Breaking Barriers: Insights from WITH’s First Virtual Global Summit

Day 1
During the first day of the Women in Tourism & Hospitality (WITH)Global Virtual Summit, held in October, panelists and keynotes walked attendees through what tomorrow’s hospitality world will look like and how the tourism-and-hospitality industry will need to be re-imagined to ensure great experiences in a safe and healthy manner.

Presented by Kostuch Media Ltd. and Sequel Hotels, this year’s summit drew registrations from around the world.
Katie Taylor, chair of the Royal Bank of Canada, and WITH’s honorary chair, opened the conference with a welcome message of hope and resiliency for an industry that has been hit hard COVID-19.

“Travel and tourism is one of the best instruments the world has for bringing people of all backgrounds together and promoting diversity, inclusion and equity for all,” said Taylor. “But rest assured that together we will succeed…we just need to remind ourselves over and over and over again of the importance of empathy, resilience, agility, inclusion, equity, compassion and caring — all of the hallmarks of our fabulous industries and the foundation of the values that we and our employees live every day in this business.”
The program kicked off with a State-of-the-Industry Thought-Leadership Panel. Moderated by Rosanna Caira, editor/publisher of Hotelier magazine and co-chair of WITH, panelists included Don Cleary, president, Marriott Hotels of Canada; Janet Zuccarini, founder of Gusto 54 Restaurants; Julian Buffam, partner, New Castle Hotels and Resorts; and Abigail Tan, CEO, St. Giles Hotels, U.K. The group offered inspiration and advice for surviving through crisis and navigating a post-pandemic landscape.

Buffam credited his company’s employees for keeping the wheels turning since COVID-19 crippled the industry in March. “Our people have always been the source of, and the reason for, our success — and that continues to be the case. It’s a shining example of the resiliency [of the industry, with employees] having put themselves on the frontlines and their families at risk to go to work every day and, quite frankly, delivered results that were really nothing short of extraordinary.”

At Marriott Hotels of Canada, Cleary said “we’re doing what we can to manage costs and are optimistic for the future. We’re going to have to persevere to get through this — and we will get through it. I’m very confident that people still want to travel — they want the experience travel can provide — but they have to be confident this virus is behind us.”

For Tan’s team, it’s about working with and for their communities. “For the next six months to a year, it’s not about putting money in our pockets, but about how we can be good partners with society and community and all of us survive together — not thrive just yet. So, we’re looking to work with different charities and the different councils in our area to see how we can help, since we have the resources — the rooms, the people — because we want our team to be able to come back to work and to work full time.”
When asked what the future of hospitality looks like, Tan said the next 18 to 24 months will be very telling.

“We’ll also see a shift in the way hotels are being used,” she said. “For example, the corporate/business traveller will not come back the same way they did before. There’s a lot of companies cutting big travel expenses, seeing it’s not necessary to travel and to stay in hotels as much as they did. And so, it’s about how we start to target and change the use of our rooms and our public spaces and still be able to attract and maintain an occupancy and a revenue level.”

One of the most-popular features of this year’s summit was the Rapid-Fire session, which featured four fearless women leaders who shared their perspectives on how they broke barriers in their own lives and careers. The speakers included Rhonelle Bruder, executive director, Project iRise; Christina Veira, mixologist/restaurant manager; Suzanne Barr, chef and advocate; and Peggy Berg, founder of Castell Project.

“Resilience is my super-power,” said Bruder as way of introduction. “At least that’s the way that I see it. I see resilience as kind of the super-human ability to be able to face adversity and challenges. And not to simply to overcome them, but to thrive and to come out the other end stronger, smarter, more empowered.”

A victim of sex trafficking at a young age, Bruder spoke of her journey from escaping that life and becoming a beacon for other victims of human trafficking through her non-profit organization, iRise.

“Through project iRise, I help other young women who are survivors tap into their resilience, help them find meaningful sustainable employment and also help break down the barriers that impede their success. And when I talk to these young women, I talk about resilience.”

Berg closed out the Rapid-Fire session by talking about her work with Castell Project, her drive to help women and people of colour achieve equity in the hospitality industry and the importance of advocacy.

“An advocate is someone who stands up for you when you are not in the room,” she said. “But advocates are an ecosystem…in the same way when someone advocates for you, you become an advocate for others.”

Following the Rapid-Fire session, Katie Taylor presented this year’s Katie Taylor Economic Empowerment Award to Arne Sorenson,
president & CEO of Marriott International. The award recognizes outstanding accomplishments — both in the winner’s own career and in furthering the cause of women in the workplace.

And, while he was unable to join the summit live, Sorenson shared a video message with attendees, during which he stressed the need for continued efforts to move the needle, especially during these challenging times.

“As we work to recover, now and into 2021, it’s critical that we continue our push to advancement. At Marriott, we know our commitment to empowering women leaders will propel our future success,” Sorenson said. “Today we’re living in unprecedented times, which means we need unprecedented efforts to continue the push for equity and inclusion.”

Following the award presentation, Margo Day, member of World Vision’s National Leadership Council and former vice-president, U.S. Education, Microsoft Corp., kicked of the afternoon program with the session, Become a Catalyst for your Purpose in Life.
In her talk, which focused on finding fulfillment, Day explained that we are living in the beginning of an era that embraces diversity of background and thought, as well as inclusion. “I know that when we embrace both, one: life becomes far more full; and, two: you actually derive far greater outcomes than if you just were surrounded by people who are like you and think like yourself,” she said. “And part of this whole concept around diversity and inclusion, means that you don’t have to conform anymore…Now we can actually bring our whole self to every interaction that we have, whether it’s personal [or] professional, and feel very confident in doing that.”

“But the question is, how do we prepare ourselves, as people, and as leaders, to really step into these new opportunities that are being presented to women in this whole concept of diversity and inclusion,” Day added, pointing to the principles of trust and gratitude as important factors.

“When you have trust and you’re living your life with gratitude, then you can really begin to formulate who you are and how you [can] lead life meaningfully.”

Rounding out the day, Heather McCrory, CEO, North & Central America, Accor, shared insights from her career path in From the Laundry Room to the Boardroom.

Her hospitality career began with a work placement as part of the accounting program she was taking. She ended up working in the laundry department of the Banff Springs Hotel (then CP) — an experience that stuck with her and ultimately led to progressive sales roles in hotels across Alberta before moving to the Fairmont Royal York.

While continuing to work full time, she decided to complete an Executive MBA at Queens University — a decision she credits as being a “pivotal career move.” After 20 years in sales, she was offered an opportunity to move into operations as regional vice-president and general manager at the Royal York.

And, while taking on the role was a huge shift, McCrory credits the mentors that supported her throughout her career with helping prepare and see her through the steep learning curve necessary in taking on the new role. “[My mentors] were supportive and honest and they called out my gaps,” she explained.

“I do question some days, if I knew what I was getting into, would I have made that move? But, I actually think it was the best thing I ever did and it was something that [took me] completely outside of my comfort zone,” she added.

McCrory also pointed out that, while some barriers are systemic, others can be self-imposed, stressing the need to step out of your comfort zone to realize and take on opportunities.

Wrapping up, McCrory shared that, in her current role, she has been working to strengthen initiatives supporting the advancement of women and under-represented groups within Accor. “There has to be meaningful change — the type of advancement that requires sponsorship and mentoring from senior leaders to retain our best and brightest, guide them and keep them engaged, regardless of gender, colour, race or creed. I think everybody deserves that opportunity.”

Day 2

The second day of the summit started out with a bang as the kickoff speaker, Paula Stone Williams, gender-equity advocate, LGBTQ ambassador and transgender minister, shared what she wished she’d known when she was living
as a man.

In her session, Persistence, Not Perfection, Williams — an internationally known speaker on gender equity and LGBTQ advocacy — brought a unique perspective to gender equity.

“I was the CEO of the largest non-profit, the host of a national television show, the editor of a large international magazine — I was a successful, well educated, white, American male,” she said. “[But then I] came out as transgender and promptly lost every single one of my jobs. In all 50 states of the United States, you cannot be fired for being transgender. But in all 50, you can be fired if you’re transgender and you work for a religious corporation.”

Williams said she’s continuing to learn a lot about what it means to be a female “and I’m learning a lot about my former gender. And I’m here to tell you, the differences are massive. There’s no way a well-educated white male can understand how much culture fits in his favour. There’s no way he can understand that because it’s all he’s ever known — and it’s all he ever will know. Now, he might have an inkling that his life is easier than the women around him, but he’s clueless as to just how much easier it is. And a woman really might just have an inkling of how much more difficult her life is, but she doesn’t really know she’s working twice as hard for three-quarters as much — that life is a lot harder [for her] than it is for the guy in the Brooks Brothers jacket in the office across the hallway. I know — I was that guy. And when I became a woman, it didn’t take long for me to see just how different my life was going to be.”

She compared being a woman in the workplace to being on a knife’s edge. “If you speak up too strongly, well, they have a word for that. And if you don’t speak up at all, you’re not seen as a leader. It really doesn’t matter what you do, you’re between a rock and a hard place — you can’t speak up too strongly and you can’t speak up not strongly enough. And of course, if you do speak up, you’re just going to be interrupted. Because the truth is, men interrupt women twice as often. Guys, if there’s just one thing you can do that would make a huge difference, if you would just assume a woman knows what she’s talking about and treat her accordingly, that would go a really, really long way toward gender equity. Well, and one other thing — stop interrupting and stop other interrupters. If you would say to them, ‘excuse me, I don’t believe she was done speaking yet,’ and if you do that a couple of times, they finally get the idea.”

Williams admitted there’s a lot more she wished she’d known when she was living as a man. “There are three things, in particular, I wish I had understood that would have caused me to be able to help at that point in time, and bringing the world to gender equity. First of all, I wish men would learn the importance of the value of deference — deference is not a respected male trait. Men see deference as weakness. And, until the mindset is that deference is a valued trait, we’re never going to get anywhere near gender equity. How can men learn to defer? First of all, become an ally of women. You can say ‘I’m with you; I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure we have equity, up and down through this company, from the C-suite, from the board all the way down to every single employee, I’m going to make sure people of colour are in key positions and I’m going to be with you all the way.’ That is an ally and that’s important.”

To Williams, great female leaders have confidence, coupled with great humility. “I wish I had learned as a man to be confident and humble. At the same time, I wish I had learned to be collaborative, to be more willing to compromise and to be more open to correction. And one other thing I wish I had learned is to truly listen.”

Williams closed her talk by addressing the lack of empowerment in the female gender. “Why don’t women empower one another? Women, we’ve got to learn to empower one another. Instead, women tend to see each other as competition. You know, I’ve had more conflict with women as a woman in six years than I had with women as a man, when I was living as a man, in 16 years.”

Following an online Q&A session with Williams, Dr. Patch Adams shared his message of hope and of loving life in his session Decided to Love Life, Now What? When Adams was 18 years old, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech, which inspired him to become an advocate for love, peace and justice.

“That’s when I decided to never have a bad day,” said Adams, who was the subject of a blockbuster movie about his life starring Robin Williams. He did this, he said, by learning to control how he perceived the world.

Adams became a doctor and, in 1971, founded the Gesundheit Institute, a non-profit healthcare organization. The Institute is a project in holistic medical care based on the belief that one cannot separate the health of the individual from the health of the family, the community, the society and the world. “Our mission is to re-frame and reclaim the concept of ‘hospital,’” said Adams.
The popular session engaged WITH attendees and flooded the stream with comments and questions for the lively speaker.
The Fireside Chat session followed, offering insight and advice from Vicki Saunders, president and founder, SHEeo. You Can’t Just Add Women + Stir: Re-Thinking Systems + Models for a More Equitable World, moderated by Amirita Bhalla of A.B. Consulting, addressed the challenges COVID-19 has brought to light with regard to women in the workplace.

“Given what’s going on with the pandemic, it feels like things are really backsliding for women,” said Saunders. “It’s incredibly challenging…we have to re-define what’s going to be acceptable for work and how we can be more flexible. So, I’m excited by the potential for transformation of this and also quite concerned, at the immediate moment. that we don’t have the structures and systems in place to cope with these new realities that we’re all facing.”

Bhalla then asked how, as an industry, do we move beyond this perceived symbolism of adding women to leadership roles or board positions without there being
any institutional changes.

“We’re having this giant unraveling at the moment, with the racial reckoning that’s going on in the world and the pandemic happening — it’s like these layers and layers of waves coming at us, that continue to show us every day that the systems and structures we have in place were designed for another time. Women were not at the table to design a lot of those,” said Saunders.
She said companies can’t put three women on a board in an attempt to level the playing field. “We need to actually create, we need to look at, why it is that we haven’t created the conditions for women to thrive on their own terms?”

When Bhalla asked Saunders for advice for how women can succeed in the tourism-and-hospitality industry, which has often been regarded as a male dominated profession, her response was “blaze your own trail, find your own path. Don’t try and follow someone else’s leadership model. That, to me, is one of my big learnings over time — it’s very, very hard to be a leader following in someone else’s footsteps. You need to find out what works for you.”

The final session of the day, Build Resilience in Your Workforce, led by Dr. Ryan Todd, CEO, Headversity, took attendees through what workplace mental health could look like.

“What we’re doing now is absolutely re-imagining what workplace mental health can look like. And COVID has shaken that situation up,” said Todd as way of introduction.

He pointed out that the two most high-risk populations for mental illness during COVID-19 are young students and young mothers, “so we know the burden of mental-health issues is not shared. A greater burden is put on women — in particular, women who are working in the hospitality industry.”

Todd ran attendees through some cognitive therapy exercises and offered advice for ways to make workplace mental health
a priority.

“The flaw we’ve seen in the model, up until now, in terms of workplace training and mental health, has been a leadership focus — there’s been this idea that if you only train those in the top line, if you only train those in the C-suite, that messaging will cascade down, it will trickle down and we’ll be all good. We know that not to be the case; we know we have to put tools in the hands of everyone. And the best initiatives are those that start from the grassroots and go from the ground up.”

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