The Fifth-Annual WITH Conference Keeps Moving the Needle


This year’s Women in Tourism & Hospitality Summit (WITH) virtual event took place October 5, bringing together more than 200 attendees from around the world. Now in its fifth year, WITH — proudly presented by (Women in Tourism and Hospitality) in association with Kostuch Media Ltd., (Foodservice and Hospitality magazine, and Hotelier magazine) and Sequel Hotels & Resorts — brought together individuals and companies committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the tourism and hospitality industry.

“This conference has always been so important regarding the recognition of incredible women leading and advancing the tourism and hospitality industry, now and into the future,” said Don Cleary, president of this year’s platinum sponsor, Marriott Hotels of Canada, by way of introduction. “This is a particularly critical time to be having these discussions that are so central to the future health and success of our industry, especially given the outsized impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hospitality industry, and the disproportionate impact on women in the Canadian and international workforce.”

“We know that integrating diversity and inclusion into the core operations of our businesses so that initiatives work not only on the traditional P&L lens, but also on the DNI lens as well is critical,” said Anne Larcade, president and CEO of Sequel Hotels, and co-founder of WITH. “Companies with more than 30 per cent women in their executive team earn higher profits — period. It’s good for business. Many organizations are working on promising solutions and have taken significant steps to address gender diversity.”

What began as a very small idea so many years ago has emerged as a hub for thought leadership and accountability through advocacy, and curated conversations.

“Each of us have the opportunity and a responsibility to be part of this movement,” said WITH’s honorary chair, Katie Taylor, in her opening remarks. “Not surprisingly, the theme this year is Future Forward: Emerging Stronger. Who would have thought that when we pivoted into a virtual conference last year, we would be doing the same again today? The entire industry is going through continuous massive re-structuring and re-invention. It’s not our first crisis — and it won’t be our last — but it’s definitely the most defining one of our lifetimes.”

Taylor stressed that returning to the old normal should not be any of our goals. “Instead, we should aim way higher for an economy that compensates women fairly for their work, improves access to jobs through family-friendly policies, and supports women and all marginalized people in their chosen roles. Inclusivity is the key to not just creating, but maintaining workplace diversity. So, the question we leave you with today is simple — how do we open doors and clear away the remaining barriers today to make our people and their career ambitions the driving force to our future success, since it is they and they alone who will propel our innovation and product improvements and ultimately return this industry to profitability profitable future that remains in store.”

WITH co-founder and editor/publisher of Kostuch Media Ltd. Rosanna Caira, presented some staggering statistics that highlighted the need to keep the conversation on gender equity going.

Caira said that over the past two years, due to the pandemic, a total of two million women have been forced out of the workforce. Globally, women lost $800 billion in income due to COVID-19 and those who remained in jobs were left to juggle their workloads with remote schooling and caregiving. According to a recent McKinsey report cited in Forbes magazine, one in four women were considering leaving the corporate world due to burnout. And interestingly, burnout and exhaustion increased with seniority. “As the business world learns to navigate the COVID-19 landscape, it’s more important than ever to ensure that not only do women recover from these setbacks, but that we continue to ensure we’re no longer under-represented in the executive ranks, and that we continue to have opportunities for growth, leadership and advancement.”

While disheartening to see so much of the progress made in recent years has been lost due to the pandemic, Caira said COVID-19 has also highlighted many inherent weaknesses in our system and it’s forcing us to correct these imbalances.

“Just as the pandemic accelerated the use of technology in this industry to be more efficient, and allow companies to pivot working from home, it’s forced employers to realize that remote work can indeed work — something women have wanted for many years. And let’s not lose sight that there’s never been a greater sense of community. Just look at this annual summit as an example. Women are more empowered to speak up today and demand equity than ever before. And there’s more dialogue about gender equality. But now we need to turn that dialogue into action by pushing forward to accelerate change, and correct gender imbalances.”

Rapid Fire
Ritou Maloni, co-founder, president and Chief Operating Officer of the Pür & Simple restaurant chain — a proudly Canadian breakfast and lunch franchise started in Quebec in 2016 — led off the Rapid-Fire sessions with her story of building the beloved chain to 21 locations across Canada and growing.

“I didn’t know real fear until I got into the restaurant business,” said Maloni. “Nothing could have prepared me for this cutthroat male-dominated industry. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and my parents instilled the value of hard work in me at a young age. They continue to inspire me to this day and I’m lucky to say that they have always been there to support me.”
Pür & Simple has built a franchise system that is attractive to female owners by re-inventing the breakfast niche and making breakfast sexy.

“Our plate presentations are beautiful and our restaurants are designed to feel warm and inviting so our brand attracts more women because women are more refined. They appreciate nice environments and good value and they just know quality.”

But while having a larger ratio of women in its niche gave the brand an edge, when it was time to start re-opening its restaurants mid-pandemic, even though people could go back to work, many of their kids could not go back to school.

“So, many women had to make tough choices between career and childcare. Not easy choices to make,” said Maloni. “I struggled between keeping my five-year-old son entertained and happy while I was working harder than ever adapting to the horrific state of the industry, feeling constantly stressed and powerless. Balancing the limited hours in the day while keeping my emotions in check was a real challenge. Now looking back, I don’t know how I did it. But I did.”

Now 18 months after her restaurants were shut down, the industry is facing huge labour shortages. “But we’re lucky to some extent that our hours of operation and our business model still attract a strong calibre of people, mainly women. At Pür & Simple, we do our best to support our partners and our teams. We offer things like flexible hours, and even a benefits program in many of our locations, which is a rarity in the industry. We base our business on the belief that people want to work for a brand that reflects their own values of brands that they can be proud to associate with.”

The Rapid-Fire sessions wrapped up with Gunjan Kahlon, VP, Franchise Sales & Development, for Wyndham Hotels in Eastern Canada.

“This pandemic has impacted women more than it has impacted anybody else,” said Kahlon. “And as the industry continues to recover, we thought we had a unique opportunity to help [advancement opportunities] for women, specifically when it came to areas of hotel development and investment.”

She pointed to recent reports that show one of the areas within hospitality where women are the most under-represented is the investment and development side. “Whether it is working on the development side of things, or having a dream to own a hotel, women are almost not present, whether we go to development conferences, or we look at a portfolio of our owners. And in order to come up with a program to help them, we first decided to speak to a couple of female leaders to see what are the barriers that these respective women faced before they got into the hotel development side of things.”

What she heard was that there were three pain points for women — a lack of role models available within the development side of things; a lot of women believed that the process was overly complicated, from site selection, to negotiating with the trades to having support with ongoing operations — women felt that they were not welcome to the party; and access to capital or securing capital.

“We wanted to come up with a program that addressed all three concerns that came out of this.,” she said. “Therefore, we decided to build a program, which would help on delivering comprehensive financial solutions to the women who wanted to start building hotels. In order to do that, we looked at how to help secure financing women to our own network of debt and equity partners. Second, we found creative ways to be able to use our own balance sheet to turn the dreams into reality. Now again, this is something that’s very specific to certain markets, but we’re exploring all options. And third, but not the least, is the use of development. Advanced loads are the key money, as commonly known, in order to bridge the equity gap.”

Fireside Chats
The conference continued with a conversation between Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher at Kostuch Media Ltd., and Zita Cobb, founder and CEO of Shorefast and innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Cobb spotlighted the concept of re-generative tourism, which focuses on the interconnectedness and wellbeing of all life on earth and recognizes the need to replace the old economic system that’s based on greed, self-interest, over-consumption and competition.

“So much in our industry is easy to criticize. We humans have created this iron grip of
consumerism, which creates a steady stimulus for us wanting, wanting, wanting, wanting,” says Cobb. “All this wanting is so me- focused, and hospitality isn’t about me – it’s about us.”

Cobb emphasized place, community, and mindset as it relates to re-generative tourism and the industry’s ability to establish a future for tourism that’s community based and low carbon. The first step is acknowledging place and being able to shift our mindset from techno-logic systems to social-cultural logic systems.

“I think we start with place. Culture is a human response to a place. I can’t think of a place on the earth that doesn’t have deep cultural riches that can be incorporated more fully into our business models. That way, those business models are serving the local places. Then, travellers will respond to that,” says Cobb. “We’ve got to see the end of cheap. There’s no such thing. The planet is paying for that.”

The Fogo Island Inn is thoughtfully designed, accessible and built on the notion of human community. Currently, Cobb and her team are looking deeper into creating wholesome food programs that manage food waste and prioritize ocean ethics as well as other environmental programs.

Next, Anne Larcade, president and CEO of Sequel Hotels, and co-founder of WITH, spoke with Robyn Streisand, CEO and co-founder of The Mixx and Titanium. As a recognized member of the LGBT community, Streisand spoke about her experience in marketing around the themes of diversity and inclusion and how these inclusive marketing strategies need to be implemented at all levels of the tourism and hospitality industry.

“I find myself feeling a little out of place in these cookie-cutter hotels. Places and spaces need to think about who the audience is,” says Streisand. “As you look across communities, people want to feel welcome, heard and seen. People want to have places they’re going or staying be a reflection of who they are. This is a huge opportunity.”

The future is bright, however, Streisand recognizes this ask will take time to fully surface.

“It’s going to take something for companies to make these pivots and shifts. It’s going to cause conflict,” says Streisand. “It’s going to take aligning and strategizing and communicating and understanding. There’s going to be testing, learning and then building out strategies for success in the future.”

That’s a Wrap
In their closing remarks, Larcade and Caira offered some key takeaways from the Summit.

“I know virtual meetings can never really replace live events, but I’m so grateful that through platforms like Zoom, we’ve still been able to meet and keep the conversation moving during very difficult and challenging days,” said Caira. “I know it’s hard to synthesize so many of the points that we’ve heard today. But I love to see the passion that has been at the forefront today.

Whether it was Ritou Maloni demonstrating how, despite the setbacks that she faced through the pandemic and the challenge of being a mother with a young son, she still managed to forge ahead and create a chain of restaurants that really allows women to shine through their nurturing and empathetic ways, but also through a different kind of economic model. It’s also great to see companies like Wyndham coming to the forefront by promoting female ownership of hotels, which we have not seen much of in the past two decades. It’s great that they took on the challenge of addressing the lack of role models in the industry and making sure that the process wasn’t as complicated as it has been for women. And, more importantly, to provide that access to capital that has always been lacking.”

“When people are asked how successful women rose in their careers, what I always take away is their sense of grit, resilience and where they got that from,” said Larcade. “So, when you dig down deep, the suffering can actually be very positive. And that’s how we invent, create, and innovate. And through the depth of despair, we rise and emerge stronger, which is the theme for our conference.”

By Amy Bostock & Nicole Di Tomasso

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