More than 270 hospitality professionals gathered in Chicago last week to discuss how women can advance their personal careers and those of women across the hotel industry at the second annual ForWard Conference presented by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).
Held from May 29-30 at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, the conference featured a range of speakers and panelists, from some of the industry’s top executives to leaders outside of hospitality, including Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chair and CEO of Carlson; Katty Kay, lead anchor of BBC World News America; Julie Rice, co-founder of SoulCycle and partner at WeWork; Adama Iwu, vice president of state government and community relations at Visa and co-founder of We Said Enough; and Amanda Nguyen, CEO and founder of Rise.
AHLA held its inaugural ForWard conference last November in Chicago. Erica Hageman—a member of the ForWard Advisory Committee and executive vice president and general counsel at Interstate Hotels & Resorts who facilitated a “Leadership and Diversity Deep Dive” master class during this year’s conference—said that she left last year’s conference determined to return to ForWard 2019 with more members of the Interstate team across all levels. “I wanted to make sure we were bringing people throughout our organization. I came by myself last year. I was on the advisory board, I felt like I wanted to see how the conference was and what it was about. I was so moved by the speakers and the content that I came back pretty jazzed up,” Hageman explained. “I went to all our department heads and I said, ‘I want you to nominate someone.’” As a result, Interstate was represented at this year’s conference by several women in the company, including an area general manager, a newly promoted regional director of sales, and a regional vice president of operations.
“Letting them hear the message that I felt so moved by in November that I knew they would be moved by this time around, and just allowing them to network with pretty influential, amazing women in the industry, was something that I was really trying to drive and for which I had a ton of support from the organization,” Hageman added. “That’s what you need—it’s got to go bottom-up and top-down.”
Strengthening the Hospitality Talent Pipeline
During opening remarks, Colleen Keating, a member of the ForWard Advisory Committee and COO, Americas, IHG, told attendees that bringing hospitality professionals together to advance the careers of women is critical to the future of the industry. “As we sit here today with half-century low unemployment, we’re about investing in the development not only of women but of everyone who has the opportunity and the desire to grow to positions of greater responsibility in this industry.”
Krissy Gathright—the event’s emcee, chair of the ForWard Advisory Committee, and executive vice president and COO of Apple Hospitality REIT—noted during opening remarks that while the hospitality industry has made some progress, women have yet to reach parity at every level. “Many of us have seen the stats—70 percent of travel choices are made by women,” Gathright told attendees. “We’re not quite there when you look around at executive leadership—yet. We’re here in Chicago for the next two days to take another step forward to change that.”
Promoting Hotel Ownership Among Women
Justin Knight, AHLA secretary/treasurer and president and CEO of Apple Hospitality REIT, noted during an executive panel discussion that the industry has been slow in attracting and retaining women and minority hotel owners. “I see the industry changing. In hospitality, it began on the operations side and moved to the branding side. Ownership has been very slow to build diversity. As an industry, if we want to continue to be relevant, if we want to continue to provide product to the consumers who frequent our hotels, that’s an area that we need to promote and encourage,” Knight said.
The ForWard conference included a master class on the various paths to hotel ownership that women can take in the industry. One of the biggest takeaways during the session, as put by Tracy Prigmore, managing partner, TLTsolutions, was, “Educate yourself, and the first priority is the financial education,” Prigmore explained. “The financials are the core to confidence in understanding a deal.”
Diversifying the C-Suite and Boardroom
On a panel of female leaders discussing paving the way to a seat at the table, Colleen Keating, COO, Americas, IHG, noted the importance of c-suite executives surrounding themselves with the best and brightest. “We really need to be thoughtful about how we build our teams and make sure that we’ve got team members that all have different strengths and talents and diversity—different skills, different ideas, different backgrounds,” Keating explained. “The cumulative gift is really the strength of what everyone brings to the table.”
During another panel on integrating diversity into succession planning, Desiree Rogers, chair of Choose Chicago and CEO of One Brown Girl, LLC, highlighted the importance of an open environment in the boardroom. “I really do think the top is key,” Rogers said, adding that companies must have metrics and hold senior leaders accountable during evaluations for performance on diversity and inclusion. “If that CEO or that chairman of the board has no interest in diversification, […] if there’s no respect for [diversity] in terms of it being important to accelerating the business, then you’re going to get nowhere and you’re going to lose those people.”
Addressing Unconscious Bias
When it comes to battling unconscious bias in the workplace, Christa Sorenson, executive vice president of human resources for Equity Residential, said during a panel discussion that open dialogue helps to bring the issue to the forefront. “If you have always had your way and you don’t know what it’s like to be left out or be interrupted in a meeting or have people not listen to you, then you don’t even realize you’re doing it. You need someone to point it out on a regular basis.”
Achieving Measurable Results for Diversity Initiatives
During a panel of industry executives sharing their leadership lessons, Andy Alexander, president of Red Roof, noted that in the last three years, women accounted for 75 percent of leadership promotions in the company. “I look at cultural diversity and promoting women as an outcome—not so much as the culture itself, but as an achievement of the underlying culture of inclusion and transparency,” noted Alexander. “Like a lot of companies, we check in on our stats both in the field as well as the corporate office, and one of the most important questions we ask is, ‘Do you think that the associates and employees are treated fairly regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.’ It’s that fairness that is really the culture upon which is diversity is built.”
Erica Hageman, executive vice president and general counsel at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, told LODGING that diversity and inclusion strategies—whether in the corporate office or the field—must be purposeful. “What we’ve started to do is be more purposeful and make sure that we’re all the way down in the field developing and understanding who our high-potentials are and making sure they know what a career path looks like, how they get to success, what they want to do, and how we get them in training programs.”
Desiree Rogers, chair of Choose Chicago and CEO of One Brown Girl, LLC, said that companies should reflect diversity not only in their ranks but also in their supply chains. “One of the things that we’re trying to do at Choose Chicago is set diversity goals—not just in our staffing but also in the supply chain that we work with,” said Rogers.
“We have to push for key performance indicators and metrics that actually measure what we’re doing. I don’t want to see it all lumped together as ‘women and minorities.’ Let’s break it out—let’s see what’s actually happening and what we’re doing, and what percentage of contracts of money that we can let are going to women-owned companies and minority-owned businesses,” Rogers said.