019. After numerous fixes by Boeing, it was up to the FAA whether to re-certify the plane to fly again. Dickson himself piloted one of three test flights, the 737 MAX was cleared and made its return to the skies on Dec. 29.

Kelly Craighead, President-CEO of CLIA

At the Seatrade Cruise Virtual conference earlier this year, Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of the trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), told attendees that after being responsible for $150 billion worth of impact to various port cities around the world, the cruise industry almost overnight "went from an industry expecting the strongest growth trajectory in our history to zero passengers and zero sailings." Yet, Craighead showed her mettle as CLIA helped its cruise lines disembark thousands of passengers at the height of the pandemic as well as repatriate thousands of cruise crew members.

Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica Tourism Minister

Thanks to Bartlett, Jamaica's government has revived tourism activity following the COVID-19 outbreak through a science-based approach that features strict protocols and an innovative plan known as "resilient corridors." That system allows tourists access to 80 percent of Jamaica's tourism attractions and has kept a steady flow of visitors even during the pandemic since the island nation reopened on June 15.

Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO

You talk about influential. Kirby made a decision, quickly followed by other U.S. carriers, that reverberated throughout the industry - he eliminated domestic change fees. Yes those charges to change your ticket, which sometimes could cost up to $200, were done away with. This will have one of the most far-reaching effects on travel in the world.

Chip Rogers, President/CEO, American Hotel & Lodging Association

It's one thing to sit in an airplane seat for a few hours that was just occupied by another person. It's quite different to sleep in the same room, and use the same bathroom, as someone before you might have done for several days. Yes, once the coronavirus became a full-blown pandemic, there was natural reluctance to fly and, perhaps even more so, to stay in a hotel. That's when Rogers jumped on what would become AHLA's Safe Stay guidelines, which have been adopted by every major U.S. hotel company and thousands of individual hotels.

Dylan Dreyer, Television Host

Like Samantha Brown, Dylan Dreyer is perpetuating our love for travel and our curiosity about the unknown with her second-year NBC shot, "Earth Odyssey." Dreyer, who appears often on the TODAY show, both as meteorologist and co-host, as well as co-host of TODAY 3rd Hour, brings viewers into some of the most exotic places in the world to learn about their wildlife, nature and culture. Trust us, there's always something appealing enough to make people want to visit.

The Virtual Tour Companies

As it became painfully obvious and realistic that travel was going to be severely impacted by the pandemic - to the point where, now, even as 2021 begins, airline travel is still off 60 percent compared to last year - there were numerous virtual tour companies and online entities that kept our appetites for travel high. You could watch an old performance from the Metropolitan Opera, or sit down in front of the computer to take a virtual tour of Positano in Italy, or get closer than you ever could to The Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

In a crazy, upsetting year in the industry, these folks stood out

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