Kellyn Smith Kenny has worked at some of the world’s largest companies, from Uber to Microsoft, but it’s in her current role as chief marketing officer at Hilton that she feels most at home—in part, because it takes her all over the world. “I’m traveling more than I ever have, and every time I go somewhere, I bring my daughters back a snow globe and tell them stories about Bangkok, Singapore, or London,” she says. “Travel has the potential to unlock people’s minds. Not just for them, but for future generations.” We sat down with Kenny to learn more about how she became such an avid traveler, why the hotel industry needs to be held accountable for how it represents women as travelers, and the importance of getting women of all backgrounds in a room together.
You haven’t always worked in hotels. When did you realize that you wanted to make travel a part of your life?
I think travel has always been in my blood to some extent. My dad was a professional baseball player in the U.S. and he visited most of the states as part of his stint with the Red Sox—that was a big part of how he talked about his twenties. He was also fortunate enough to buy an around-the-world airline ticket with Pan Am; as long as you were flying east, you could keep moving. I remember hearing stories about what travel meant to him, and how it opened his mind, opened his perspective, and helped him think about his place in the world and what he could give back. It meant that, as a kid, I was always a very curious person. I wanted to soak up and learn as much as I could about different people and different experiences.
Do you remember your first trip abroad?
My first real taste of travel was on a high school trip to Spain and France. I kept every bus ticket, subway ticket, receipt, and postcard, and I made stacks and stacks of those peel and stick photo albums when I got home. I wanted to remember all the scents and sounds of traveling throughout Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris. I’ll never forget seeing La Sagrada Família for the first time: it felt like a lightning bolt. I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is the kind of place I want to be.”
So much of your international travel now is for work. How do you find time to still have those moments?
I try to walk as much as possible. My work takes me to metropolitan areas, and there’s something about the vibe and energy of a city’s streets that feels contagious. The wonderful thing about being in hospitality is that we have such a rich cross-section of team members that work in our hotel. I get to spend time with the general managers, the doormen, the concierge, and the people at the front desk. Hearing their stories makes me feel connected to a city and the experience of living there. And whatever I do, I always make sure to have a meal that is authentic to whatever region I’m in, and take half a day to explore the place. I always wish it could be longer, but I’ve got to get back for my kids. I can’t just tack on a day to the end of every trip.
Business travel often equals solo travel, but there’s all sorts of solo trips you can take. How is Hilton welcoming and adapting to women traveling alone?
For me, it breaks down into three main areas: increasing the number of women at every level inside of travel companies; shifting the message to make women the target for our design, marketing, and development efforts, rather than an afterthought; and looking at how we can make the on-property environment feel really secure and inviting. It’s difficult for companies to achieve those things if they don’t have a strong representation on the board, and we have more female senior executives in this company than ever before—by leaps and bounds. But we also need to be held accountable for how we’re representing women as travelers, not just as the person who gets the second key, but as the decision-maker. That’s why we’re constantly challenging ourselves and innovating the environment inside Hilton to be more conducive to women.
When we talk about hotel spaces becoming more welcoming to women, we often end up talking about safety. What are some other, smaller details that get overlooked?
We have a resource group made up of our female team members that we turn to for almost all of our first rounds of qualitative research. We’ll ask them questions about everything from the hotel gym to where the doors are positioned. Every single touchpoint is an opportunity to communicate to the female guests that we are thinking of them. That can be the height of the counters in the bathroom or the quality of the hairdryer or bath products. Even misplacing a mirror, so that it’s too high up, can impact a woman’s stay. We want every type of woman to know that we hear them, because you can tell when you haven’t been considered.
Why is joining a community like Conde Nast’s Women Who Travel important to you?
When you’re trying to tackle systemic issues that have been persistent for decades, it’s really important to bring people with diverse backgrounds together. Having them share their experiences and ideas with each other leads to real problem solving. Making everyone part of the conversation powers innovation, but it also gives a voice to this enormous population that has historically been an afterthought. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?
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