DEI in the hotel industry: Take action to break down barriers

The last year has been a pivotal one in how American society addresses racism and sexism in all areas. Following up on the “Industry of Inclusion,” cover story in the March issue of Hotel Business, “Breaking the Barriers: Creating an Industry for All,” the latest Hotel Business Hot Topics session, with sponsor support from and McNeill Hotel Company, brought together industry experts to discuss how hospitality has addressed the issues, and the work that needs to continue.

Moderated by Talia Fox, CEO, KUSI Global Inc., the group of panelists included Leslie Hale, president/CEO, RLJ Lodging Trust; Donna Quadri-Felitti, Marvin Ashner director, The Pennsylvania State University School of Hospitality Management; Andy Ingraham, president/founder/CEO, NABHOOD; and Robert Mellwig, SVP, talent & culture, Accor—North & Central America.

Fox opened the session by describing the work her company does—transforming culture at organizations—and why these types of conversations are necessary. “We do that through engaging [and] learning experiences,” she said. “We do that through planning, and we do that through this opportunity to elevate the mind, to touch the heart and to inspire… It reminds me of what Einstein said: If he had a problem, he’d spend 59 minutes thinking about what the problem is and one minute solving it. Well, ladies and gentlemen, our 59 minutes is up. This conversation is not just going to be about what the problems are—because I think we have spent a lot of time discussing that—but it is time to take action and to break barriers.”

The panelists said that just having the conversation around diversity is important. “Part of what we need to do as an industry is provide a greater spotlight on transparency and candor and really bring this conversation that’s important to many businesses—but maybe not any greater than the hotel business—to the forefront,” said Mellwig. “And so we’re trying to advocate for and champion action and change.”

Increasing diversity and inclusion “is a journey for most of us—at a personal, professional, organizational and society level,” he said. “We’ve engaged owners to actually help us on starting with a shared commonality of understanding and language, helping to frame the conversation in a way that people are comfortable, and giving people permission to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We are engaging and leaning into conversations that they might not have had in their home or in their upbringing, but that they may have been thinking about and, now, finding a voice and a stage.”

Hale added that for a company to make that journey, it must choose the right people to make the decisions. “If you had a transaction that was going to alter the course of your organization, and it was super important, you put your best talent on it,” she said. “You make sure that it gets the attention of the highest levels of the organization. Treat diversity like that… It’s going to alter the course of the organization, and in some organizations, it doesn’t get treated like that; it gets treated like ‘check the box,’ and the person on it is two layers, three layers down.”

Quadri-Felitti said that it is important to listen to different voices around diversity and inclusion to better understand where everyone is coming from. “Shared understanding doesn’t mean a shared experience,” she said. “You have to pay attention to what someone’s experiences [are], pause and listen. We can share ours, but we also have to really hear someone else’s. And that’s when you begin this shared understanding.”

To help students, faculty and staff at her institution gain that understanding and explore their own biases, she has made use of the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute’s (AHLEI) Unconscious Bias Managers Training. “Let’s start looking at ourselves, but let’s look at ourselves in he context of our industry,”’ Quadri-Felitti said. “What does it look like? What does it sound like? How do I check myself? And then begin dialogue around that so we have this sort of shared experience, and build from there. Sometimes we talk past each other, and we think someone meant this, but they meant something else.”

Penn State is piloting a program this summer called “Creating Opportunities for Young Hospitality Leaders” to encourage students from underrepresented communities to become involved in hospitality as a career path. “[It will] show them that the pathway in this business can be in ownership, leadership or creative,” she said, adding, “So many young people think there are limits… Their vision is culinary, which is great and a great place to start, but they can be an owner in their community, or they can be a business leader in their community. And that pathway is a college education.”

When asked by Fox what steps organizations should be taking to move forward with diversity and inclusion, Ingraham replied, “Three words: action, action, action… We just have to take more action. Less chatter about what we are going to do and just do it.”

He said that the mission of his organization has been very clear. “We started in 2001 and there was one African-American-owned, branded hotel in the country,” he said. “Today, we are just north of 1,000. We have tremendous potential to go a long way.”

Ingraham also pointed to a study from MMGY Global that African-Americans spend $107.4 billion annually on travel. “What we’re seeing at NABHOOD is people calling us, emailing us and texting us saying, ‘Where are the Black-owned hotels? Where should we take our business?” he said. “In October, we’re going to sign a memorandum of understanding with the progressive Baptists [for] a couple million dollars-worth of business, and they want to be able to direct their dollars.”

Companies need to set an example for others. “People are going to watch what RLJ does and will follow Leslie’s lead,” said Ingraham. “They’re going to watch what Chris Nassetta says and does at Hilton and follow the lead. Leaders need to have the courage to step out of that comfort zone, even if they get criticized or are awkward in saying it. But the fact is that [they are] taking action.”

When asked about the diversity of vendors that companies are dealing with, Hale said that it is important to impress upon them your company’s values around diversity. “It’s about using your dollars strategically to promote the values of your organization,” she said. “We’re focused on expanding and trying to be creative, around…who’s sitting across the table from you… We want to see diverse talent. If you don’t have it, then it looks like you need some interns. We’re working through those dialogues now.”

Providing opportunities for minority vendors is also an important initiative. Ingraham said that NABHOOD has begun working with a number of hotel companies to get more African-American vendors in the pipeline so they can grow their businesses.
Mellwig spoke of the challenges that Accor, which operates 5,000 hotels around the world, has to face when it is in areas that do not have the same code of beliefs that his company follows. “We really try and take a bit of a Trojan-horse perspective of influence beyond formal authority and helping to change the world,” he said. “We use our company, our hotels and our people as a stage to help drive that.”

Fox asked the panelists how to respond to some leaders who say they are just choosing the most qualified candidates, but they are not finding diverse candidates who have the right set of skills to be in an executive position.

“When I hear that, I always have to smile because, quite frankly, it’s nonsense,” said Ingraham.

He pointed to the fact that in South Florida, where he lives, there are only five black general managers in the hundreds of hotels in the area. “Now, it’s difficult for me to believe that there is not a sixth or seventh person available do the job—and that’s across the line,” he said.

Hale said that companies need to challenge how they look at candidates and see their talent. “Look past the race and gender and see what they bring to the table,” she said. “I think that if you’re having a problem, identify it. Who’s in your chain of recruiting? You have multiple lenses right there. I find that when I’m at the table when we’re doing a talent review, it’s amazing how I can see the talent of this person differently than some of my majority partners.”

She continued, “And when I point out, ‘Well, what about this experience or that experience?’ the light bulb goes off. It’s not because they were being malicious, it was just because they just saw the world differently.”

When minorities are recruited, leaders need to be more cognizant of making sure that as they recruit and retain minorities, that they’re putting them in positions where they can grow into leadership positions. “To me, that’s more difficult than it sounds, but you have to be deliberate about that,” said Hale. “People will look at their minority stats and then they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve got the stats.’ But when you look at where they are and what roles they are in, they are not going to be able to ascend to those [leadership] levels. I think that’s an important thing that people should be cognizant of.”

Quadri-Felitti also said that it is not about ticking boxes that each candidate fits, but finding each person’s potential and being adaptable, adding, “What’s interesting to me is we go to our consumers and we personalize their experiences in our hotels and the marketing to them, but we have to have everything in HR coaching and managerial development be non-personal. It [doesn’t] get adapted in the same way. We can do more. We can do better.”

At RLJ, the company has created roles for people who don’t fit the exact criteria for a position, but could grow into it. Using asset management as an example, Hale said it has more senior managers who have direct experience, but it has also created roles for those who have the “ingredients,” but not the experience.

“We create a space where we can tolerate that,” Hale said. “Or where we can say, ‘We’re going to coach and train you up.’ Do they have the aptitude? Do they have relevant experience that allows them to speak the language, but just not the specific components?” It’s all part of recognizing potential, tapping into it, mentoring and providing the opportunity for growth.