International Women’s Day is March 8, and for years the focus of this column, The Great Life, has been on travel. I’ve been covering the hotel and destination industry for as long as I can remember, so it seemed fitting to take this occasion celebrate the accomplishments of the many talented women working, often behind the scenes, in this crazy business we all love.
So, today I have turned to an expert on the topic, Emily Kanders Goldfischer. I’ve known Emily for more than two decades, since back to when she was a Vice President at Loews Hotels in New York. A graduate of the prestigious Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration and self-professed “hotel nerd,” today she lives in London and is the founder of hertelier, a new platform she launched in the midst of the pandemic, with the hope of inciting a movement to inform, connect and empower women to lead the hotel industry as it is building back after an unprecedented battering by COVID-19. She explained that despite making up more than 50% of the lodging workforce, women are still grossly underrepresented in the top management of hotels, but that discernible change is happening. To facilitate this, she created hertelier as a space for women to learn, share and lead the industry.
“The start of 2021 was definitely a low point, the year began without a vaccine and travel was in free fall. Women, in particular, were bearing the brunt of the pandemic with added pressures of childcare and homeschooling,” said Goldfischer. “But with all the upheaval, I thought there might be an opportunity for women to help each other and help the industry recover.”
When travel was booming before COVID, Goldfischer had begun to notice a shift in the traditionally male-dominated industry. More and more women were rising to key positions, from GMs to development, and top jobs in corporate headquarters. In the meantime, “women were searching for community and creating networking organizations, doing research and exchanging best practices, but there wasn’t a centralized place to find this type of information online.” With time suddenly on her hands, and encouraged by her mentor Nancy Mendelson, now a regular columnist for the site, Emily decided to set up hertelier during the lockdown in London, where she lives with her family and has been a reporter covering luxury travel for the last decade.
She says hertelier “hit a nerve, and it kind of exploded. The growth has been purely organic with women telling each other about the site, then signing up for our Sunday round-up that curates the most important travel stories for the week with female readers in mind. We’ve done over 150 interviews now with women in roles ranging from front desk to CEO. These women are engaged and motivated, and women like to share, they are open, raw, and honest with their struggles and successes.” Her very first interview was with Abby Murtagh, GM of the iconic Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf-Astoria Resort, just as it was coming off a $100 million renovation. “It would have been rare to see a woman in that role a decade ago, but now there are female GMs running big, luxury properties.”
She cites a 2020 study by McKinsey showing that companies with more than 30 percent women on their executive teams are significantly more likely to outperform those with between 10 and 30 percent women, and these companies, in turn, are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women executives. So, while the COVID-19 pandemic caused upheaval in the travel industry over the last two years, she now sees it as an opportunity for a massive restructuring. “Peggy Berg is founder of the Castell Project, a non-profit dedicated to the advancement of women in hotels, and she said that, ‘Taking advantage of this reset to optimize diverse leadership for the future will be a defining characteristic of those companies that are most successful in the post-pandemic years. Enabling women to serve as leaders doubles the talent pool available, giving diverse companies more and better opportunities.’ I agree, and one of our most popular interviews was with Valerie Ferguson, the first Black female hotel General Manager for Hyatt back in the 1980s, who now runs the high-end resorts for Disney, and as she said, ‘The face of hospitality should come in many shades because seeing people that look like you automatically makes you feel more comfortable.’”
Goldfischer believes that representation matters and there is power in women and girls seeing themselves reflected in diverse roles. But what has surprised her most is that 40 percent of her readers are men, and she hopes hertelier will continue to be a thriving community for everyone in the hotel business to learn for years to come.
Here are four areas of the hotel industry where Goldfischer says women are leading:
Embracing technology to improve service, wages and combat the labor shortage: Lisa Williams, Executive Housekeeper at The Grand, a five-star hotel in York, England, has doubled her staff from 30 full-time to more than 50 part-time by using an app that allows gig workers to come clean rooms whenever they can. “It’s improved efficiency as she now has cleaners starting throughout the day which better mirrors the movement of guests. Housekeeping is physically demanding, and now she always has a fresh team if she gets last-minute bookings, which the hotel has seen a lot of with the popularity of staycations during the pandemic. Also, she has never been short of workers, a challenge the rest of the industry struggles with greatly right now, because she offers the flexibility for mothers that want to take kids to school or students juggling courses from York’s two universities.”
Goldfischer was also impressed by a new female-founded tech startup, TipBrightly, a QR code-based tipping platform developed by Elle Rustique, whose mother was a hotel housekeeper for over twenty years. “She knew firsthand what tips can mean for a family and how the trend of less than 20% of Americans carrying cash today impacts earnings. Women are motivated to incite change.”
Dismantling of the “bro” kitchen culture: “Women are making headway in professional kitchens, and Four Seasons Hotels appointed Maria Tampakis as Executive Chef at the New York Downtown property. As a woman, she automatically stands out from the team but stressed that ‘her listening skills set her apart in the kitchen,’ not the shouting made popular on TV. From London sommeliers at top luxury hotels to leading Vegas bartenders, you’re seeing women in more visible, customer-facing food and beverage roles that used to be the provenance of men. Marriott has Dana Pellicano, who cut her teeth in the industry working for Mario Batali, leading all the food and beverage efforts for the company in the Americas.”
Breaking barriers in hotel ownership, asset management, and brokerage: “Last year real estate behemoth JLL appointed Gilda Perez-Alvarado to CEO of its Hotels & Hospitality Group – which did $83 billion of transactions over the last five years. Gilda is running a team of 350 real estate professionals all over the world, and she spoke openly about changes she’d like to see for women in finance and the joys of having a toddler. There’s also a movement to get women, particularly minority women, into hotel ownership with free courses and pitching competitions supported by big brands like Wyndham, Hilton, and Marriott. By the way, at Marriott, the president and CFO are now both women.”
Supercharging sustainability: “Women are stepping up to ensure travel can continue to grow responsibly, from the world’s first fully net-zero hotel in London and eco-lodges in Costa Rica to creating sustainability methodologies for standardization at Booking.com, the world’s largest OTA. The 2021 industry award for the most sustainable hotel in England was awarded to Sue Williams, GM of the five-star Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds, who has proven that hotels can provide a luxury guest experience without excessive consumption. What is most incredible about Sue, is that she is totally transparent and methodical in her approach saying, ‘you cannot manage what you have not measured,’ and sustainability now underpins every business decision she makes for the hotel. More importantly, she is openly sharing everything she has learned with other managers across the UK to improve practice industry-wide.”