HM on Location: AHLA’s ForWard Conference highlights women’s stories

The AHLA Foundation, the charitable arm of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, hosted 900+ women (and a few men) at its annual conference, held at the Hyatt Regency - McCormick Place in Chicago. The annual conference serves as the ForWard program’s pinnacle event and provides attendees an opportunity to hear from hospitality industry leaders, learn and grow with tailored sessions and network with peers.

Anna Blue, president of the AHLA Foundation, opened the conference by setting the stage for the two days of programming.

"[Women] are not often trusted with the industry's story with the true hotel journey. There is no shortage of amazing stories; there's just a shortage of opportunities to tell those stories... I think it's time to 'right' the narrative in our industry,” she said. “Our stories remind all of us and show the world that barriers are meant to be broken, and ceilings are meant to be shattered, and dreams are meant to be chased without apology. Those are the stories of the people in this room... Sharing women's stories is an opportunity to reshape the reality of our industry. It allows us to flip the script a little bit on what leadership looks like and certainly on what our industry looks like. Our stories are powerful. And to be clear, this is not about women's stories over men... It's not removing men stories. This is about correcting an imbalance that currently exists. It's allowing us to create an accurate and true narrative and voice. So that's what we're doing here today and tomorrow. That's what ForWard is all about."

The "Breaking Boundaries: Industry Innovators & Disruptors" panel, moderated Malaika Myers, chief human resources officer, Hyatt Hotels, probed the experience and expertise of Jen Collins, president of Procure Impact, Tracy Prigmore, managing partner at TLTsolutions + She Has a Deal, and Julienne Smith, IHG chief development officer Hotels and chair of the AHLA Foundation Board of Trustees.

ForWard panel
Left to right: Malaika Myers, Jen Collins, Tracy Prigmore and Julienne Smith. (Hotel Management)

"As a disrupter, I feel like the primary role is to ask why is something the way that it is? And sort of poke at it," Smith shared. "We come into an industry right out of school or working up through the hotels and things are done a certain way and people train you. And disruptors along the way, say, 'Well, I think there's a better way of doing this. Let's figure out why.' Disruptors have to learn to find comfort in being uncomfortable. That's something that I've learned along the way, whenever I'm feeling uncomfortable, that probably means change is coming and I should just marinate in it. It's going to be fine. We're gonna get through it and learning to be comfortable in that sort of discomfort, I think is key."

"I looked up the definition of disrupter, which has a negative connotation—'a catalyst for change that created a problem,'" noted Collins. "So I would actually encourage us to reframe disruption as innovation, or a quest for innovation... I do think it's seeking out problems that need to be solved, but it's also: where can we be better? How can we evolve? And in this industry in particular, there's a tremendous amount of opportunity for disruption or innovation..., especially from rooms like this, because women make over 80 percent of travel decisions, and we're still sitting in a very male-dominated industry. So just the fact that you are working in this industry, and bringing yourself and bringing your thoughts and ideas to this industry is innately disruptive and will push us forward."

Additional sessions included “Wisdom from Rising Leaders,” “A Conversation With Kevin Jacobs and Anna Blue,” “Generational Changes in the Workforce” and “The Power of Advocacy: Political + Personal.” Breakout sessions focused on habits of transformational leaders, the "unhustle mindset," and women on boards.

Doubling down on their commitment to advance women in hospitality, Blue, on behalf of the AHLA Foundation, announced the launch of its second giving campaign to help move hospitality ForWard. Learn more at