TORONTO — The inaugural Women in Tourism and Hospitality (WITHorg) conference, the first of its kind in Canada, was held yesterday at the Park Hyatt Toronto. More than 160 industry professionals gathered for the unique day-long conference and workshop hybrid to share ideas, network and empower women to move the needle on gender equality in the hospitality and tourism sectors.
Created by Kostuch Media Ltd. and Sequel Hotels & Resorts, WITHorg offered a roster of industry powerhouse speakers — of both genders — that included Kathleen Taylor, Kirstine Stewart, Don Cleary and Reetu Gupta.
The event kicked off with a morning meditation session led by Reetu Gupta, followed by an inspiring welcome from WITHorg’s Honorary Chair Kathleen Taylor. Taylor, Chair, Royal Bank of Canada and former president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts shared her personal experiences as one of the few female executives to reach the top of the industry — as well as some staggering numbers related to the massive gender equity gap that exists in Canada.
Kirstine Stewart, chief Strategy officer at Diply GoViral, has a long and successful track record in both the media and technology sectors. Her book “Our Turn” chronicles her journey while outlining why businesses today need to look at leadership differently. She then joined Stephania Varelli (CEO, Women of Influence), Julia Christiensen-Hughes (Dean, College of Business & Economics, University of Guelph), Ellen Dubois DU Bellay (EVP, People, Inside Out International) and Don Cleary (president, Marriott Hotels of Canada) on a panel titled “Change Agents: What’s Needed to Move the Needle?”. Moderated by KML’s editor and publisher Rosanna Caira, the panel highlighted the struggles women face at all levels in tourism and hospitality — with particular focus on the C-suite positions — and what companies and individuals can do to effect change.
The morning breakout sessions featured three inspirational and empowering choices. Shelmina Abji, former VP at IBM and current advisory board member for Girl Up, led a powerful session highlighting the importance of self-confidence to success through the lens of her personal experiences. Abji explained how not knowing what was possible and having a fresh perspective allowed her to turn IBM’s worst-performing division into a top performer — effectively kicking her career trajectory into overdrive.
She also outlined what she views to be the key steps to finding your personal power, including defining what personal success means for you, understanding your strengths, building competences and celebrate yourself.
“As women, we want to please everybody; we want to say yes to everybody, [but] sometimes you have to say no,” said Abji. “Because every ounce of energy that you focus on something that will not [further] enable you to achieve your definition of success, you are taking away from something that would enable you.”
Abji also stressed the importance of stretching yourself. “Look for opportunities to build your competences…people may not remember, in five years, what you did, but who you became as a result of those experiences will go with you wherever you go,” she says. “Pay attention to where the industry is going and dive into the deep end because you will find a way to come out and the person who comes out will be different than the person that went in.”
Reetu Gupta of Easton’s Group walked attendees through the steps needed to take charge of career success — what she called the “Advocate, Assert and Confidence Code” — and questioned why women fall behind when it comes to supporting one another in life and in business. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” she asked attendees, while encouraging them to change their mindset.
Yvonne Heath, a former nurse turned author and inspirational speaker, ran the first of two sessions on how to prepare for grief in whatever form it comes to you. While an awkward and uncomfortable discussion to have, she’s adamant that people have “the talk” about end of life in order to eliminate the fear. She also encouraged the crowd to “just show up” for colleagues, friends and families dealing with grief — put aside the awkwardness and offer support. “Grief comes to everyone,” she said, “so the best time to prepare for it is now.”
After lunch, the first annual WITHorg Economic Empowerment Award was presented to Kathleen Taylor for her outstanding accomplishments — both in her own career and in furthering the cause of women in the workplace. Moving forward, the award will be renamed the Kathleen Taylor Economic Empowerment Award in her honour.
The pace didn’t slow as the event moved into the afternoon, kicking off with “Changing the Landscape,” a panel discussion around how altering perceptions can lead to real change in parity. Participants included Carolyn Clark, SVP, AccorHotels; Roz Winegrad, area VP of Owner and Franchise Services for Marriott Hotels of Canada; Minaz Abji, senior advisor for Host Hotels; Stephanie Hardman, chief People officer, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada; and Christiane Germain, co-president of Groupe Germain Hotels. The lively discussion addressed hiring disparities, wage gaps and how Canada can do better when it comes to ensuring women have a seat at the table. The solution, according to Germain, is simple — “hire more women.”
In the afternoon breakout session, Disruptor #101, Arielle Meloul-Wechsler, SVP People and Culture, Air Canada, showcased a panel of women who hold traditionally male-dominated positions within Air Canada. These women discussed the challenges they have experienced while working in these roles, as well as the initiatives and efforts that the company has made to mitigate these challenges.
As Meloul-Wechsler explained, Air Canada had some problems in the past but the company has been making a concerted effort in recent years to ensure greater gender equality in its traditionally male-dominated departments through programs such as unconscious bias training and Women in Aviation programs.
“Once we hit labour stability in 2014/15 — by achieving 10-year labour deals with all of our major work groups — that changed the game for us,” explained Meloul-Wechsler. “That allowed us to speak to and interact with our employees very differently.”
The resulting culture change within the company is a particular point of pride for Meloul-Wechsler and her team, as well as the company at large.
The final panel of the day “Champions of Influence” featured four strong leaders who are advocating change. Anne Larcade, CEO of Sequel Hotels and Resorts; Lucie Guillemette, EVP & chief Commercial officer at Air Canada; Shelmina Abji; and Johanne Belanger, president & CEO of Tourism Toronto came together to duscuss ways to “curate, disrupt and make measurable change in yourself and in career sandboxes.”
The event wrapped up with presentations by the three charities that WITHorg was supporting through the conference: The Tory Day Fund, Worlds Collide Africa and Special Needs Dreamworks/The Alexandre Foundation.
Preparations are already underway for next year’s WITHorg conference and attendees were encouraged to become a global member of WITHorg.com. The website was launched to help empower women and close the gender-leadership gap so companies and women can perform at the highest level. WITHorg.com’s programming helps women connect with peers and organizations and access resources for professional or personal growth.
Click here for more information on the conference or to join WITHorg.com