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From Kansas to President of EF World Journeys: Meet Heidi Durflinger

From Kansas to President of EF World Journeys: Meet Heidi Durflinger

Growing up in the small farming town of Belleville, Kansas, Heidi Durflinger's life changed when she was in the fourth grade. Her family decided to host an international high school student in their home for the school year, opening Heidi's eyes to the world beyond Belleville. "Every year for the next nine years, my family hosted a student from a different part of the world," Heidi recalls. "It completely expanded my horizons when my family brought the world to my small community. Now, I have sisters all over the world!"

Her early-on introduction to the impacts of global education and travel ignited what would become a lifelong passion for Heidi, who accepted a job at EF Education First as an entry-level Tour Consultant and is now President of one of the biggest adult tour operators in North America, EF World Journeys. EF World Journeys is a family of travel brands that includes EF Go Ahead Tours and EF Ultimate Break.

Photo Caption Heidi in Nambia

It is rare today for someone to spend their entire career at one company. However, staying at EF felt natural for Heidi because of her passion for our mission—opening the world through education. "Getting the chance to help people see the world and learn about it in a culturally immersive way is rewarding and inspiring," Heidi notes.

Heidi first found EF through an ad for an EF Go Ahead Tours Tour Consultant position at the EF Boston office. "I remember the advertisement so clearly: Do you love to travel? Do you love talking about travel? Are you the organizer of all your friends?" Heidi recalls. "I was like, yes, yes, yes! I never realized that a job like that existed. I applied, and from the moment I walked through the door for my interview, I could feel the vibrancy and the energy that makes EF, EF."

Starting in sales gave her fundamental skills that she utilizes nearly 20 years later. "When I was a Tour Consultant, I loved talking to people all day about traveling the world and learning how to sell," Heidi shares. "While I was in school, I didn't imagine myself in sales, but once I experienced it, I realized that sales is an incredible career path. Those fundamental skills have been critically helpful in leading a business."

Photo Caption Heidi.

"Getting the chance to help people see the world and learn about it in a culturally immersive way is rewarding and inspiring."

After starting as a Tour Consultant, Heidi had many stops along her journey to becoming the President of EF World Journeys. "I love creating a big, bold goal to go after and then figuring out how to get there. But in retrospect, becoming the President of EF World Journeys wasn't my goal when I first started here," says Heidi. "Shortly after I started selling for EF Go Ahead Tours, I realized I wanted to be a sales manager, and then I wanted to be the Vice President of Sales. I shared that goal with my manager at the time, and they helped me understand what I needed to do to grow in that direction."

Heidi went from Tour Consultant to Assistant Manager and Sales Trainer, where she honed her leadership skills. "I learned how to motivate, coach, and invest in people development," Heidi says. "From that point, I moved into a manager role and later a director role, where I started to learn how to set a strategy, how to execute a plan, how to track progress, and how to think bigger about where we could go instead of just what we need to deliver now." Heidi was eventually named Vice President of Sales and Customer Experience for EF Go Ahead Tours and later promoted to Executive Vice President.

Her resume shows that Heidi has an incredible work ethic, which she credits to her parents. "My parents are the best mentors I could ask for," Heidi says. "As small business owners themselves, they taught me to value work ethic, believing in myself, and making sure I'm taking care of my community. I've brought a small business, small town work ethic to a global organization, and I've found that goes a long way."

Photo Caption Heidi eating gelato
Heidi's passion for gelato deepens with every spoonful she has while on tour!

It was Heidi's dad who encouraged her to pursue becoming President of EF Go Ahead Tours. "I remember talking to my dad about my career journey, and he asked me, 'Why not work towards President?' I remember saying I wasn't sure if that would happen for me, and he said, 'Why not? You can do that.' I hadn't asked myself that before. Why not me? I started looking into what I needed to learn to make that happen."

Shortly after becoming President of EF Go Ahead Tours in 2014, Heidi admits she felt a sense of imposter syndrome. "I had the moment of, 'Am I ready for this?' I've learned now that imposter syndrome is something that everybody struggles with, and I mean everybody," Heidi says. "I think, in some ways, it's pushed me to continue to grow and develop myself. Now, it fuels me to ensure I'm not becoming stagnant."

Imposter syndrome can shake your confidence, an essential element to being a good leader. "I think it can be difficult to establish confidence and recognize our superpowers," Heidi reflects. "The key to establishing my confidence has been connecting with people. That was a great skill I learned in sales. If you focus on asking questions and learning about someone, it will more effectively help you help that person. That will make you more confident in your ability to be a leader."

Photo Caption Heidi

"I hadn't asked myself that before. Why not me?"

With her 20th anniversary at EF on the horizon, Heidi is focusing on the future rather than the past. "It's critically important that I stay fresh; It's easy to lean on what always has been, but that's not how we're going to grow and evolve," Heidi says. "That's what keeps me passionate about working here. There's never an end to how we can improve what we're delivering, how we can inspire more people to travel, and what types of trips we can offer."

The tourism industry generally consists of a male-dominated executive field, and it isn't lost on Heidi that being a female leader of one of the biggest tour operators in the world is a step forward for a new generation of executive women business leaders. When it comes to supporting the growth of this next generation, Heidi has many role models at EF over the past 20 years to look up to. "We've always had strong women leaders at EF that have created a supportive and encouraging environment," Heidi reflects. " I've learned from those I've reported into, those I've worked alongside of, those I've managed—we work with so many incredible people who have different superpower strengths.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenging personal and business event for many of us, and for Heidi, this crisis in the tourism industry was no exception. "The pandemic was the hardest time in my career, but I think what I'm most proud about that time is the way the team came together," Heidi reflects. "We leaned on each other to be creative, to think differently about how to support customers and our teams, and to figure out how to bounce back stronger and better."

The EF Go Ahead Tours team united to build a hopeful future in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. "Our teams continued to market and sell throughout the pandemic," Heidi says. "We managed to sell in a way that would help people envision a future when we would be traveling again." Her team's efforts were rewarded: EF was one of the first tour companies to have travelers on the road again after the pandemic. "We took lemons and made lemonade," Heidi says.

Photo Caption Heidi on tour with customers.
"One of my favorite parts of the job is meeting our customers on tour and convention, to truly understand their why for travel, the impact our tours have had on their lives, and how we can continue to improve the experience and inspire more people to travel."- Heidi

Looking towards the future and the next generation of leaders, Heidi has three main pieces of advice. "First, I would say that what you put into something is what you get out of it. When you put your heart into something, you'll get so much more from it," Heidi says. "Of course, there's going to be hard moments and ups and downs, but in the long run, you'll see more growth and be able to take more pride in the successes that will inevitably come from your hard work and dedication."

"The second is to speak up. If you have a point of view, share it," Heidi shares. "It might bring a new perspective to the conversation, which will help the team make a better decision."

"The third piece of advice is to seek feedback, absorb it, and act on it. Feedback is how we learn and grow," Heidi notes. "I am a big believer in the idea that growth and development must come from you. EF has an amazing network of people that want to support that journey, but ultimately, it's up to you to grow."