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Two up-and-coming leaders have been recognized by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) for their efforts in sustainability and DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) initiatives within their companies. Julie Higgins, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ sustainability officer, as well as its director of hotel operations, and Mikey Sadowski, v.p. of communications for Intrepid Travel, are this year’s USTOA Future Lights of the Tour Industry recipients.

Launched during USTOA’s 50th anniversary in 2022, the USTOA Future Lights program invited tour operator members to nominate coworkers who have made a difference in helping their companies, and the communities they interact with, address issues critical for responsible travel.

“USTOA is overjoyed to recognize our 2023 Future Lights of the Tour Industry. 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, in a press release announcing this year’s recipients.

“Last year, we launched this program as a way to personify our ‘50 years forward’ theme for 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,” he added.

As Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ sustainability officer, as well as director of hotel operations, Higgins spearheads all sustainability initiatives at the brand, including Uniworld’s industry leading efforts to reduce food waste. In 2020, Julie was charged with identifying a suitable food waste management solution for ships, a task that included working with limited space onboard, weight restrictions and more. With her leadership, Uniworld began implementing the selected system, Leanpath, in August 2021, making it the first river cruise company with a food waste management system on board. Julie personally visited each ship to ensure implementation and training. In 2023, 13 ships are to have the system implemented to decrease food waste. So far, Uniworld has reduced its food waste by 34 percent from its baseline and has saved more than 13,156 kg of food waste.

Julie Higgins

“I am truly touched to be nominated for this,” Higgins tells Recommend. “I consider it a huge honor to be recognized by USTOA, which is an amazing association that inspires integrity and positive impact across our industry. I consider myself blessed to work within TTC and Uniworld, and they are the very reason I am able to do what I so love—our goal as an organization is to make travel matter, and I am surrounded by incredible people who work with heart and soul to achieve this, and to always be better. It is very much a team effort, and one which I am so proud to be a part of.”

As v.p. of communications for Intrepid Travel, Sadowski is involved in shaping the brand’s global positioning, advocacy and communications as a leader in responsible travel. Sadowski worked alongside six external consultants to create Intrepid Travel’s Ethical Marketing Guidelines, designed to hold the business accountable in becoming a more diverse and inclusive brand and company. The guidelines contain five commitments and 23 measurable actions, including that at least 50 percent of Intrepid’s content partners identify as BIPOC, 10 percent as plus-size, 10 percent as LGBTQIA+, and 10 percent as Indigenous. With his oversight, Intrepid has also created and launched a series of BIPOC content creator mentorship trips aimed at providing greater support to popular and emerging influencers, in partnership with Nomadness Travel Tribe.

Mikey Sadowski

Sadowski tells Recommend that “it’s an honor to receive this recognition from USTOA and be in the same category as so many amazing leaders who are pushing towards a more sustainable, responsible and equitable future. When we designed Intrepid’s Ethical Marketing Guidelines, we had one goal in mind: How can we hold ourselves accountable in becoming a more diverse and inclusive brand and company? We developed the guidelines in conjunction with six external experts and consultants who were pivotal in ensuring we achieved this. I would like to thank them, along with everyone at Intrepid who has worked alongside me on this project. It is our hope that these efforts can inspire other industry players to make inclusion a consideration in all facets of business and decision making within tourism.”

Nominations were considered by a panel of USTOA Active and Associate Members that include Greg Takehara, CEO of Tourism Cares; Emma Cottis, general manager business systems, Goway Travel; Derek Hydon, president and founder and sustainable growth champion, MaCher, a certified B Corporation; and Kelly P. Sahner, chief commercial officer, Trip Mate, a Generali Company, marquee sponsor of the USTOA Future Lights of the Tour Industry.

Trip Mate — Marquee Sponsor of USTOA Future Lights

“Trip Mate is honored to support the USTOA Future Lights of the Tour Industry program,” said Sahner in a press release statement. “Promoting DEI and sustainability initiatives is of utmost importance to our company and the industry as a whole. We strongly believe in acknowledging and supporting individuals who are driving positive change. The Generali Group is deeply committed to these principles, exemplified by our ambitious objective to achieve Net-Zero status by 2050. As a responsible insurer/assistance company, we prioritize our role as an employer, citizen, and investor in fostering sustainability. We recognize our responsibility in each of these aspects and strive to uphold them diligently.”

“As an organization, we are proud to have such engaged members who advocate for a better future. We are grateful for the support, and especially for Trip Mate, a Generali Global Assistance company, for their continued contributions as the sponsor of the USTOA Future Lights of the Tour Industry program,” said Dale.

The USTOA Future Lights will be welcomed and acknowledged during the USTOA Annual Conference and Marketplace in Los Angeles Dec. 2-6, 2023.

For more information on USTOA, visit