Married, with two adult children, Bernadette Willemin, Seychelles Tourism Board’s Régional Director for Europe, talks to Cosmocreole about work, family and how she navigated motherhood at the height of her career. Her career journey in the tourism field is no doubt an impressive one- 27 years to date- but she does not shy away from the fact that it has been a challenging one, and finding a work-life balance was not an easy task when you want to be the best in your job and as a mother and wife.
Tell us a bit about yourself? I was born in Seychelles and grew up in Belvedere Mahé, where I spent my entire childhood. I attended Plaisance School, where I completed my primary studies and later secured a scholarship to go to Regina Mundi Convent, where I completed my A’Levels at the Polytechnic and furthered my studies at the University of Reunion, where I graduated with a Degree in Information-Communication and Documentation. I am married and have a son and daughter, and live in France.
How did you end up working in the tourism industry? My first job was in information and communication, and I started as Presenter and Assistant Producer Director in RTS – Radio Television Seychelles, now SBC. I was trained in this field. I joined the industry in 1994 whilst I was living abroad. I started as Regional Manager for the Iberian Peninsula, in charge of marketing and promotion for Spain and Portugal. I was transferred to Paris in 2003 to take responsibilities for the France-Belgium-Netherlands-Luxemburg market whilst continuing to oversee the Iberian Peninsula. In 2010 I was promoted to Regional Director for Europe, taking charge of the continent, including Russia. My new post led me on a steep learning curve that introduced me to the intricacies of working with different cultures and mentalities. This deep exposure has developed my capacity to rapidly and seamlessly adapt specific market strategies to suit the needs of the target markets.
It sounds like your work requires a lot of travelling; how did your family adapt and cope with the regular travel, especially when your children were younger? It is vital to have the support and trust of the family to carry out any job that entails spending an average of 250 days on the field. It has not always been easy, especially when the kids were still very young. My husband and I had to coordinate our respective travel plans to ensure that one of us was always present for them.
It was always important for me to explain to the kids why their mother was constantly absent and could not always be present for many of their school or after school activities, just like other mothers. However, in as much as they told you they understood, I could see the disappointment in their eyes, especially when they were younger and unable to communicate their pain of my absence. Hence, it was important to be supported my husband, who remained fully committed to ensuring the children had his support in my absence.
Unlike other Seychelloise mothers, I could not rely on my immediate family to assist as they were all back home in Seychelles. My in-laws were unfortunately also living in a different country.
I had a real wake-up call when my son was 15; he came home after winning the football championship for the Department of the Yvelines in France, announcing that he had listed his father to attend the prize-winning ceremony. But, unfortunately, he did not include me due to the fact I was most of the time away from home. At that moment, I realised the importance of having the right balance between my professional and family life. So, from this day onwards, although knowing that I could not change the nature of my job, I ensured that I spent more quality time with them even if it meant working extra hours at night, after dinner.
Describe a typical day of work for you? This will be a Mission impossible— Interestingly, in this job, every single day is different. However, it falls either under business-to-business activities with the trade professionals, press and media or business-to-consumer involving the targeted consumers. In the real normal, 85% of the time is spent on the field doing marketing and promotion of our product. It also includes business sourcing, negotiations, activity plan development and promotion execution and follow up. The rest of the time is more for administrative work involving our offices’ daily running and operations.
It could happen that the first day of the week, you find yourself conducting destination and product training for travel trade professionals in a particular city. Then, the next day, you might hop on a plane or train to do a press event during the day, a consumer event at night in another city or country, and the weekend attending a niche consumer fair. In between —conducting door to door sales call and wrapping up reports, elaborating marketing activity plans, approving projects and very importantly, touching base with the staff working in the territory under my jurisdiction on ongoing projects and brainstorming on new ideas/plans, or simply listening to them, attending to their queries etc.
I am by nature an early bird, and this permits me to take care of some household duties when I am not travelling before heading to the office.
2020/2021 have not been kind to us; the pandemic has sent the world into economic turmoil. As the Director responsible (a key player) for Seychelles Tourism, what has been your greatest challenge? Our mission is to generate demand for tourism from international markets by building our destinations’ brands and raising travellers’ awareness about our respective destination offerings. In ordinary times, we operate with a relatively high degree of certainty; planning is an annual process, setting budgets is a formality, traveller behaviour is understood, and marketing plans are clear and in place. That has all changed. Now, we need to apply our resources to understanding COVID-19’s impact on travels, for now, and in the future. How have consumers’ attitudes towards travel changed in response to the pandemic? When will they begin to seek out travel opportunities again? Where will they go from there?
It is imperative for my team in Europe and I to be ready to act when the borders progressively reopen and prospective travellers start travelling again.
The greatest challenge today is the uncertainty we live in. It isn’t easy to make any predictions. We need to have good ingredients at both ends for the perfect recipe from the source markets and the welcoming destination. Thus, more than ever, we need to act fast and be agile to tweak and re strategies – time is of the essence.
What are your hopes for the tourism Industry in Seychelles and Africa? The Seychelles is truly blessed to possess many of the characteristics that today’s travellers are looking fora— a non-mass destination, offering wide open space where one can easily re-connect with the natural world, away from crowds in beautiful natural environments—Celestial Escape.
In addition, the proper health and safety measures are in place, new products and services protocols, and alliances with industry stakeholders. All this should help for us to regain back some of our business slowly. As the vaccination programme progressed worldwide, we are optimistic for the future as long as the international carriers continue to connect the world to our shores.
We have a diversity of products to cater to the needs of different market segments and for all tastes and all budgets. The same goes for our mother continent, Africa, which is also very rich in culture, biodiversity, full of interesting human stories and offering a wide selection of experiences both inland and on the coast.
In September, you are taking on a new role with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism, heading the destination marketing division. How are you viewing this new appointment? I am honoured to have been given this opportunity to take on a bigger role. It is very much a continuation of what I am doing as Regional Director for Europe in terms of destination marketing and promotion, except now it will be on a bigger scale, the entire world and thus taking into consideration the specificity, particularity and needs of other areas within the global context.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievements to date in your current position? (personal and professional) Leading a group of professionals and together year on year increase business for Seychelles, accommodating more than 2/3 of the visitors. Seeing some of my team members excel and grow in their careers reflecting that my contribution, professional advice and training have been worthwhile.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career in the Tourism industry you now know? Of course, it would be a 24hr job, especially in this new era of modern technology where you are permanently connected and a continuous battle, especially when limited financial resources are available. Nonetheless, very often, challenges helped to develop other good qualities. For example, I learnt to get extra mileage and obtain results with very little through enhanced negotiation skills.
What are your thoughts on gender inequality in your field of work? As far as Seychelles is concerned, it is very much a feminine affair. Still, the gentlemen are quite well present in the tourism industry and occupying key positions, especially in the hotel industry. On the international level, it is quite a good mix, and there again, the predominant gender varies from one segment to another. So, for example, we will see more feminine travel agents but more male Tour Operators and Hotel General Managers.
Across the globe, gender inequality still exists and will not disappear overnight. It is thus important for us women to seize every opportunity we get, to give the maximum and the best of our capabilities. This is the only way for us to occupy what could be seen as legitimately ours based on merit and professionalism.
I know you regularly travel to Seychelles, although you are based in Europe. Do you think that the role of women in Seychelles has changed significantly? Since day one, we have been a matriarchal society whereby women have always been at the forefront. This has not changed very much as women are in the majority; they wear the trousers when it comes to household management. However, changes over the years have been more in the professional fields. Today, we can proudly say that we have a good percentage of women occupying key positions in our society.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the tourism industry? It is a great industry, a wonderful human experience regardless of which area you work in. It is all about human relationships. It does involve hard work and odd hours, but the satisfaction of making someone happy and making their dreams come true at the end of the day is priceless.
Cosmocreole is all about inspiring women—we connect, inspire and share. Who has been your greatest inspiration in life? I look up and admire many women both in the Seychelles and abroad. But, if I had to name one, it would be my mother. She taught me how to be independent and never take things at face value, always believe in myself, and strive to achieve my goals through hard work.
On that same note, Cosmocreole is also all about inspiring other women regardless of their social background or political affiliation; as a woman, what do you think is the best way to inspire each other? First and foremost, it is leading by example. Set goals and expectations that inspire others. Master empathy. Focus on relationships and embrace the process. My goal is to appreciate everyone’s leadership style, whether it is artistic, managerial or entrepreneurial. Finally, it is Important to demonstrate mutual respect for all involved; the process of collaborating becomes a source of inspiration in and of itself.
You are a mother—working mum for so many years. What’s your best piece of advice would you give to working mothers with children? My son is 28; he holds a Master in Corporate Finance and has been in the active world for the past five years. My daughter is 23, doing a Master’s after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences Engineering at the EPFL, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a research institute and university in Lausanne, Switzerland, which specializes in natural sciences and engineering. I am very proud of my children’s academic achievement. For me, the importance is the possibility of co-inhabiting. It is just about finding the right balance and communicating. As professional mothers, we need to explain to them what our jobs entail, make them our associates in their own way. It will also help them to develop a sense of responsibility.
Nonetheless, we must never shy away from our roles and responsibilities as a mother by focusing only on our careers. We must also learn to know when to disconnect and spend quality time with our children. No matter how old they are, they will always be our children.
Is there a motto you live by every day? “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” — Benjamin Franklin.
If you were to freeze one moment of your life, which will it be and why? My very first trip abroad was to Spain in 1982 and I was lucky to have had the opportunity to watch Diego Maradona playing for FC Barcelona. Ten years later, the same city welcomed the Olympic game, and I remember saying to myself that I will return to this country. Little did I know that my dream will come true; I did return a year later and lived in Madrid for ten good years. My daughter was born there on the official day of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, and my son spent the first decade of his childhood there.
Finally, success is… not about having attained wealth, position, honours, or the like. It is just the pleasure of having achieved something desired or intended which will make a difference in the life of my entourage, make them happy, be it on the personal or professional ground.