Today we publish an interview with internationally award-winning brand executive Renu Hanegreefs-Snehi, the Senior Vice President, Global Brands from Travel + Leisure.
Ms. Hanegreefs-Snehi brings 20 years of experience in leading renowned brands in the global hospitality industry to Travel + Leisure Co. and joins the company following its acquisition of the respected Travel + Leisure brand earlier this year. In her role, she spearheads global branding and brand communications for all three of the company’s business lines: Wyndham Destinations, the largest vacation ownership company; Panorama, the world’s foremost membership travel business; and Travel + Leisure GO, a subscription travel club inspired by the content of the eponymous magazine.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to Travel + Leisure.
I was born and raised in India and started my career in the fashion industry in India, back in the 1990s. I actually worked for the first Indian fashion designer to have performed at Paris Fashion Week, but I quickly realized that if you were not a Designer or a Model, you didn’t matter in the fashion industry (of then).
From there, I did a short gig at Jet Airways, India’s first private airline company but really found my love and passion in the Hotel industry, starting off as Guest Relations Officer.
Eschewed cultural expectations by falling in love and marrying my Belgian husband, who I met at the hotel. Our East-meets-West relationship is a source of constant inspiration and understanding, at times of extreme differences.
In 1999, I moved to Belgium, did my MBA in Antwerp. And in 2001, joined Radisson Hotel Group (then SAS International Airlines Hotels) and spent nearly two decades developing, curating, publicizing and renewing global icons like Radisson Blu, Radisson Red, Radisson Collection, Hotel Missoni, Malmaison, Regent Hotels & Resorts and some more.
In 2018, due to a family tragedy, decided to pivot and start my own company called Renud International specializing in Executive Communications & Branding. I worked with global C-Suite leaders of Nestle Waters, Dow Chemicals, Siemens, ABB, Accor Hotel Group, and several non-profit organizations on redesign of Brand, Marketing & Communication departments, and crafting their leadership story and corporate purpose.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, in January 2021, saw the job at Travel + Leisure on LinkedIn and applied knowing that this was a very long shot, but I grabbed it! So during an era when women (and men) were leaving the workforce, I stepped forward and challenged myself to take an exceptional challenge – launching a new brand, a new business, in a new country, on a new continent, with a new culture.
I started my new role entirely remotely and on Zoom, crafted and launched a new identity of Travel + Leisure to reach beyond the magazine, all while living in a different time zone, redesigned the enterprise brand strategy, a new business segment (leisure travel subscription model), rebuilt the teams, got the immigration clearance (in the middle of a government change in the USA and COVID restrictions), moved to the USA in August 2021 (with my Belgian husband and my Great Dane) and have been thriving (at times just surviving) since.
Were there any setbacks on your path to success that you eventually realized were important to your overall growth?
Being a woman and a woman of color in a European corporate culture, I had to work three times as hard as my white counterparts and had to earn every role, assignment, promotion and raise. I believe that building that courage to choose wisely, and knowing what I didn’t want was equally important as knowing what I did want.
Of course, leaving my family in India and growing apart, while embracing a new culture and new languages was extremely difficult. I also experienced living and working on three continents, and navigating the cultural differences. I am someone who loves a good challenge. I actually LOVE change. I get bored with the mundane.
When did you first realize your career aspirations included a title in leadership?
A few different moments and milestones in my life led to this. In 2006, I was trusted / appointed by Radisson CEO and CFO to co-lead the company’s IPO with our Head of Strategy & Acquisitions. Another time, I partnered with G(irls)20 to co-launch the “Fathers Empowering Daughters” campaign featuring Sir Richard Branson, Malala, Shakira, Chelsea Clinton and Wolfgang M. Neumann (Radisson’s CEO). Under Wolfgang’s incredible leadership and commitment to the issue, I also played an instrumental role in redefining the narrative on Women in Leadership in the hospitality industry, by leading the appointment of the First Female General Manager in Saudi Arabia. All of this made me realize, I have much more in me to explore and offer.
What are you most proud of during your tenure at Travel + Leisure thus far?
It’s hard to choose just one, so I’ve narrowed it down to a few particularly exciting moments:
- Creation of a whole new identity and story of Travel + Leisure beyond the magazine
- Our Investors Day in September 2021, launching the strategic 2022-2025 roadmap and our new identity as Travel + Leisure
- Curation and launch of Travel + Leisure Club
- Defining a brand new Employer Brand & Employee Value Proposition that will be revealed in September
- Our collaboration with Jacqui Gifford, Editor-in-Chief of the T+L Magazine and Meredith Dotdash leadership teams
- Close and personal relationships I have built in a fairly short time across the company and the industry
- Curation of a brand new Employer Brand & Employee Value Proposition that will be revealed in September
- Our mission to put the world on vacation
Though society has progressed beyond strictly seeing white males in leadership roles, unfortunately it is still fairly uncommon to see women in upper management or holding C-suite titles, especially minorities. How do you think this can be changed?
If we want to see real change, it needs to be made into a business issue, beyond and HR and D&I initiative target. Give female leaders the right sponsors and high-stake assignments. While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you. The 2016 McKinsey Women Matter study showed, as women move up their organizations’ hierarchies, they increasingly shift from line to staff jobs — roles requiring focused expertise or assistance rather than responsibility for major projects — while the percentage of men in line roles remains about the same. By the time women reach the upper middle management levels, only about 20% are in jobs with profit and loss responsibility.
Companies should also work on getting the Board of Directors to commit with KPIs for the senior leadership teams. I think the whole point gets often lost in corporations having a system-wide target for Diversity & Inclusion. Let’s call a spade a spade and talk about women in C-Suite (and not just leadership position), it would certainly help.
Other recommended strategies include:
- Get full commitment from CEO and the EC
- Invest in special training and coaching for high potential female leaders to groom them to become a C-Suite
- Formally appoint Male Champions of Change through different levels in the organization to keep the conversation relevant and alive
What is the most important piece of advice you were given during your career that you would like to pass on to future generations of young female leaders?
- Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck
- Do it, or get off the pot
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission
In the past few years, travel as we know it has been completely revamped. What has it been like to navigate the ever-changing industry and how have you had to adapt your business model to fit the new normal?
We are committed now more than ever to putting the world on vacation – post a global pandemic. We have also worked to diversify from the timeshare / vacation ownership business with the launch of Travel+Leisure GO and our new leisure travel subscription business model for turning travel inspirations to reality, bringing the magazine pages to life. Leisure travels is booming, and we want to make sure that we are the preferred choice for all things travel.
How does an international perspective impact marketing in North America?
Travel and Hospitality industry is truly global, so my international perspective certainly helps see the (timeshare) industry very differently. Where others see limitations / constraints, I see an endless world of possibilities.
Having worked in a Scandinavian business environment for most of my adult life, I was given the confidence to be open, transparent and cut to the chase.
I think in general, having an international perspective – as a leader – requires courage, humility and confidence to accept the unfamiliar. To acknowledge that there can be another way of doing something. I am blessed to be in this industry, as every time I travel, I learn and grow as a human being, and see how different the world truly is.
Diversity is not just a tick box of race, age, religion, sex, etc. it’s also about truly embracing the diversity of opinions and perspective (in campaigns, in leadership style and in teams’ performance management). Marketeers can play a vital role by influencing the narrative and culture by providing creative solutions to complex business and societal problems.
The rules of good business are NOT the same everywhere. Understanding and acknowledging that is critical for global brand and marketing leaders. The rules of a great life and lifestyle are also not the same everywhere. What I value and create as an Indian-born European could be very different from an Indian-American or an American or any other nationality or origin – and vice versa. And I love that cocktail of diverse opinions and creativity. It’s remembering who we truly are, and who we are talking to – which is important. It’s almost never about the WHAT, but the HOW and WHY that differentiates a good brand from a great one.
By looking at your career, it’s clear you have an instinct for branding. How would you characterize your approach to branding?
Again, there is not one simple answer here. I would characterize this approach with a few different points, including:
- Find a story that will resonate with people
- Dare to be different
- Be robust in analysis and clear in your thinking, but don’t overcomplicate the answers
- Ask myself – WHY would anyone care?
- And learn to “orbit around the giant hairball”
Follow-up: If you had to recommend one–and only one–book about branding to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
The Book of Joy — Dalai Lama and Desmund Tutu. Brands’ only purpose is to “simplify complexity” and eliminate the unnecessary.
One of the challenges of branding at Travel + Leisure is the multi-brand component; managing a diverse portfolio of brands is much more complex than just having one brand voice. How do you think about keeping the portfolio brand voices different-but-similar?
Know at your core who you are, as a brand. Remain loyal and truthful to that identity. Have the courage to anticipate when you are about to become irrelevant, and change quickly and decisively.
Believe in your brand – evolve but don’t deviate from your core purpose (often marketeers and brand folks get bored with their own creation. Give your brand story wings to fly and evolve). I always say to my team, if something isn’t working, change the plan, but never the goal.
Follow-up: Do you have a specific story or anecdote from your experience that’s particularly interesting about integrating various brands while keeping a multi-brand portfolio, that you’d like to share?
I am amid one of the most fascinating brand experiences of my career right now, and the most incredible transformation of the travel industry. Travel + Leisure is the most influential brand in travel in the world, dedicated to putting the world on vacation, to espouse the importance of leisure travel in a life well lived. There will be more to share on this, but I think there is a boldness in acknowledging the transformative experience of travel and being present and aware of the moment. That is where the magic is, right now.
Branding always requires some amount of risk-taking, to avoid sounding like everyone else. But of course you don’t want to take too many risks–that’s too risky. Do you have any stories about balancing that fine line between a brand finding a unique brand voice vs not taking on risks in sounding too “out-there”?
If it’s a risk worth taking for the betterment of our society, we should never hesitate. Radisson RED in Brussels, first one in the world for the brand, was scheduled to open in April 2016 which is when the city’s international airport and other transportation hubs became the target of horrific terrorist attacks. To reinstate the confidence in the city and to fight back on hatred on immigrants in Europe, we launched a campaign #LiveBrussels featuring all faces (employees) of Radisson RED that had all come in from somewhere else and made Brussels our home. We partnered with city authorities, local businesses, tourism boards and more, to bring it to life. We won the Best Communication Campaign in the Hospitality Industry worldwide.
Are there any brands in the travel space that you think are doing a great job, well, branding themselves, outside of Travel + Leisure? What are they doing that’s so interesting in their branding?
- I am biased here to see Taj and Oberoi – two Indian giants – who continue to push the boundaries on extraordinary customer services and experiences.
- I am in love with SONEVA, everything they do touches my soul. Design, connection with humanity, sophistication, philanthropy commitment, and just about everything has been so well thought through. What an exceptional story, brought forward so beautifully. Every coral of Soneva’s sands sings their song. I cannot wait to visit.
- I am a big fan of BARRY S. STERNLICHT after his creation of W and Westin, so truly loving the work that’s happening at SH Hotels & Resorts, especially 1Hotel.
How do you think “Branding” is going to change over the next 15 years? With the rise of social media, then influencer marketing, and a lot of other developments–it’s a space that’s changing a lot.
- “Those who tell stories, rule the world”, and the world of authentic storytelling will return. Branding will have to become more human. We have lived way too-long in a filtered-up environment of make-believe, causing distress, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and FOMO. Brands will have to working hard at communicating authentically and honestly (Nike does an incredible job at this already!). “Those who tell stories, rule the world”, and the world of authentic storytelling will return.
- Influencer marketing landscape is already changing where several leading brands are refusing to pay for coverage and partnerships, and focusing on collaborating with Brand Activists. Genuine influence will thrive thanks to genuine relationships.
- Technology (not social media) will play a vital role in safety, security and comfort including online security, and with that, privacy will be high on everyone’s agenda.
- Earned media and PR will have its golden days back (I so hope!). But, social media can play a crucial role in this shift by taking more responsibility and ownership to help customers.
- Self-discovery will become increasingly important especially with the (infamously branded) lost generation.
- Brands will need to help their audience make more sustainable choices.
- Local partnerships will matter more than big-brand collaborations.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion will become even more important to consumers seeking ways to make the world a better place.
Do you have any plans for making the Travel + Leisure brand even stronger that you can share with us?
We will continue to go from strength to strength by building on the legacy of Travel + Leisure magazine’s stories and amplifying those inspirations through curated experiences–at home and beyond–by creating meaningful brand partnerships, co-curating campaigns with other brands that help uplift the societies and communities we work in/with, hosting world-class events with Dotdash Meredith teams, leveraging our Environmental, Social, Governance, continuing our commitment on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and putting the world on vacation. That’s one trend that will never go out of fashion, as wildly proven by the global pandemic. Despite its toll, and against all odds people are back to travels His holiness, the Dalai Lama’s own words “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”.
One of the most challenging parts of your job–and it’s something we here admire in you!–is being able to manage so many different stakeholders and parties to actually get stuff done. In other words, branding “in theory” is fun to brainstorm on; but one of the reasons you’ve been so successful is that you can actually push stuff to happen. Do you have any advice you’d like to share with us on your approach towards turning branding-theory into branding-reality, and pushing through changes, often while dealing with complex personalities?
Although I have left the company, but Carlson’s credo is what I live by everyday:
- WHATEVER YOU DO, DO WITH INTEGRITY.
- WHEREVER YOU GO, GO AS A LEADER.
- WHOMEVER YOU SERVE, SERVE WITH CARING.
- WHENEVER YOU DREAM, DREAM WITH YOUR ALL.
- AND NEVER, EVER GIVE UP.