Colleen Keating, who is now chief operating officer, Americas, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), has been in the hospitality industry her entire career. Since that dates back more than 30 years to when she was working her way through college, she remembers when women managers were relatively rare. As she told LODGING, she was the first-ever female chair of the AHLA’s Massachusetts chapter, and is now proud to be part of the AHLA’s Advisory Committee for ForWard, an event focused on women advancing hospitality. The inaugural ForWard event took place last November, and the next will take place in Chicago later this month from May 29-30. “I feel fortunate to be able to have a career that I love, so I feel compelled to give back; my involvement with ForWard is an extension of that,” she says.
Keating recalls “clicking” with the world of hospitality during that very first career step. “I quickly discovered my passion for working side by side with colleagues who had a shared commitment to serving others, including their community. In this industry, there’s a pace and energy, and no day is ever the same. I’m able to be creative and innovative. It’s provided an amazing career path for me.”
This path, she describes, took her from her hometown in Massachusetts to Wisconsin and Rhode Island for sales and marketing positions with Geneva Lakes Resorts and Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts, respectively, and to New York, where she spent 17 years at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., leading its franchise operation. Prior to joining IHG a little more than a year ago, she was executive vice president of operations for Davidson Hotels & Resorts in Atlanta.
Keating says events like ForWard serve numerous purposes, including to demonstrate the strides made, to raise awareness of the need to have more women in senior leadership roles, and to inspire the next generation of hospitality leaders. “It’s encouraging to see so many more women in senior and C-suite positions now compared to a decade ago, although we still have a long way to go. Hospitality is an industry where one can work from the bottom up and climb the proverbial ladder, but it’s critical to make sure that’s the case for women equally as it is for men, and that as an industry, we provide both opportunities and the necessary support for women to advance in their careers.”
Keating says she is excited about the opportunity serve alongside a distinguished group of accomplished women in the hospitality industry at ForWard, and she is also eager to network and bring back ideas from the meeting to IHG, where she serves on its Global Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Board. “It will be interesting to find out what the participants’ organizations are doing to advance women to senior roles, and discuss some best practices and idea-sharing that I can take back to our D&I Board, which seeks to grow the number of women in general manager and vice president-level roles.”
Keating says there is much individuals in the industry can do in their hotels to help women advance in their hospitality careers. “Solid leadership and mentorship start at the top; the GM of the hotel sets the tone and the example for the staff, including treating people well.” A longstanding proponent of identifying and developing top talent—Keating previously chaired the Massachusetts Lodging Association’s Education Foundation—she stresses the importance of building a high-performing team with the right talent. “I consider this to be the most important thing someone can do as a leader, and it’s something I have strived to do in every role I have had in my career. In fact, I keep a construction hat in my office as a constant reminder of the importance of my responsibility as a builder of teams.”
Another aspect of leadership emphasized by Keating is providing support for and showing confidence in the team she selects. “I’m a big believer in having the courage to take risks and be innovative. I routinely share a plaque with colleagues that says, ‘What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?’ Hotel colleagues should have a passion for taking care of others, a curiosity and desire to learn, demonstrate good judgment, and instinctively do what’s right. They have to be willing to take risks, listen carefully, adapt and adjust, make decisions, and ultimately, support their team and colleagues who want to grow.”
Aiming to dispel the myth that a senior career in operations is incompatible with the work-life balance a growing number of both men and women seek, Keating again highlights the value of leading by example; she herself raised a daughter—who is now in the industry—while rising through the ranks. “Times have changed, and I think regardless of gender, successful leaders today understand that exhibiting balance—and encouraging it for our team members—allows us to recruit and retain the best talent. I think events like ForWard bring a focus on how we can make a difference in driving diversity and inclusion by enabling women to advance in their careers. I’m also a believer that when we achieve balance in our lives, we are better leaders and free up capacity within ourselves.”