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Profile: April M. Merenda, President & Co-Owner, Gutsy Women Travel
by Susan Klann

For many women today, travel isnapostrophet a luxury, itapostrophes a necessity. They find it empowering--a vital opportunity to refresh. And more and more, they enjoy traveling in the company of like-minded women, free of the time restraints and scheduling preferences of significant others.

Gutsy Women Travel was founded to satisfy women’s growing interest in travel and the particular way they like to travel. “Women want freedom, they want to feel comfortable speaking their minds, and they are out to have a good time,” says April M. Merenda, president and co-owner of Gutsy Women Travel. “They are inquisitive, they like to absorb an area and experience it in depth.”

Merenda had built a respected career in the travel industry with Maupintour, as well as other travel firms, when it was purchased by Carl Icahn. She had done her homework on the potential for a niche travel market among the 40% of women over 40 who are single, divorced or widowed. That number had doubled from a decade earlier. “No-one was speaking to that market,” she recalls. “Pharmaceutical companies do, car companies do, but in the travel market the major tour operators weren’t. Over half of married women also indulge in one trip annually without their husbands. And no-one was speaking to it.”

Mary Beth Bond, author of the book Gutsy Women, spoke at a sales marketing meeting in April 2001 that Merenda and Icahn attended. On the flight back to , Icahn encouraged Merenda to call Bond and negotiate for the rights to use the Gutsy Women name for a travel program targeting women. Merenda created the program and it launched just as the events of September 11, 2001, struck and the world changed.

The economic contraction after 9-11 slowed the take-off of Gutsy Women. “It took us longer to reach our tipping point,” recalls Merenda. The year 2002 was a disaster for the most part, with only about 100 women taking part in tours, but the name and concept were in place. At the end of 2005, when Icahn decided to concentrate on his hedge fund and other focused holdings, he offered to give the women’s travel company to Merenda. She realized she needed someone to partner with, and in April 2006, Gate 1 assumed majority ownership. In two years she’s guided the company to a position as a leading travel source for women, serving a thousand women in 2007, with 30 destinations and 90 departure dates. Sixty-five percent of her customers are repeat business.

Knowing that customers want shorter schedules, Gutsy Women offers tours from 4 nights to 8 nights. Travelers can book-end tours if they seek longer trips. Schedules to farther destinations such as and are longer, of course.

Merenda hesitates to categorize the type of traveler her company attracts, but notes they are often baby-boomers, well-traveled, with buying power, educated, who are undergoing a new chapter in their lives. Travel and the encounters it offers can be a life coach in these occasions. Many of her clients are single, and the company guarantees that travelers will have the opportunity to share accommodations so they will not be penalized cost-wise for traveling alone. When higher gasoline prices and strong Euro increased the cost of travel, Merenda notes that Gutsy Women “sharpened its pencil” and did some promotions, such as bring a friend and save 25%, to better the economics for travelers. Group are small, from 8 to no more than 20, so that women get to know one another.

The tours are multi-dimensional—Merenda notes that women generally like to multi-task, even when they are traveling. may combine cooking, fine homes & fabulous gardens, antiques & history, walking, educational lectures, and meeting the local people, among other activities. A recent tour to offered the opportunity to meet local women and understand the vast differences in how women are treated vis-à-vis one’s own culture.

Merenda’s personal favorite place to visit in the world is probably , due in no small part to her Italian heritage. One of Gutsy Women’s most popular tours visits the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, , and . has also increased in popularity due to its spiritual aspect. and rank high as well among travelers. But closer to home, Merenda recalls a wonderful recent Gutsy Women trip with her mother and sister to .

Merenda’s parents were Italian immigrants and she was born in Brooklyn and raised in . After graduating from college with a BS from in , she became a tour escort for a charter company aligned with TWA, leading tours to such spots as , , and elsewhere. She then worked as director of sales for Martinair Holland, vice president of sales and marketing for DER, vice president of sales and marketing for Maupintour, and president of CIT Tours before taking on Gutsy Women Travel. She is an adjunct professor for Hospitality Marketing at , Queens Campus, and is active within her local community in Sag Harbor, .