Today, we have an incredibly special interview with Melissa Tilling: the CEO and founder of Charitable Travel. Melissa is such a significant figure in both the business world and LGBTQ+ community. Her travel company is also the first and only one to be run by a trans-woman. There is so much that we can learn from her as we celebrate Pride Month this year – including inclusion of LGBTQ+ customers and employees, and how it can impact business models. 

Melissa, firstly, happy pride month! This is such a momentous time of year; how do you, as a transgender businesswoman, typically celebrate the month and what does it represent for you? 

Pride Month is very special to me as a transgender woman and social entrepreneur. Charitable Travel strive to embody the values of self-affirmation; dignity of those across the spectrum; the equality, inclusion and humanity LGBTQ+ people deserve; and provide increased visibility of LGBT individuals through our customer-facing activities in a heightened way during the month.  

During Pride Month, our website highlights some amazing charities to our customers. We amplify those that are doing great work to support the wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community. The pursuit and attainment of authenticity for me has been a transformational experience in so many ways. I personally know the incredible, life-changing impact that is being able to reconcile your internal and external existence through transition.   

I understand that you began your transition while working as a Managing Director of another travel company. Is your coming out story, and perhaps transition experience, tied to your business models and/or way of working?  

I completed my transition to living as the woman I was born to be whilst a director of Funway Holidays in my early forties. I legally changed my name and arrived as Melissa in the office for work on 4th July 2008. I’ve coined this as my own personal Independence Day.  

Transition was life-changing in so many ways. My personal and professional confidence was unleashed – my ability to express myself transformed my view on the world. My confidence as both a person and leader magnified beyond expectation. I was no longer hiding within myself; my happiness was obvious and my interpersonal relationships with both everyone in the workplace completely changed.  

Transition in the workplace was a careful process. We set out the roadmap with help of fantastic charity resources for the benefit of my colleagues, customers and suppliers’ knowledge. In transition, as well as business, preparation and planning are everything to avoid disappointment and heartache.   

Has your identity ever created any hold ups/hinderances in your professional career, or otherwise? 

Living a conflicted life with internal angst undoubtedly held me and my confidence back. So, I have no doubt that I could not have been promoted to Managing Director, or had the self-belief to found Charitable Travel without unifying my life. Becoming authentically Melissa has given me many opportunities in my career rather than hinderances. 

2020 was such a fragile time all over the world with the COVID pandemic going on. Everything was so disrupted and uncertain. But you started up a travel company during that time! What motivated you to start such a business? 

Charitable Travel was conceived mid-2019 out of a desire to create value for a wider community, not only for shareholders. By the time we were ready to launch, the first lockdown has started. Yet we were ready and, like most, thought that COVID-19 might be an obstacle for no more than six months. So, we ‘pushed the button’ to launch.  

The eventual two years of the pandemic has been an expensive time as the only shareholder with minimal government sector-specific support. But it was a fantastic time to build the brand; partner with over 180 charities; and publish ten issues of our magazine.

We also forged many relationships with tourist boards and travel brands that support our ethos. We have sold holidays and travel throughout the pandemic and helped great charities by enabling donations. But we will only now realise our potential as the world opens to travel and tourism again.    

Charitable Travel was built on DE&I principles and charitable generosity. Was this aim of bringing about inclusion and representation, especially as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, always crucial? 

I am simply authentically me, and it is only upon reflection that I have thought I am likely to be the only transgender founder of a travel company. In the future, I hope I am not the only one, and definitely not the last. I contribute regularly to the travel trade press to show what is possible, despite transition.  

My life experience has reinforced a deep empathy for anyone challenged by a lack of acceptance of diversity – feeling that they do not have equity or inclusion in our society. We will always champion charities and good works that help overcome bigotry that is present due to misplaced fear or ignorance. 

What does your company do to support its LGBTQ+ employees and customers alike, for the sake of their inclusion? 

For Charitable Travel as an employer, authenticity and individuality are valued. There is no discrimination to our team members if they choose to share their identity with the workplace. Their sexuality, race, gender, ethnicity, belief or disability, will be treated with respect, honesty and consideration.  

Our customers are simply treated with the utmost respect, and professionally supported regardless of their identity. If the customer chooses to express needs specific to their sexuality or gender, we are there to support that need.  

We seek to ensure our content is representative of the diversity of our society. We are open to support charity partners helping across humanity, the environment and the animal world – including those of LGBTQ+ causes. 

Being part of the community is something that feels so isolating and scary anyway, so customers must need to feel included in business conversations without fear of their sexuality/gender identity getting in the way. What do you think is next for your company with progressive LGBTQ+ inclusion in mind?  

I feel we are fortunate in the UK travel industry with general understanding and empathy of the needs of the LGB community. When it comes to travel, the unique needs of the transgender community are far from understood by most. The trans community is so diverse and uniquely challenged by the often change in appearance when reconciling their gender.  

However, training is key. I would like to launch a toolkit to support learning in the travel industry. This will embody the concerns, issues and considerations of those wishing to travel who present in their chosen gender, but have identification that reflects their gender assigned at birth.   

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