Women in Travel: Melanie Waters-Ryan

We catch up with Flight Centre’s chief operating officer about landing the best 21st birthday gift and being an eternal optimist.

Can you tell us a little about your career progression? How did you get your start in the travel industry?

I started at Flight Centre in 1987 and landed the job on my 21st birthday. I suppose I was a typical Flight Centre recruit of the time.

I’d been at university doing a BA with a Psychology major then travelled for a year after finishing my degree. I came back and was wondering what I would do next when I saw the Flight Centre job advertised.

I figured that would do me for a while. And here I am nearly 28 years later.

The travel industry and particularly Flight Centre is an exciting place to work and its an industry that once you are in I think is hard to leave. And Flight Centre was the place that I really fitted.

I am very lucky that since I started as a consultant at Queen Street Flight Centre in Brisbane I have had about seven careers. From rank and file consultant I moved to be a team leader, airfare product leader and then national training leader.

I eventually became an area leader in Queensland then a national leader of Great Holiday Escape (now Escape Travel).

Thereafter I became a national leader (General Manager of our holiday brands) then General Manager of Infinity Holidays and finally global Chief Operating Officer and Australian Managing Director.

What would you say is your defining career achievement or the thing you are most proud of?

That’s a very hard question as fortunately I have had many proud moments – from top novice in my first three months – to being in the $100,000 club (with the first shop I ran as a team leader) to presiding over Infinity Holidays during a period of strong growth. Now it is one of our most successful businesses.

But I think I am most proud of the great stories I hear from both our people and our customers about something amazing we have helped them do or achieve.

Flight Centre’s core purpose is “To open up the world for those who want to see” and my world has certainly been opened up by being part of Flight Centre.

You’ve been quite proactive in developing female leaders within Flight Centre?

Today I am particularly proud – I hope – to be a role model to so many of our wonderful women through the development of the Kit Kat Club.

This initiative developed after I spoke with Carole Cooper (our global Peopleworks leader) about what we could do to inspire and help senior women at Flight Centre to reach the top.

We wanted a place where the girls could meet, chat, learn and just encourage each other. We meet every few months and invite a guest speaker, have lunch and share stories and advice.

For the last two sessions we have all bought a younger guest to spread the word further. Guest speakers for our sessions so far have been Todd Sampson, Skroo and Rachel Botsman (who wrote a book called What’s mine is yours – The rise of the collaborative consumption).

I have also spoken to some other women in the industry to come along and tell their stories – Judith Crompton, Virgin Australia’s Chief Commercial Officer was one recent invitee.

After our latest meeting in Sydney I received an email from an Escape Travel Team Leader thanking us for being a part of such a great group of women and saying she wanted to rise to the top – I was so proud.


What have been the biggest challenges to success you’ve encountered professionally?  

Getting others to believe what you see. But if you have a good destination and a reasonable plan of how to get there that’s the great thing about Flight Centre – you get given a go.

I am an eternal optimist and I find it challenging when there is a lot of negativity. I do think as a woman you also have to fight a bit harder – even at Flight Centre – to get the really senior jobs.

But embrace the hard and soft of being a woman and don’t just try to be like a tough bloke and you will cut through.

With the benefit of wisdom, what advice would you give your 21 year old self when you were starting out in your career?                                

Spend time thinking and then do. One of the things I have learnt over the years is that allowing time to think is as important as allowing time to reflect.

At Flight Centre we measure pretty well everything – but the numbers are there so you can work out what lies beneath. And try and stay calm, upbeat but calm.

That’s one thing Skroo Turner is very good at – and I admire it.

How would you describe your business/management style? What sorts of things are most important to you professionally?

Optimistic – anything is possible. Firm and fair and have fun. I also have a view that good leaders need to be able to do two things – inspire and engineer.

One is about creating meaning and a compelling story for your people, telling stories and being able to engage with people, both inside and outside the organisation.

The other is about seeing the business as an engine that you can work on and make go faster. Seeing where there is weakness and strength and how to make it work better for our customers and our people.


Who are the people you admire most professionally or in any field/walk of life?

Clever and creative people – recently I met Todd Sampson and his creative positivity was catching. I like to meet, associate with and be with people who are positive energy givers.

I find it very hard to be around pessimistic, glass half empty folk. I also admire those who use their fame, privilege or wealth to make a difference and that doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of money or position either.

My immediate SWOT team and I did a half day volunteer activity with Oz Harvest recently where we made hundreds of meals that were served that night to street kids.

The gentleman who organised us, David Taylor, was inspiring. He just cared and he was fun.

What do you do to unwind when you aren’t working? What is most important to you outside the office? 

Spending time with family and at home – whilst I love to travel I also love to potter around at home to relax. Watching my teenage girls play water polo on Saturday mornings for the last eight years has been important.

For you, what’s the best aspect about working in the travel industry?

Travelling. I had the bug 30 years ago and I’ve still got it. That’s the great thing about being in the industry, you get to travel and see and do amazing things.

My husband Greg also loves to travel and now our kids have the bug too as they have been travelling since they were babies, which I love.

The travel industry also has some great people and I have met so many fabulous and interesting individuals.

What one thing gets you through a stressful day?

I need coffee in the morning, exercise most afternoons and a glass of wine with dinner.

But it’s actually a view that everything is fixable and setbacks are only ever a moment in time that gets me through.

You can see the other ladies from our exclusive Women in Travel series here:


2 responses to “Women in Travel: Melanie Waters-Ryan”

  1. ….very interesting interview.. she’s so proactive in developing female leaders…however people she admires are mostly men… skroo turner – upbeat but calm… todd sampson – positive energy giver… david taylor – inspiring and fun…. now you know why men get paid better than women in business… lol…

    • I’m sure that one of the main reasons she has male role-models, over female ones, is because there are no other women in her line of work that are in a similar position, or further up the management hierarchy as her. This women is top of the travel industry – what other women can she use as a benchmark to develop herself further, or admire?

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