Roundtable: Defining diversity in hospitality

Pictured from left, top row: David Eisen, former editor-in-chief of Hotel Management; Mannie Jackson, director and president of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities; Hisham Sobhy, founder and CEO of Generosus Advisors; Chip Ohlsson, EVP and chief development officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts; and Lea MacLaren, GM of the Wingate by Wyndham Sylvania/Toledo in Sylvania, Ohio. Bottom row: Stefani C. O’Connor, editor-in-chief of Hotel Management; Marian Goodman, SVP of development at Channel Point Hospitality; Jagruti Panwala, vice chairwoman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association; Samir Parikh, president of Hotel Depot Services; and Patricia Lee, SVP of organizational development and chief corporate social responsibility officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.

The world of hospitality and travel is sustained by creating connections between people, places and cultures, as well as breaking down the barriers that keep us from seeing and understanding the world. Because of this, the hotel industry is unique in its push for diversity because true hospitality can only come from a culture that promotes unity regardless of ethnicity, nationality or creed. To that end, eight leaders in the field sat down with Hotel Management to discuss diversity within the industry, the challenges facing the space and how hoteliers can work together to promote diversity going forward. 

Most companies and organizations in the 21st century seek to embrace diversity, but before they can do so the concept of diversity needs to be defined. Marian Goodman, SVP of development at Channel Point Hospitality, said diversity today no longer is restrained to concepts of race or gender, but now includes diversity of thought.

“We are in the hospitality business, but when you’re talking about the workplace and the serving of people that walk into your door—and of all different backgrounds—to have diversity in thought or skill sets certainly, lifestyle, traditional roles, all those things are important now,” Goodman said.

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Jagruti Panwala, vice chairwoman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, elaborated on this concept, defining diversity as a difference of opinion and thoughts. She pointed to many second- and third-generation hotel owners who are members of AAHOA that are now becoming hotel owners and developers, and specifically highlighted a higher number of women getting involved in the business. In fact, Panwala is on track to be the first female leader of the organization in its 30-year history, a fact she reflected on with satisfaction.

“When I joined the AAHOA board eight years ago, my position was female director at large,” Panwala said. “I’m glad that we still have that position because that actually gave opportunity for the women to come in. And when members made the decision [to elect me], you can tell that they were not just making me a leader because I was the right person, but they really were ready for a woman to be a leader in the organization.”

Furthermore, adding new perspectives through inclusion pays dividends. Lea MacLaren, GM of the Wingate by Wyndham Sylvania/Toledo in Sylvania, Ohio, said the hotel industry in particular benefits from diversity because of the essential goal to anticipate traveler needs.

“How better to anticipate those needs if you can grow and thrive on the experiences of all generations,” MacLaren said. “Some of the new people on the team or if they are new to the industry, they might not understand that second and third or first generation, so trying to mold people and let them know how to anticipate those needs and be the most hospitable they can be is important.”

Roundtable participants agreed that for the hotel industry to move forward and succeed, it must include a wealth of diversity in terms of the backgrounds of people employed as well as skills, opinions and beliefs. That doesn’t happen by accident—companies must make diversity a priority through education, training and opportunities, according to the executives.

Change of Ideas

Amid the #MeToo movement and other recent social pushes, Mannie Jackson, director and president of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities, said that a new perspective is needed in order to positively promote diversity in business and beyond. “I believe very strongly that as long as we think of diversity as a social issue, we won’t make it. If we think of it as an outcome issue, a performance issue, we’ve got a chance,” Jackson said. “I think the companies that quickly rely on the position [that] it’s a lot of outcome and performance, they’re going to succeed and send all the others away.”

Jackson reflected on his previous career with exhibition basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters, and at the time a diversity quota system was in place in the National Basketball Association. This system was a failure, he said, because it stipulated a certain number of people of color on each team based on what the NBA perceived society was looking for. That wasn’t working out.

“Someone got the wise idea, let’s get the right people, enough that we can win,” he said. “That changed the industry.”

Over the course of the conversation, the panel came to the conclusion that due to the hotel industry’s unique position at the intersection of travel and hospitality, diversity of thought is an important component for fulfilling guest needs and understanding how consumer markets evolve. Furthermore, achieving diversity of thought can have a measurable positive impact on the hotel industry through review scores and international relationships.

Jackson said that diversity can only be retooled as a performance issue at the hands of leadership, something Patricia Lee, SVP of organizational development and corporate social responsibility at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, expanded on by framing in the context of education. Specifically, if hospitality organizations don’t invest in education for current and future employees to help them “follow the money,” it will be the economy that suffers in the end.

“We have to teach our young people about financing, about opportunity, about entrepreneurship,” Lee said. “We can do a… better job investing in those individuals that are perhaps not getting that type of an education, through some of our scholarship programs. These are the ways we have to start fueling and developing not just the original generation or the second or third generation, but the next generation.”

Samir Parikh, president of Hotel Depot Services, said it is crucial to put power in the hands of the new generation of hoteliers through education because they are inheriting the assets created by the hard work of the preceding generations, and they want to use their unique perspective to improve or modernize them.

“The second and third generation has an amazing job, and I’ve seen that [on the] design side now. When the dad previously didn’t want to spend money towards interior design… the second generation, third generation, they want top shelf,” Parikh said. “They want to spend money. From our side of the industry, manufacturing is improving and supply is improving. Everybody’s getting together and bringing more products on the table.”

Samir Parikh, president of Hotel Depot Services, said elevating the next generation of hoteliers is key.

Building the Stage

One cause for concern in the push for diversity is a perceived sense of entitlement that has resulted in pushback in recent years. Hisham Sobhy, founder and CEO of Generosus Advisors, made a case against directionless additions to a business’ staff for diversity’s sake, arguing that, as Jackson said, positions should be given based on merit. For this reason, he agreed that education, training and opportunity are the answer because many capable candidates lack the resources to become the professionals they want to be.

“If you want to earn your title, whatever it is, you need proper build-out of knowledge to get you to bid for this title and compete with everybody else,” Sobhy said. “I’ve participated in events where we share the knowledge with various candidates and prospects. I think this would be a very efficient [option] that can really have an impact on the industry.”

Chip Ohlsson, EVP and chief development officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, said this is all part of his company’s plan.

“Our goal is to create the opportunity, and show everybody exists,” he said. “It’s everybody else’s opportunity to take advantage of that and move to the next level.”

Jagruti Panwala, vice chairwoman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

Eyes Forward

Ohlsson said the topic of diversity is something that is important to tackle today because it represents the future, and if the hotel industry—or other industries, for that matter—fail to embrace it, its legacy will be cut short.

“There’s such a low employment rate that people now are getting into the opportunity and the businesses that they never could before,” Ohlsson said. “So [its] opening peoples’ eyes that the way business has been done in the past isn’t necessarily the way it’s going to be done in the future.”

Sobhy reiterated that it is key to provide workers and potential employees with education and access to the skills they can use to succeed in the industry on an equal playing field. However, he continued to caution against coddling under the guise of equality, and listed value, skill and drive as the main characteristics to focus on in the workplace.

“Handouts, if excessive, will have a bad side effect, which will really prohibit people from excelling and exploring their maximum abilities because they have an easy, low-hanging fruit to pick,” Sobhy said. “So they would never reach higher. And that part we shouldn’t lose sight of as people in the space, and in every profession.”

Lee and Jackson boiled down their reasoning for improving diversity in business to one idea: In order to win in the future, a diverse mindset, employee base and leadership will be necessary. Adopting new ideas, finding new perspectives and seeking new answers will become necessities when confronting new challenges, Jackson said, and without diversity of thought it will be all but impossible going forward.

“We want to keep winning,” Jackson said. “Quality made us win. Technology made us win. Diversity, I think, will make us win.”