On the Scene: 2023 AHLA ForWard Conference
The 2023 AHLA ForWard Conference in Chicago brought together over 600 women in the hospitality industry who were excited to learn from, encourage, and support each other. The conference's mood was incredibly upbeat, with participants buoyed by the sense of community and shared experiences. Here's a brief summary of some of the most inspiring moments of the conference from hertelier correspondents Lan Elliott of DEI Advisors and Gloria Kennett of Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.
Balancing Career Ambitions and Life Priorities
The conference kicked off with a powerful visual representation of the challenges faced by women who juggle multiple priorities. Anna Blue, President of the AHLA Foundation, asked a young college student from Howard University, Skyy Saxon, about her big career ambition. Skyy shared that she wanted to become a hotel owner. Anna gave her a gold balloon to represent her career ambition and told her to keep it up in the air. Anna then asked Skyy about her other priorities, such as taking care of her family, doing her day job, and spending time with friends. For each priority, Anna added a purple balloon to the gold balloon, symbolizing how women try to juggle many things. The balloons kept getting added until the gold balloon fell, reminding women to never drop their career ambition. The visual representation was a powerful reminder that women need support and community to keep all the balls in the air.
Top takeaway: Equity for women and what it means when we say we empower women. When we use the word “empower” it implies a lack of power in the first place, that power is “given” to women, or that we don’t inherently have it. In a way, it also puts ownership on women to do the work to achieve equity versus enacting changes in the workplace structure to ensure women have it from the start.
Insights from Women CEOs, C-Suite Execs, and Hotel GMs at AHLA ForWard 2023
In a one-on-one session with AHLA CEO Chip Rogers spoke with G6 Hospitality CEO Julie Arrowsmith, the first woman named CEO of a hospitality brand. She shared her journey to becoming a CEO. She started in accounting and had finance roles before working her way up to become a CEO. Her advice to other women was to keep pushing, keep learning, and keep networking.
Top takeaway: “we’re never ready” for the next promotion, role, or project, etc. but having patience, the capacity to learn, and the trust of our managers is key to how to keep growing.
Another panel moderated by Amanda Hite with C-suite operations executives included Jade Hashimi, VP of Remington Hotels; Vera Manoukian, Chief Operating Officer, Sonesta Hotels; Linda Theisen, VP of Hilton Supply Management; and Elizabeth Uber, COO at Extended Stay America discussing current challenges and trends. Shelley Meszoly, Area General Manager for 21c Museum Hotels, moderated a panel of hotel general managers on outstanding service trends with Iris Junge, GM of The Gwen; Leydi Naranjo, GM, The Buckingham; and JoAnn Wrenn, GM, The Logan Hotel.
Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationships
The AHLA Foundation's Mentor beta-testing program highlighted two pairs of mentors and mentees who shared their advice about successful mentor/mentee relationships. The session was moderated by AHLA Foundation's Jenn Fugolo and started with Jenn asking each mentor/mentee to describe the other person in one word. The session offered a heartwarming reminder of how successful mentorship can be and how it can help women to support and encourage each other.
Lessons from Sheila Johnson
Salamander Hotels & Resorts founder & CEO Sheila Johnson shared her journey through three chapters of her life, including her time as a concert violinist, starting and selling BET, and starting Salamander and buying interests in three sports teams. Sheila spoke about how she had to restart her third act in the midst of a difficult divorce and how it took her 10 years to get her first Salamander Hotel done. Despite her net worth (she is a billionaire), she went to multiple lenders to get the resort financed, and no one would finance her, so she had to do it herself. Sheila also shared what she had learned from her athletes, including assessing the opponent after the first quarter and being ready to go for the jugular in the final quarter. Her recently-released book is called "Walk Through Fire" and talks about reinventing oneself after a difficult time.
ForWard Together: Flipping the Script on Male Allies
AHLA Foundation's Anna Blue asked a panel of male allies including Nigel Barker, CEO of Studio NB; Rod Clough, President, HVS; Michael George, CEO, Crescent Hotels; and Justin Knight, CEO, Apple Hospitality about influential women in their lives and how they manage work-life balance. The chat also focused on actions to advance women in our industry, always a good idea!
LaVerne H. Council's Advice on Leadership
LaVerne H. Council, a transformational tech leader, shared her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field. Throughout her career, she has often been the only black woman and had to deal with people thinking she was given her job because of how she looks. She believes that "nobody is that stupid" to put someone in a senior, visible role if the candidate isn't qualified.
Favorite quote: “Leadership is like trying on underwear while everyone is watching!” So, let’s all be a little kinder and supportive of each other as we grow.
Council ended with a story of how she helped a southern cotton company maximize their cotton varietals and production, despite facing resistance from white men. Her mother's reaction was, "Thank you, God! My daughter is advising the cotton company to optimize their operations - in the same cotton fields where I had once picked cotton!" What LaVerne saw as a challenge, her mother saw as life coming full circle.
Rebecca Bender, Trafficking Survivor on Trauma and Redemption
Rebecca Bender, a survivor of human trafficking, shared her inspiring story of resilience at the conference. She spoke about her six-year-long ordeal of being trafficked by her college boyfriend and the challenges she faced while trying to rebuild her life after escaping with her daughter. However, she did not let her past define her and started an organization to help other survivors of trafficking. Rebecca's favorite quote, "Turn your fear into hope, let fear light your way," exemplifies her positive outlook toward life. The AHLA Foundation also announced that they had raised $2.8 million for a Survivor Fund in less than a year to fight human trafficking. AHLA will be matching up to $5 million to support Rebecca's organization and other similar organizations.
Favorite quote: "Turn your fear into hope, let fear light your way"
Pioneering Women in Tech
It's no secret tech is still a heavily male-dominated sector of the industry, though the tide is changing. Insights from a panel of female leaders included Tara Higgins, SVP, Commercial, Encore; Keryn McNamara, SVP Hotel Technology, Aimbridge Hospitality; Kim Twiggs, AVP Product Development, DIRECTV; Monica Xuereb, Chief Commercial Officer, Loews Hotels & Co; moderated by Anupama Sharma, SVP Technology, Actabl. These pioneering women in tech encouraged us to keep asking questions even if we’re the only ones in the room doing so. As women, it’s inherently in us to want to know how something works. If you want to have an impact, consider “it starts with me.”
Favorite takeaway: Kim Twiggs of DIRECTV, shared how she initially tried to emulate the leadership style of men around her but eventually learned to lean into her strengths of relationship-building and compassion.
Breakouts on Hotel Ownership, Personal Finance, and Creating Collaborative Workplace Cultures
Stacey Nadolny, SVP of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, and Tracy Prigmore, of TLT Solutions and She Has a Deal, led a masterclass in hotel ownership that was attended by approximately 200 women. Dominique Broadway, CEO of Finances Demystified, shared best practices for women to manage their personal finances.
Favorite quote: "Want to get into a better place financially? Always know two numbers. Your monthly income and your expenses. If you know what the Kardashians wore to the met gala or the latest Vanderpump story, you have time to check your finances daily.
Issues around DEI and Collaborative Conversations Around Workplace Culture were discussed in two breakouts with Laisha Dismuke, VP of HR at AHLA, and a separate discussion with Ann Fastiggi, Spencer Stuart; Eva Wasserman, Senior MD, GEM Realty, and Thomas Morey, EVP & Chief Investment Office, Park Hotels. Key takeaway: diversity does not equal inclusion. Hired someone from a diverse background? What are you doing to make them feel included? Ask yourself how your team ensures they feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
Final Inspirational Thoughts for Women in Hospitality from Jessica O Matthews, CEO of Unchartered
Tech entrepreneur and innovator, Jessica O. Matthews, CEO of Uncharted, shared her entrepreneurial journey from the evolution of an idea to generate energy from a soccer ball all the way through to her rise to leading a revolutionary technology company that is reshaping our cities for sustainable futures. Her candid, relatable approach inspired us to adapt, innovate, and create solutions to address the needs of people, businesses, and communities worldwide. Jessica’s motto, “Succeed, not despite who you are, but because of who you are, unapologetically,” encouraged everyone to embrace differences and recognize that personal struggles and challenges can give birth to solutions if you let them.
Favorite quote: Just because it's not my plan doesn't mean it's not my destiny'
At the end of the conference, We caught up with Stacey Nadolny of Wyndham, who summed the few days up “One of my favorite things about this conference is the energy in the room, and with over 600 attendees this year, it was palpable. Women from across the country and industry came together in support of bridging the gap for women in hospitality through success stories, resources of support, and inspirational leaders from all aspects of hospitality."
Stacy continued with advice, "I love spending time with this community and I encourage women to take this energy back to their home cities and plan get-togethers, happy hours, and social outings with their local communities. We’ve been doing it in Chicago for the last year, and have developed a close-knit community that supports each other.”
Look out for information on next year's AHLA ForWard conference May 2-3, 2024 in Chicago.