Leading Ladies

As a female writer covering the lodging industry, I look forward to the day when a woman named to a top executive position isn't a big deal warranting special press coverage. Yes, we've come a long way, baby, but there's still so far to go. In terms of pay parity, respect, acceptance and advancement, it's no secret the lodging industry lags other industries. While women have made big strides breaking into management positions both at the property and corporate level, the boys still rule the roost in the boardroom and executive suite, not to mention in powerful development and ownership roles. For that reason, we follow with interest women's advancements in the lodging industry and continue to keep tabs on those who are succeeding and paving the way for generations to follow.

Those at the top still represent a very small percentage among women employees, notes a recent Wall Street Journal report: while 50.3 percent of all managers and professional are women, just 1.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 7.9 percent of Fortune 500 top earners are women.

I recently spoke with three highly successful women executives about their views of the business, their experiences rising to the top and their advice for others looking to advance. Carlson Hotels' Yvonne La Penotiere and Nancy Johnson and Kimpton Hotels' Niki Leondakis are gutsy, savvy, smart and determined lodging executives. A bonus: each has a good sense of humor and, thankfully, none plays the victim card. They also bring to the table qualities sometimes found lacking in their male counterparts: grace, empathy and inclusiveness. They've proven women can be strong business leaders with an eye on the bottom line, without sacrificing their humanity.

Unfortunately, the lodging industry is still “a good-‘ol-boys game,” notes La Penotiere, where testosterone, networking and one-upmanship often determine advancement.

On a lighter note, La Penotiere relates her experience sitting on panels at investment conferences where she's peered out at a sea of black suits in the audience. “Hey, the one good thing is there's never a line for the ladies' rest-rooms,” she laughs.

Read on for more candid assessments from these leading ladies.

Yvonne La Penotiere leads the strategy, management and key functional support areas for the brands of Carlson Hotels Worldwide in North and South America. The brands include Regent International Hotels; Radisson Hotels & Resorts; Park Plaza Hotels & Resorts; and Country Inns & Suites by Carlson and Park Inn. She reports directly to Jay Witzel, president and CEO of Carlson Hotels.

La Penotiere joined Carlson in 2000 as vice president of sales and marketing for Country Inns & Suites by Carlson. Previously, she had more than 18 years experience in the consumer packaged goods industry, including 11 years in consumer marketing and brand management with Pillsbury Company, Nabisco Foods and CPC International.

She was also recently named one of the “25 most extraordinary sales and marketing minds in hospitality and travel” by Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International.

Q
LH:
How did you transition from the packaged goods industry to hospitality? What drew you to it?

A
La Penotiere:
In the hotel industry we think of marketing as advertising and promotion; when you use the term marketing in consumer packaged goods it's about brand management. About six years ago I was feeling burned out and knew I needed a change. Carlson was looking for a VP of marketing for the Country Inns and Suites brand. They were specifically looking for someone with an MBA with a consumer packaged goods company, so it was a perfect fit. What really attracted me to this industry is I'm a passionate traveler and I'm a big consumer of what we produce.

Back then the hotel industry saw marketing as a very tactical thing, creating an ad campaign and doing some rate-based promotions, whereas in the consumer packaged goods industry it's all about getting into the head of the consumer and understanding their buying behavior. It's much more strategic and out of that comes the tactical manifestations — the ad campaigns and promotions, etc. It's the marketing people who have the skills to run a brand, whereas in the hotel industry it's usually the development or operations people. That's a very big difference.

Q
LH:
What are you looking to accomplish in your position?

A
La Penotiere:
The big thing is getting the organization thinking in terms of value. To me it's quite obvious a successful business is about creating and delivering value and if you don't understand your value stream, then you can't be successful. I'd say Carlson Hotels at times in the past has been very tactical and very entrepreneurial and with well-intentioned people — but it has not always focused on creating value. And some of that is because we haven't always been clear as to who the customer is or the value they're looking for.

Three years ago, when I started in the executive vice president role, if you'd asked people in the company who's our customer, they'd have said the franchisee, because we're a franchise organization and the bulk of our hotels are franchises. So I've been leading a cultural change, emphasing our customer is really the end user — the guest who sleeps in the bed. Of course the franchisee is a very important stakeholder, but when you think about your customer as being the guest in the bed as opposed to your business partner, you make decisions very differently.

Q
LH:
How has that gone over?

A
La Penotiere:
From the corporate standpoint, like with anything, there are multiple camps. There are people who got it right away. And there are some stragglers, late adapters, and there are probably some who don't like the change and want to do things the old way. For the franchisee community, that's where you have to be tenacious and stick to your guns and that's the only way you build credibility.

A good example is the Radisson initiative to introduce Sleep Number beds in hotels. We're in the second year of implementing them. It costs a typical Radisson franchisee $200,000 to $300,000 over the course of a few years to make the change. We prepared a good business case on the ROI and franchisees realize it takes time, but all they know is ‘this year I've got to put out $150,000 in capital.’ Slowly but surely they're coming around. They see that what we projected would happen has actually happened and they're seeing happier customers and new business and increasing market share. They're pleased overall, but it's painful in the beginning.

Q
LH:
What challenges have you faced as a woman in this industry?

A
La Penotiere:
I did find it easier in the packaged goods industry. There tend to be more women there in key leadership positions. The hotel industry really does have a strong good ‘ol boy network. I participated in a panel at a recent lodging conference and I was the only woman on the panel. I sat on the stage and looked over the audience and there was just a handful of women and all these middle-aged white guys and I'm thinking, ‘what's up with that?’ You just don't see many women developers or franchisees and I find that kind of appalling.

I think advancements have been made, with people like me getting to this level, so there's opportunity. I've never really stopped to think about it much. I've never bought into the victim mentality — ‘oh, I'm a woman, I'm gonna have to work harder,’ etc. I just focus on the job that needs to be done. I love what I do; I'm passionate about what I do. I come to work and have fun everyday and the rest just seems to fall into place.

Q
LH:
What does Carlson as a company do to encourage womens' success in business?

A
La Penotiere:
The mission of our company revolves around building better relations and we're very value-centered. It's all about people and those relationships, so I find it's easier here whether you're a woman or a minority; the atmosphere is more tolerant and conducive to being around diverse people and what people represent. And having a woman CEO and Chairman of the Board (Marilyn Carlson Nelson) certainly helps pave the way. It's not like I think I'm here because we have a woman CEO, but she brings a different perspective of acceptance and nurturing women to be great leaders — actually she's like that with everybody. She's the best role model I could have now.

Marilyn has a very holistic view of business. Make no bones about it, she's a tough businesswoman but when you're around her she's interested in how things impact people. She's a tough, very astute business person who can hold her own against any man but she has a compassionate side you don't always see in men. That sets the tone for the entire organization.

As for formal programs, we have Women Mentoring Circles that started last year. Women throughout Carlson Company are nominated and selected to participate in a year-long program geared toward managers and director-level positions. There's 8-10 participants in each circle and each focuses on a different topic. Nancy Johnson and I facilitated one on developing strategic thinking skills.

We also have a woman's advisory council. We bring women from outside the company representing different industries across the U.S. to help us gain a different perspective on programs we're considering developing or to help us develop better products targeted at women.

Q
LH:
Any words of wisdom or advice for women just starting out in the hospitality industry?

A
La Penotiere:
For me, diversification has been very helpful and I think the broader view you can get and the exposure and experience in all areas of business, the better. I was trained as a scientist and worked in the packaged goods industry before coming to the hotel industry. I think that kind of diversification is good — as opposed to just going to hotel school and working in a hotel all your life.

In more general terms, the best advice I give is to be true to yourself. You have to know yourself, know your values and stay the course. You must have courage, and you have to be bold. One of the reasons I'm where I am today is because when I came to Carlson I was kind of fearless. The things that were obvious to me that were holding the company back, well, I tried to help figure out how to overcome them and made myself part of the solution and that's how I got to be president. People could see that one, ‘she's smart and she can figure out what the problems are’; two, ‘she figures out solutions’; and three, ‘she's personally accountable and tries to get them done.’ You can't be afraid to speak up.

Nancy Johnson was recently promoted to executive vice president of Full Service Hotels for Carlson Hotels Worldwide from executive vice president of Select Service. In her new position, Johnson will lead the overall strategy of the company's full service brands, particularly Radisson and Park Plaza. In this role, she'll serve as the brand champion for franchisee and partner relationships, lead implementation of new programs and services and oversees development of brand systems, processes and standards. Other past experience at Carlson includes service as senior vice president of Development, vice president of Development and senior director of Franchise Development for the mid-tier lodging chain of Country Inns & Suites by Carlson.

Before joining Carlson, Johnson was vice president/ chief operating officer at Hospitality Development Corp. She was recently appointed to the board of directors for The Travel Partnership Corporation, a consortium of travel industry organizations representing key segments of the industry, and she's founding chair of the Women in Lodging Council of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. She has also been named one of the Most Powerful Women in Travel by Travel Agent magazine.

Q
LH:
Your resume shows you've paid your dues in this business. You started at the bottom, waitressing, bartending and hostessing in a hotel, while raising two small children. You moved up to catering secretary, banquet manager and assistant GM. How'd you do all that and continue to rise to where you are today?

A
Johnson:
Well, on the personal side, I have a huge family — I'm one of 12 kids so there's a big support network there. And my husband was in education so he was there at night and when I started traveling. I had all the different job roles within a hotel and looking back I think should be one requirement for anyone who goes into hotel management. You need to have knowledge and empathy for the positions your employees fill.

I was lucky, too. While working at the hotel I was approached by a construction company that was developing a full service hotel. They wanted me to come on board as their “hotel specialist.” That was Brutger Companies. I worked for them for 10 years and built 48 hotels. I wore a hard hat and was project manager and vice president of marketing and while with them we created a franchise system (Thrifty Scot hotels).

Q
LH:
What kind of challenges did you face?

A
Johnson:
Back in the early ‘80s there weren't many women in management roles so there were conversations like, ‘well, it's too bad you're not a man because you'd make a lot more money in this job.’ At that time it was pretty much expected that a woman with kids was a risk for employment, too. I really had to use all my political skills and finesse. It's managing for credibility as well as for results. And you were always very careful how you presented yourself because women are, of course, far too emotional. You needed to be able to develop a thick skin and your tolerance level had to be high. But it's changed a lot in the past 20 years.

Today, from a visibility standpoint, women have not kept pace. Part of the issue is women executives in this industry have tended to take less visible roles and haven't pushed themselves forward as much as the males.

Q
LH:
Why not?

A
Johnson:
Maybe they're just more humble about it (she laughs). They don't need that for fulfillment. That's fine but I also believe we need to attract quality talent into our hotel schools. The other thing is that we as an industry need to be aware of the growing percentage of women customers we serve. With womens' buying power approaching 72 percent, we need to take it very seriously.

I have to laugh when I think of the airline industry, which is even further behind when it comes to advancing women. I travel nearly 70 percent of my time and on an airplane the female attendants always help the men first, serving them first, taking their coats, helping them with their luggage.

Q
LH:
Are you saying we're our own worst enemies?

A
Johnson:
We, as women have to change too. We have to support each other.

One of our big concerns is, how do you retain talent when women must leave to have babies or the job doesn't fit into the family life schedule, or there's an elderly parent who needs care? This applies to men and women; it's a life issue. We're focusing on flexibility and allowing people to take advantage of sabbaticals, job sharing and flex time.

Q
LH:
Talk about your work at Carlson

A
Johnson:
I came here to help develop and sell franchises for Country Inns and Suites. At the time there were four and today there are 379 open and another 60 under construction or development. The biggest issues are energy, labor and security — these are the things that keep me up at night.

Q
LH:
Who do you admire in the business?

A
Johnson:
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is a wonderful role model, as is Curtis Nelson and Jay Witzel. Jay's one of those people who doesn't look at you as a color or sex, just what your capabilities are and he's extremely encouraging. Also, Jerry Severson, president of Brutger, is the one who taught me the importance of finance and he provided me many opportunities. And Curtis was great at encouraging me and challenging me when at the time I was the only woman in franchise sales.

As COO for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Niki Leondakis oversees all operations, marketing and human resources for the company's portfolio of 39 hotels and restaurants. Leondakis has been a key player in the development of Kimpton's mission and culture statement, leading the growth and expansion of Kimpton's hotels and restaurants in the U.S. Her commitment to maintaining company values and the unique Kimpton culture began in 2003 when she launched the Diversity Initiative program, which is committed to creating a culture that acknowledges, understands and accepts values and celebrates differences among people.

In the spring of 2004, Leondakis spearheaded the launch of the Women in Touch program at Kimpton Hotels, designed to meet the specific needs of women travelers. The program includes creative packages, amenities and strategic partnerships with national women's organizations. Kimpton also champions Dress for Success, a non-profit organization that provides interview suits and career development assistance to low-income women.

Q
LH:
Kimpton Hotels is known both for its support of diversity within the organization and for its customers. Tell us why that mission is so important to you and your company.

A
Leondakis:
Personally, I grew up feeling really different from other kids. I come from a Greek immigrant family where we ate Greek food, spoke Greek at home, went to a different church than the other kids the neighborhood and had to go to Greek school everyday after regular school.

Q
LH:
Why does this sound like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding?

A
Leondakis:
Yes! Exactly. As I grew up I evolved with a sensitivity and an awareness of what others were going through who felt different, which informed my thinking as I got into the hospitality business.

I didn't have any women role models; I didn't work for any. This was in the early ‘80s and we've come a long way since then. Back then women thought they had to emulate men to be successful. There wasn't room for women to be women and to employ our traits — compassion and collaboration and inclusion and nurturing, the things we do intuitively. We felt like we had to cover those things up and I followed suit.

When I came to work for Bill Kimpton in the early ‘90s I saw that he was not only gender-blind, he didn't see people based on any kind of physical packaging.

In 1994, when I was vice president of restaurants, Chairman and CEO Tom LaTour asked me why we didn't have more women GMs running our restaurants. I almost fell out of my chair. At that time I was so focused on being a businessperson; I didn't run around making issues about being a woman. I don't know if it was denial or I figured I can't change some things and I'm just not going to put a lot of energy into it. I just dealt with things. Anyway, what Tom said shocked me and made me realize he's paying attention to women and their issues. He said ‘I think with you leading the restaurant division you'd have more women.’ And I thought ‘wow, it's ok to seek out women for hire and promotion and to develop them for leadership roles’. It was not only his permission, it was my responsibility. It was a big turning point for me.

Q
LH:
You and Kimpton are so committed to diversity and spend so much time fostering it — how do you keep that from negatively affecting the bottom line?

A
Leondakis:
I absolutely believe in role modeling, mentoring women, seeking diverse candidates for hiring, and they absolutely affect the bottom line, positively, so I don't see them as mutually exclusive. I think we are more successful with attracting top talent and retaining top talent because of our commitment to diversity. I think our people find it inspiring that we have women executives, gay executives and people of all different backgrounds in leadership roles in this company. And it certainly affects in a positive way our business as we're better able to serve the diverse needs of a broader group of customers.

We don't have as many women in senior positions as I'd like. Out of 20 resumes we might get for a senior level opening, 19 will be from men. In order to commit to diversity you really have to work harder in the recruiting process to find those candidates. And you have to always hire the best person for the job or you'd be out of business. You don't just hire someone because they're diverse but finding diverse candidates and giving them the opportunity for the job is the only way to get a diverse workforce. It's hard work, demanding of our search firm and our human resources department.

Of course, the nature of this business makes it tougher, too. Hotels are open 24/7, which is tough on family life. We haven't done as much as I think we can yet to accommodate the needs of working mothers with more flexible schedules, job sharing and child care. It all has to be cost-effective and that's the challenge for us as business people to figure out but sooner or later we'll have to get more creative.

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