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Phocuswright 2023: Meet the Female Founders Navigating Innovation in Hospitality Tech

The Phocuswright Conference drew thousands of leading travel professionals to the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, for three days of panel discussions, executive interviews and lots of networking themed "You, Me & The Machine". The second in a two part series, where hertelier correspondents Melissa Maher and Stacy Silver report conference highlights with a #feminist slant!

Phocuswright 2023

While in attendance, I had the privilege of catching up with some of the remarkable members of Female Founders in Hospitality (FFiH) members to get a sense of their journey:

  • Grace McBride, Founder, Lucia, a freelancer marketplace for the hospitality industry that helps travel and hotel companies outsource gig work and freelancers to leverage their business and make it more scalable, shared her motivation for attending PhocusWright to connect with the investor community and explore opportunities to work with other companies. Since Lucia is "going to be expanding more into other technology platforms in the coming year, I hope to get connected and see what's new and trending to determine what they can innovate."

Fran Maier presents BabyQuip
Fran Maier presents BabyQuip
  • Fran Maier, CEO and Founder, BabyQuip, the leading baby gear rental service for traveling families internationally that delivers everything a family needs from strollers to car seats to cribs to toys and even baby monitors, used the opportunity to forge partnerships "with other hospitality companies of different kinds." Maier participated in the PhocusWright Innovation program, Launch, while at the event, which provides the premier stage for global innovators to demonstrate new ideas that are set to change the industry. Out of the eleven companies that presented, BabyQuip was the runner-up.

  • Leanne Turner, Co-Founder and CEO, Alō Index, the first on-demand platform aimed at delivering standardized sustainability data to buyers and hotels, utilized her time at the conference to meet with many of Alō Index's partners in person. Since the company is a little over a year old, Turner emphasized the importance of continuing "to lay those foundational bricks on our partnerships across various segments of the industry and, of course, to hear from Titans in the travel tech world whether they are established Titans or brand new startups." Simply put - education and networking.

  • Shaina Shiwarski, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Legends, which is powering a new era of personalization in travel by transforming phone and photo data into preference profiles to help providers improve revenue, loyalty, and experience. Legends solve the problems of fragmented data, the impending cookie crisis, and data ownership, unlocking $130 billion in revenue opportunity and optimizing $5 billion in marketing. She used her time to "connect with other founders, hospitality brands, and industry leaders to collaborate on how we're creating the new data layer that puts the human first."


Insights on Transformative Technology: AI vs Data


At a conference dominated by technology and innovation, the founders expressed different views on whether AI or data would be the most transformative technology for our industry in the next few years.


Turner believes AI will transform not only how services are delivered to the hotel industry but also how distribution is done. She added that AI will "revolutionize short-term NDC for the hotel industry specifically and attribute-based shopping for the consumer both on the consumer and corporate travel side." Maier agreed, discussing how the demos she has seen on smart agents are extremely compelling.

Shiwarski emphasized the importance of data since we live "in an ecosystem where data has been decentralized across hundreds of different platforms and tractions and not unified into one view of who the customer is." She believes that: "The tools collecting high-quality data will become the gold standard that enables the industry to truly personalize."


McBride thinks it is about the way we aggregate data. "I think it's going to be the companies that can figure out how to let hotels and other travel companies leverage their data, clean it up, make it efficient, and make it useful for their businesses."

The Female Founders in Hospitality at Phocuswright plus a few allies
Female Founders in Hospitality at Phocuswright plus a few allies

Challenges of being a Female Startup Founder


With all the discussions of new technology and the changes ahead for our industry, being a founder of a startup poses some unique challenges:

  • Raising capital emerged as a common obstacle, with Maier highlighting the additional hurdles she faces, which she calls a "double whammy as a female founder and older than most." She went on to add that "women only get two percent of venture capital dollars, which can only be explained by the incredible bias by the people who write the checks." Even drawing on her experience as the former Founder of the successful Match.com, Maier stressed that "no business, no startup is a layup."

Shiwarski pointed out some of the constraints she faces in accessing capital resources:

"In an environment where we're on the edge of a recession, many are living in a fear-based mindset. This limits the amount of innovation and creation that is possible to really solve the deep-rooted problems that need to be solved to move the industry forward." said Shaina Shiwarski
  • The constant need for adaptation in the ever-changing hospitality tech space was highlighted by McBride as a continual challenge. "Everything in hospitality tech as of the last year has changed over and over again, and so as a Founder, you have to constantly adapt and navigate which changes to make and which turns to lean into."

Turner emphasized how much opportunity there is in the industry and "making the most of that opportunity. We are at an inflection point and have found a lot of great success. It's being able to capitalize on those opportunities to deliver the service and product that we believe we can do with only a very small shoestring team."


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