New to hertelier this year, “Male Ally of the Month,” a column that focuses on the men going out of their way to support women in the hospitality industry. While we all know they don’t have to help, these guys want to help, and this new column takes the time to find out how and why they are determined to help us reach gender equality.
An international hotelier with over 32 years of experience in the luxury hospitality industry, Kurt has worked for some of the world’s leading hotel brands. Now leading the glamorous Shangri-La The Shard, London Kurt has channeled his passion for personalized service, his strong entrepreneurial drive, and his creative spirit, into making the hotel one of the most celebrated in London, recently awarded five stars by Forbes Travel Guide, named Travel + Leisure #1 Hotel in London and Tripadvisor’s Best Hotel in the UK.
To understand one piece of why Kurt has been so successful, we turn to Tiffani Bova, the global customer growth and innovation evangelist at Salesforce, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, who says in her recent book The Experience Mindset, “The fastest way to get customers to love your brand is to get employees to love their jobs.”
Kurt practices this by pushing forward inclusivity and being an outspoken ally for diverse groups. As a gay leader, he has the Pride flag permanently outside the hotel, takes part in Pride in London, and openly supports LGBTQ+ inclusion on social media and in communications. He was recently honored to be presented as one of Checking in UK’s "Top 50 LGBTQ+ Champions for 2023." Kurt is also a steadfast mentor and supporter of women, 50 percent of his leadership team is female. We chat with Kurt.
June is Pride Month, but you celebrate all year. How do you think this impacts the work environment you lead at Shangri-La The Shard, London?
At Shangri-La The Shard, London, I’m proud to lead a team that celebrates Pride as a 365-day event and share my vision to create an inclusive and happy place to work for all our colleagues. While Pride is a cause that’s important to me as an openly gay GM, the struggles I’ve faced at times in my own career in being treated as less than equal have made me passionate about uplifting and empowering my female colleagues alongside other marginalized groups.
I recognize that there is a long way to go when it comes to achieving equality for women both in and outside work. But I’m passionate about creating a workplace for my team where everyone can feel safe and comfortable to be themselves, free from discrimination or harassment – and I will use my position to support them wherever I can.
I’m passionate about creating a workplace for my team where everyone can feel safe and comfortable to be themselves, free from discrimination or harassment – and I will use my position to support them wherever I can.
I’m so proud of our fabulous Executive Team which is made up of 50% women, which is quite unusual for the hotel industry. So many hotel teams at a senior level are disproportionately made up of men. At Shangri-La The Shard, London, we encourage our female colleagues to grow and develop their careers in hospitality and encourage them to try different departments or sectors to be promoted up the ranks. Our amazing Assistant Director of Engineering, Iwona Oliwa, started her career with us in Housekeeping and we have seen her grow and develop a passion for Engineering, which we’ve fully supported. It’s great to see our female colleagues take on roles and positions that are traditionally dominated by males.
I also take the safety of our female colleagues extremely seriously, especially living in a big city like London. We offer regular personal safety training sessions with the local police and we are planning to offer all our colleagues self-defense training, which we see being taken up by many of our female colleagues.
In addition to the more serious initiatives, I also personally enjoy celebrating International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, where the Executive team delivers flowers and chocolates to the women in the office. Little gestures like this go a long way in making our female team feel supported.
It’s no secret that there is a labor shortage in the hospitality sector, do you feel being more inclusive has made the Shangri-La a more attractive employer?
The shortage of labor in the hospitality industry is a concern for any hotel in London at the current time, however, we have found that being outspoken about equality and being an inclusive employer has helped us. Lots of our team say that they’ve seen and been inspired by what we’ve been doing on social media before joining the hotel, such as attending Pride in London or celebrating International Women’s Day.
We recently signed up to MyGWork, an LGBTQ+ recruitment platform, and that has been successful for us as we see more and more talent having the desire to work with a company that shares their values and a vision for a diverse, inclusive workplace.
As hotels become more competitive to attract and retain the best talent, I think it’s vital that they have an authentic voice and take action towards making their culture more inclusive to people from all walks of life, and of all genders and orientations.
Have you faced challenges as a gay man that have inspired you to be so outspoken and supportive of women and other underrepresented groups?
“When I started out in the industry, I could never have imagined the wonderful and accepting community we've built, where people can be themselves, and express themselves freely”
I came out in the early 2000s, when being openly gay in the hospitality industry was less common than nowadays and was judged more harshly by some. I found that after I started living as my authentic self, I was slower to be promoted although I worked hard to move up the career ladder. I was occasionally at the receiving end of homophobic comments, either advertently or inadvertently. Over the years, I’ve slowly seen changes in the acceptance of LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented groups in the hospitality industry, but there’s still a long way to go.
I’m so grateful that we now have such a strong community of people advocating for marginalized groups, and I feel for anyone who is struggling to move ahead in their career due to prejudice or unfair treatment, including women. That’s why I’ve also implemented unconscious bias training as a mandatory course for every member of the hotel team. Without changing the underlying mechanisms that lead to discrimination and placing responsibility on all colleagues to learn and question biases, it’s impossible to create a truly inclusive environment.
How do you think women can best advocate for themselves?
I always encourage my female colleagues to be outspoken about what they need to make their career work for them, whether it’s flexible working or speaking up about harassment or discrimination that they might be experiencing. Our HR department has an amazing team who are very approachable and understanding, which we hope encourages our colleagues to feel supported and listened to irrespective of gender.
Outside the workplace, I’m a firm believer in raising the next generation to be kinder and less judgmental than the previous one. I think all women should raise their sons to treat women with the utmost respect and to truly see them as equals.
How can other men be more supportive of women?
Men need to work on themselves first, to understand the struggles faced by women, and to understand the day-to-day challenges, violence, and discrimination that they still face to this day. I think men can be blinded to how simple behaviors and words can reinforce gender-based discrimination and keep us from progressing. There is also a perception that sexism is no longer a big issue. What is really important is for men to actively advocate for women, and to speak up in conversations they might have with other men, when disrespectful language or concepts come up. Everyone needs to work together towards achieving equality.
What do you think it will truly take to reach gender equality, and when?
As I said before, I believe gender equality will be truly possible when we raise the next generation to be better than our own – but in the meantime, it’s vital for workplaces to play an active role, and I will always strive towards making the world a better place for those who work in hospitality.
You have been a leader in supporting women-owned businesses as suppliers. Tell us a bit about your new partnership with Jo Loves.
From July, we’re delighted to be partnering with Jo Malone CBE, one of the most legendary names in the perfume industry, and global amenity provider Vanity Group, on the launch of an extensive new amenity line and fragrance experiences with Jo Loves.
It has been an honor to work with Jo, as she is a true pioneer and of course a wonderful female founder with an incredible story to how she has found success. We’re excited that the new amenity line will also introduce refillable bottles to the hotel, making a significant step towards eliminating our use of plastic. In fact, we estimate that switching small bottles for refillable ones will save over three tonnes a year. We’re pleased that we can make this change to help our guests reduce their environmental footprint when staying with us, as well as bringing the grapefruit notes of Jo’s eponymous fragrance, Jo By Jo Loves, to our bathrooms, encapsulating the essence of memorable moments.
We’ll also be launching a cocktail at GONG bar inspired by Jo By Jo Joves, and a scent-based overnight stay package including a Fragrance Tapas experience at the brand’s flagship Pimlico store and Jo Loves gifts to take home and continue the scent journey further.
Aside from Jo Malone, I also make an effort to support local female-owned businesses across the hotel, from women-led florists for our hotel décor to female artists and suppliers like musicians for our events.
Does Shangri-La The Shard, London do anything to support women's causes?
Each year we turn the hotel (and the top of the Shard) pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and offer our popular Pink Afternoon Tea. For the past few years, we have supported Guy’s Hospital, our local hospital, and its breast cancer clinic. In addition, we have invited ladies who are patients of the clinic to help design our Afternoon Tea pastries, which is always a lovely morning and feedback has been that it is often a chance for the ladies to meet others on the same journey while enjoying plenty of cake! Watch this space for some exciting new Pink initiatives this year.
In addition, although not solely for women but recognizing that women are disproportionately affected by violence and threatening behavior, we have launched ‘Ask for Angela’ training in our bar outlets. This is a UK-wide initiative that implements a code phrase that guests can use to discreetly indicate to our staff that they feel unsafe, vulnerable, or threatened in a situation they might be in, such as on a date. In this scenario our team has been trained and prepared to look to support and assist them, perhaps reuniting them with a friend, seeing them to a taxi, or calling security and/or the police if necessary. We also provide regular personal safety training with local police to our team which is always well-attended by our female colleagues.
Wow. Thank you, Kurt, for all you do to support women and make hospitality more inclusive!