NEW YORK — Diversity, equity and inclusion were hot topics during the 43rd annual NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, with leaders on several panels sharing ideas about how to improve diversity. In addition, new scholarships to help prepare the next generation for the C-suite were launched during the event. 

David Kong, outgoing BWH Hotel Group president and CEO, noted that while the total makeup of hospitality workers is diverse, the progression to the top is much less so. “How many people get to sit around this table that are either female or minority groups? Very, very few," he said. "So while we have a good base of diversity on the bottom, we need to grow that to the top.” Until hotel companies do that, he added, it's hard to make the industry attractive. As such, Kong’s next steps after stepping down from Best Western at the end of the year will be to help companies improve their diversity and inclusion efforts—and helping individuals move up the ladder. “Hopefully at some point in the future, what you’ll see around this table would be more representative of the diverse customer base that we have,” he said. 

Marriott International CEO Tony Capuano said that his company’s C-suite is 50 percent female and its board of directors is one of the most diverse. Still, he acknowledged room for improvement. “At the VP and above level, which is about 800 people in our company, we're 44 percent female [and] about 21 percent of people of color.” Those numbers are “OK” relative to the general business environment, he said, but the company is “wholly dissatisfied with that.” 

Marriott President Stephanie Linnartz agreed, noting at her panel that she was the only woman on the stage and that no people of color were speaking. “We need more people of color and we need more women. We need more diversity,” she said, and noted that Marriott has made progress in driving inclusion, moving the company’s goal to get gender diversity at the leadership level from 2025 to 2023. “At the senior levels, as you move up the ranks of seniority—that's where we need to push additional diversity,” she said.

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion should be handled like any other challenge, Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta argued: “You set a strategy, you chunk it out into individual objectives, you compensate people for it, and you treat it like any other integral part of the business.” Ultimately, he said, hotel companies are serving an “unbelievably diverse” customer base. “So diversity is essential for all of us to succeed. How the heck are we—the most senior decision-makers in all of our companies—going to serve this incredibly diverse customer base without diversity in the decision making?”  

A New Path

Kicking off the “Forging a New Path Toward Racial Equity in the C-Suite” panel on the second day of the conference, Nicolas Graf, Jonathan M. Tisch chaired professor and associate dean at NYU, shared some  statistics about diversity in hospitality: “Although Black workers make up roughly 18 percent of employees in the U.S. hotel industry, they hold less than 1 percent of the CEO jobs,” he said. At the director level and above, it's less than 1.5 percent, which is 11 times lower than the 18 percent share of the hospitality workforce. By the end of 2020, one in 5.7 industry employees was Black, compared to one in every 49 VPs and one in 50 EVPs or SVPs.

The NAACP reported in 2019 that approximately 89 percent of Black, 90 percent of Hispanics and 86 percent of Asians in the hotel workforce of 2007 were considered unskilled or semiskilled compared with just 75 percent of the white staff, Graf said. By 2015, these figures had not changed. 

“A lot of times, when we talk to young people about getting into these industries—especially for students of color—we almost talk to them about it in a way that we're doing them a favor,” said Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, as the panel got underway. “The reality is they are extremely smart, extremely talented, and we have to start talking to them about occupying the C-suite.” 

Reaching that C-suite can be especially challenging because access to education, resources and capital is decidedly unequal. “We have to create a more equitable system by which these young people can access that capital and that opportunity,” Frederick said. Providing funds and opportunities to students of color will not only create an “excellent product” within the hospitality space, but will also provide a strong return on investment. Of the 10 Howard University students attending the conference, Frederick expected five to seven to become CEOs of existing hospitality companies, and hoped that two or three would create their own hotel chains or similar businesses.

“The importance of higher education has never been more clear,” said NYU President Andrew Hamilton. “When you get the ear of your congressperson or your senator, reinforce how important your local university is because we are the stepping stone for prosperity and personal transformation.” Education, he added, needs to be a “pathway that's open to all, and especially to those who are underrepresented in the highest echelons of the industry.” 

Related: Marriott, Howard University partner for Howard Hospitality Week

New Scholarships 

During the conference, Graf announced two new full scholarships that will be created through the support of Loews Hotels & Co. and its chairman and CEO, Jonathan Tisch. The Loews Hotels Scholarship and the Jonathan M. Tisch Scholarship will be bestowed annually upon two graduates of Howard University and/or other Historically Black Colleges or Universities who seek to pursue a master’s degree at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality. The students who will receive this tuition assistance will be known as the Loews Hotels Scholar and the Jonathan M. Tisch Scholar, respectively.

“These scholarships ... will provide students from HBCUs with the opportunity to gain the graduate education and build the network they need to prepare for careers in the C-suite,” Graf said in a statement.

“Providing the means for students from historically underrepresented groups to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead successful careers is the greatest investment we can make in their future and in the future of this industry,” Tisch said.

“We are incredibly grateful to Jon Tisch for his continued generosity and for his and Loews Hotels’ commitment to our students. Their gifts and the scholarships they will fund, will help to ensure the equitable outcomes that are so critically important for the hospitality industry and for society as a whole,” said Angie Kamath, dean of the NYU School of Professional Studies. “On behalf of the school and our students, I thank Loews and Jon for all that they do to make our programs accessible to all.”