NYC’s female GMs aim to mold hospitality’s future

NEW YORK—When NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organization, brought together female-identifying general managers from the five-borough community earlier this year at the Lotte New York Palace, it did so to celebrate and recognize trailblazing women in the industry and help nurture and grow the inclusive leadership environment the city’s hotel community aims to foster.

Following the wake of the #MeToo movement, more attention is being paid to the causes and consequences of gender discrimination and violence across all facets of life, including the workplace. Just as importantly, productive conversations are taking place to solve these gender-related challenges. This, of course, will require buy-in and participation from everyone—not just women—but in order to do so, women must have a seat at the table, filling leadership positions, enacting positive change for the industry and serving as role models for the aspiring leaders of tomorrow.

In New York City, one of the most competitive hotel markets in the world, there are currently more than 70 female-identifying GMs. And, like any good GM, they view their role as not just increasing revenue and operational efficiencies for the hotel—though that’s important, too—but integral to their positions is mentoring their team.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see how the industry has changed from when I first started at the front desk,” said Maggie Houston, GM, Arlo Hotel NoMad. “In my early days, there were very few female department heads and even fewer female executives.”

It’s a story that’s common for many. “I’ve been working in the travel market for well over 30 years, and I’d say, up until five or six years ago, it was extremely frustrating because the change wasn’t rapid,” said Marlene Poynder, GM of the Conrad New York.

Acknowledging that this change has taken place during a time period when industry executives are paying more attention to the workforce’s desire for more flexibility in work/life balance for all, and that it’s been spurred on by movements like #MeToo, Poynder said, “There are more women paving the way, more women on boards, more hotel companies that are supporting women to pursue leadership roles. What has happened now is companies are saying, ‘OK, you have commitments, but it doesn’t  mean you can’t have a leadership role. We have to be able to work with you’—and this goes for men as well, quite frankly, but it’s always been the women who have suffered more.

“Generally, more than 12% of executive committee members, sometimes much higher, are women,” she continued. “Then, you get to GM, and it’s less than 1%. In the past, companies would generalize and say, ‘That’s because women don’t want the role or they have kids and go back and do something else,’ and I don’t think that’s the case.”

Poynder pointed to exit interviews and conversations she’s had with women months after they left a role. “Generally, they left because they knew the company they were with didn’t have the systems and tools in place to be able to help them succeed,” she said. “Companies are changing now.”

Houston noted that when she first began her career, it wasn’t just that there were few female leaders—they were often pigeonholed in certain directions. “There was a fairly influential encouragement to follow a ‘traditional’ path into sales and marketing for women wishing to grow in the industry,” she said. “It’s really fantastic to see women now finding success in male-dominated roles and becoming role models to a new generation entering the industry.”

Poynder noted that, when she found out how many female GMs there are in New York City, she knew it was something NYC & Company had to promote. “I don’t know that many other world cities would have the same volume of female general managers in a single market, particularly the size of this one, which is wonderful—but it’s also our responsibility to mentor young women,” she said.

For Karin Kopano, GM of Hotel 50 Bowery, who was named GM of the year by the NYC chapter of HSMAI,  being a role model is part and parcel of her role. “I’m passionate about mentoring,” she said. “It is a very humble feeling to see the growth of your mentees as they climb their career ladder. At Hotel 50 Bowery, we have a mentorship program as part of the Women in Leadership Network Program. Two of our mentees received a promotion shortly after their mentorship program started, which feels very rewarding.”

Certainly, Houston sees herself as a role model—but not just for young women. “I hope that I can be a role model for not only women, but also for those who may not have taken a traditional path into our industry,” she said. “What I find so wonderful about hospitality is that the vast majority of staff development occurs on site at the property level. I didn’t attend college for hospitality, but I had the good fortune to work with fantastic mentors who helped groom me into the manager I am today.”

Becky Hubbard, GM of the Lotte New York Palace, added, “I try to be a role model for everyone, especially people new to our industry. The best thing about the hospitality industry is there are numerous opportunities and disciplines within a hotel, whether you’re interested in operations, finance, acquisitions, marketing, or even science. There is a path for everyone. I believe that you have to give people the opportunity to grow themselves and create clear succession plans within your company. I try to provide tools and education for anybody that seeks it. I rarely say no to opportunities that foster growth and development within my team.”

“I take what I’ve learned and share my experiences with our team, but I also focus on not ‘micro-managing’ the process,” Houston added. “I think it’s invaluable to give an associate the opportunity to make his or her own decisions and learn from what could be traditionally termed mistakes. These mistakes are all part of the journey to developing personal management style.”

How can this be done? “I take the time to arrange coffee chats as well as developmental meetings with our team members,” Houston said. “I encourage their self-analysis and self-direction. I want them to bring as much to the table as they take away. I feel that this working dialogue is integral for them in learning how to lead.”

Naturally, the GMs had advice for those aspiring to move up.

“Stay true to oneself and remain authentic,” Houston said. “In first growing in the industry, I thought I had to change my approach to fit the model of what I perceived to be a respected manager. In doing so, I lost a bit of me and what made me connect with a team. I realized that I couldn’t lead unless I was being myself.  I think a team respects a manager who isn’t perfect, who makes mistakes and owns them, but who is approachable, flexible and self-assured.”

Hubbard added, “It is important to know the market, but even more important to set your own standards. Our team sets aspirational goals. You need to create an irreversible momentum that people want to be a part of.  It’s also important to be kind. As a leader, being kind does not make you weak. It is okay to be vulnerable and genuine, while at the same time, you need to ask questions and be confident in giving direct feedback.

“The greatest lesson that I’ve learned is that you need to work your way up,” she continued. “You need to have an understanding of all of the positions that you may manage one day. You need to lead from the front, and create relationships, because it is those relationships that will get you everywhere.”

For her part, Kopano said, “It is important to surround yourself with people who inspire and motivate you. Be sure to have a tight support network, be goal oriented and do not forget to have fun. Hospitality is a very diverse and creative industry… It is ever-growing and evolving from traditional hotels to a co-living environment. Therefore, there are many new opportunities.”

“I think we have a great opportunity here in New York at the moment because it is such a diverse city, and we have so many female GMs, that we owe it to the young women—and the good thing is there’s a lot of young women working in this market—to do structured mentoring and coaching in our organizations and associations,” Poynder said. “Once you do this, the industry will be stunned by the amount of young women who have very high ambitions. It’s up to us to help them get there because it doesn’t happen organically. We do have to push it along.” HB

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