The Women Leading Hospitality

Posted under Interviews & Features.
by Sophia Soltani | Published 5 years ago

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Who says it’s a man’s world? This month Hotel News ME spoke to a group of female leaders in senior management positions within the hospitality sector, to hear first-hand about breaking boundaries, stereotypes and how leading with confidence is the ultimate key to success. 

Meet the hoteliers:

Janelle Schwartz, senior director of revenue management, Middle East and Africa, Hilton Worldwide.


Janelle Schwartz

About Schwartz:

– Originally from Australia
– First started her career 20 years ago
– Currently leads a team of 16 individuals at regional level
– Works with 100 plus hotels across the MEA and Turkey

Alison Broadhead, chief commercial officer, Jumeirah Group

About Broadhead:

– Her hospitality career began over 25 years ago
– Originally from Scotland
– Has worked in Singapore, London, Sydney and Washington DC
– Has been with Jumeirah for two and a half years

Maria Tullberg general manager Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek

Alison Broadhead

Alison Broadhead

About Tullberg:

– Has been in the industry for 23 years
– Has held two previous management positions
– Worked as regional sales manager previously
– Became a hotel manager after just four years in the industry

Eleni Tsolakou, general manager, Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan by Rotana

About Tsolakou:
– Has been in the industry for more than 15 years
– Held more than four managerial positions

Maria Tullberg

Maria Tullberg

– Currently leads complex hotels at development and opening stages

Stephanie AbouJaoude, area director of marketing, Middle East, Turkey and Sub-Saharan Africa and Women in Leadership Champion for the Rezidor Hotel Group

About AbouJaoude:

– Graduated from University in Lebanon with a major in Marketing and Communications

– Held four managerial positions before first senior role
– Is a Women in Leadership champion for Rezidor

Stephanie AbouJaoude

Stephanie AbouJaoude

Hala Massaad, general manager, Raouché Arjaan by Rotana, Beirut

About Massaad:

– Has over 17 years of experience within the hospitality industry
– Graduated in 2007 from the European School of Management

– Has an executive masters degree in business administration
– Began her career as a trainee at the front desk of the Intercontinental Le Vendome in 1996

What are some of the key challenges that females face in the UAE hospitality industry, and how do these compare to say Europe or the US?

Schwartz: As a leader, I always aim to lead by example in order to inspire others, facing up to challenges is crucial in overcoming them and in achieving success.

Broadhead: I have lived and worked all over the world and

Hala Massaad

Hala Massaad

have generally been treated with nothing but respect and courtesy. The challenges tend to be the same regardless of geography; men are more mobile, can be more flexible with their time, are better at boardroom politics, and will negotiate for themselves better. It is a cliché but they are more evolved as hunter gatherers. Unfortunately, many stereotypes are still in play but this is a global issue.

Tullberg: I can only compare to Scandinavia were I’ve worked before and there the regulations around maternity and paternity policies strengthen a woman’s possibilities to combine work and family life. Working from home has really helped me a lot in achieving this balalnce and I don’t feel that is as established here as it is in Scandinavia. In the beginning I felt that I was met with skepticism, but that changed fairly quickly when I proved myself. I feel it’s easier for me to get my voice heard here just because I am a women and women here are treated with a great deal of respect.

AbouJaoude: An obvious challenge for this region is that some stakeholders and their key partners appear to be less willing to readily accept females in senior positions within our industry. The limited and relatively short maternity leave allowance in the UAE makes it challenging for females to maintain their career in hospitality and they are quite often faced with a choice between a career and a family. Women also face issues of travel and safety, such as cultural constraints when travelling alone. Last but not least, succession planning becomes more and more challenging as there remains a grey area in the bridge between managerial and senior roles.

Eleni Tsolakou

Eleni Tsolakou

Tsolakou: Every day we are seeing successful women leading great companies. Both Europe and the USA are examples of that. Taking risks on a daily basis, the increased pressure and responsibilities are definitely a challenge. The fact men continue to hold most leadership roles is true, but nevertheless women have come a long way in the workplace, and they continue to grow incredibly.

Massaad: Old mindsets have disappeared and gender discrimination has decreased, you will seldom find a man not coping with being managed by a woman these days. Throughout my 20 years of experience, I have never faced any challenge in the hospitality industry as such, I have been lucky to work with fair mentors and leaders who believed in equal opportunities and ultimately those who serve best in the interest of the hotel.

How have you overcome these challenges?

Broadhead: I have been willing to, and have very much enjoyed, the somewhat nomadic lifestyle, and I do have an amazing husband who is my greatest ally and advocate. Mostly though, I have had quiet determination and consistent focus.

AbouJaoude: It all starts by setting yourself goals,having clear objectives and defining what success means to you. Throughout my career, I have tried not to be confined by the perception of failure and that has helped me cope in situations where I found myself outside of my comfort zone and where I have challenged myself.

Tullberg: I have a very supportive husband. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his support. He quit his job for me to be able to take on new challenges here in the UAE. I constantly step out of my comfort zone and thrive on challenges.

Massaad: A woman by nature is diplomatic and patient, and these characteristics helped me to overcome many obstacles and avoid clashes with other colleagues, partners and owners. On the other hand, the advantage of being in this part of the world and moreover being in the hospitality sector is that there is always respect from men towards women.

Schwartz: Experience has helped me take a holistic view on any challenges that I have come up against over the last five years here in Dubai – seeking advice, performing the job well, and sharing learnings are key to overcoming any difficult situation. As women in business, I think it’s important we share experiences, however I never view myself solely in this prism. My career success has been driven by hard work, recognition of the team’s efforts, getting results and a determination to succeed. I would advise future leaders, whether men or women, to focus on core competencies, such as results, hard-work and commitment in order to be most successful.

Tsolakou: It’s all about commitment and hard work. You have to love what you do, be persistent and ambitious. I always rely on my willingness to learn and the great passion I have for my job to overcome hurdles.

Why do you believe so few of the world’s hotel groups are managed by women?

Broadhead: I am sure everyone says this about their own industry but hotels do have a reputation for being brutally hard work and it’s true. The hours are long and not very family friendly. Our businesses are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with guests, staff and assets all requiring care and attention. If you want to succeed, you have to make a lot of personal sacrifices and not everyone is willing or able to do this. I think females have access to the same opportunities, but it is still more acceptable for men to not make it home on time for the children’s bed time than it is for women. We have made progress in equality but the road ahead is still long.

Schwartz: There are many talented women within our Hilton management ranks –ready to be the next general managers, commercial leaders and members of the senior team. As a leader of today, I see it as my role to inspire those people to get to that next stage of their careers, wherever they are based in the world.

Tullberg: Hospitality is not a nine to five job and it can be very challenging to run a family with work because in this business you have to be available 24-7. Men employ men and women employ women and to break that cycle more women have to be involved in the recruitment process. Then there is the confidence gap. Studies show that men in general are more confident than women and that confidence plays an important role as competence comes into play when it comes to applying for a job.

Massaad: Realistically, it can be difficult for married women and their families to cope with the lifestyle a career in hospitality brings and so things might not last; people have to reach decisions and prioritise, in most cases mothers chose their families over their career.

AbouJaoude: Women face similar challenges when it comes to their careers across all industries and all countries. There are certain preconceptions from society when it comes to women trying to establish a work­life balance for example, and this can be discouraging. Eventually, this is a challenge mostly highlighted in the hospitality industry, which would appear to be demanding with its long working hours due to the 24/7 hotel operation.

Tsolakou: Over the past few years, women have taken on many leading positions in all industries, and continuing the same path I am sure the numbers will keep increasing. Also, I believe everyone, men and women, need to choose companies that help them grow and support them.

What steps need to be taken to ensure more women are given leadership roles within the hospitality industry?

Broadhead: There are a few fundamental issues that need to be addressed. One in particular is how we assess and value the soft skills, such as listening, empathy, collaboration. I don’t think the drive for results is different, but the approach can be.

AbouJaoude: First and foremost, industries need to realise that this is not a female issue, it is a business issue. The increasing facts and outcome from research and studies prove that having gender equality in a senior leadership team leads to more profitable gains for businesses. Female mentoring would be a good starting point followed by dedicated leadership programmes and development plans to support growth and exposure. Flexible working conditions are also crucial in supporting women to achieve the required work-life balance they are after.

Schwartz: I would tell a younger me to stay inspired, consider every opportunity and to look ahead not backwards. I have a successful business mentoring relationship and this has helped me stay focused on the future, and take on opportunities with confidence.

Tullberg: More honest and open conversations about career development and work/life balance. Help women close the confidence gap. Look at the recruitment process to ensure we hire based on competence and offer a flexible approach to working hours.

Massaad: Ultimately, companies should promote vacancies with equal rights opportunities, and without gender discrimination during the employment process. This will encourage women to get involved and do their best to reach higher positions. Moreover, praising women in the workplace based on their achievements will also inspire others to do the same.

Many women in hospitality leadership roles struggle to reach a work/life balance, how have you made it work for you?

Schwartz: My secret is great scheduling! I manage to achieve a good work-life balance, whilst still being 100% committed to the responsibilities of my role, through planning and ensuring that my time is used efficiently and effectively. I also recognise, for me and the team, that time-off is important – we work in a pressurised environment and taking the time to ‘re-charge’ is important and increases productivity.

Tsolakou: The key to balancing work and family responsibilities involve flexibility, control, a strong support network and of course a well-organised detailed plan. I had a clear picture of what I wanted, and made sure all of the aspects in my life got enough attention.

Broadhead: It helps a great deal if you enjoy what you do and the people you work; they are your social life. I love my job so the long hours are not a hardship. The one thing I am quite disciplined about is keeping in contact with my friends. I have lived away from Scotland for longer than I lived there, but my closest friends are still the same.

Tullberg: I would not have been where I am today if I hadn’t had a very supportive husband. We share the workload at home and have taken equal responsibility for our three children’s upbringing. I’ve also realised that I do not become a better manager by spending 12 hours a day in the office, on the contrary developing a good team and allowing them to take responsibility when I’m not in makes them grow and develop as well so it’s a win-win situation.

AbouJaoude: Defining that balance and what it is exactly that works best for me in every situation has been key to leading that balanced life. Everyone has a different perception of balance and priorities change with time, so I always make sure to take time for myself to re-evaluate my priorities, both at work and in my personal life, and then take it from there.

What is your company’s approach on encouraging more women to take up leadership roles?

Schwartz: Hilton’s approach to talent development across the different levels of the business is very pro-active. In Saudi Arabia, we have seen our first female graduates on the Passport To Success programme – meaning that women in our KSA business will be actively delivering life-skill training to other team members.

Broadhead: Jumeirah sets a great example I believe. The general manager of our largest and most complex resort, Madinat Jumeirah, is female, as is our regional VP of operations in Europe. Our MEASA regional directors of sales and revenue are both female and they are all inspiring and extremely capable role models.

Tsolakou: Long-term Innovative Friendly Ethical are Rotana’s values. This company believes in satisfied, happy employees. On that note, we are constantly encouraged to take on bigger positions, we are trained and developed and we have a safe place to show all the skills and potential we have.

AbouJaoude: The Rezidor Hotel Group has launched the Women in Leadership programme (WiL) to support women in maximising their potential within the group, and mostly as it is good business practice. In order to provide mentoring and support to generate future women leaders, we have identified two WiL champions, one female and one male, in each region. These champions will develop and help implement action plans to ensure our activities are led by our people, for our people. They also act as a support function on diversity and inclusion matters to Rezidor’s executive committee.


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