The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) has chosen two professionals as the organization’s 2023 Future Lights of the Tour Industry.
Julie Higgins, the hotel operations director and sustainability officer at Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, and Mikey Sadowski, vice president of global communications at Intrepid Travel, are the recipients of this year’s award.
“Julie and Mikey exemplify are, indeed, bright lights who will help guide our industry to a more sustainable and equitable future,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA. “Seeing the strides that our tour operator members are taking towards responsible practices and action offers promise of a bright future in travel and tourism, and we are delighted and proud to shine a light on these stories.”
Reducing cruise food waste
As Uniworld’s sustainability officer, Higgins spearheaded the river cruise line’s recent industry-leading food waste reduction initiative. In 2020, she began searching for a suitable plan to reduce food waste on ships. Under her leadership, Uniworld chose Leanpath as its waste management system, which went into effect in August 2021, making it the first river cruise line with such a system.
"We travel because we want to see the places around the world, be immersed in the cultures we’re visiting, enjoy the beautiful scenery around us,” Higgins told TMR. “That is always what inspired me to travel, and it should be inevitable that we are protecting everything while we travel and not destroying it or bringing negative impact everywhere we go. It is important to make sure people will always be able to travel for the love of travel and bring good to the places they're going to.”
With special devices from Leanpath, Uniworld is now able to track the amount of food waste being produced and why it’s being thrown out. Higgins was on board for the rollout of the program and reports that staff on the ships have adapted well and are excited to be part of the new system. Uniworld has now reduced its food waste by 39% across its entire fleet, Higgins said, with the goal of hitting 50% reduction by 2025.
Higgins, who has been with the company for 20 years, is also leading the charge to get Uniworld to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Leading DEI in marketing
In a first for the travel industry, Sandowski worked with six external consultants to develop Ethical Marketing Guidelines for Intrepid. The framework aims to hold the company accountable to diversity and inclusion standards by ensuring that its content partner pool identifies at least 50% BIPOC, 10% plus-size, 10% LGBTQIA+, 10% Indigenous.
Sadowski also lead the launch of an event series of BIPOC content creator mentorship trips in partnership with Nomadness Travel Tribe, one of the world’s largest communities of BIPOC travelers, to help elevate emerging and popular influencers.
Matt Berna, president of The Americas at Intrepid, said that for more than a decade, Sadowski has “always brought the energy and creative thinking to make us better.”
“This honor is a major recognition of his hard work in the purpose space,” Berna said. “Mikey is constantly thinking of ways we can continue to drive Intrepid’s progress towards becoming a truly responsible and inclusive tour operator.
"This journey is always evolving, and we know that we still have work to do,” he added. “We hope these efforts can inspire other industry players to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of decision making, whether it’s in marketing or designing trips, or considering the intersectionality of sustainability as they build out climate-conscious travel options.”
USTOA launched the Future Lights of the Tour Industry program in alignment with the theme of its 50th anniversary, 50 years forward, in 2022. Higgins and Sadowski will be honored at the USTOA Annual Conference and Marketplace in Los Angeles on Dec. 2-6, 2023.