WITH 2023 Summit guest speakers on stage

By Amy Bostock, Nicole Di Tomasso and Roseline Victoria Vijayakumar

TORONTO — Nearly 300 foodservice-and-hospitality professionals gathered last week at the Park Hyatt Toronto for the seventh-annual Women in Tourism and Hospitality (WITH) Summit, hosted by Kostuch Media Ltd. (KML) and Sequel Hotels & Resorts.

To the women in the room, I remind you of the incredible power you hold within yourselves,” said Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher of KML and co-founder of WITH, as the event began. “Believe in your capabilities, embrace your unique strengths and never be afraid to dream big. Know that you have the ability to shape the future of this industry and leave a lasting legacy. To the men in the room — and there are many — who are our allies and advocates, we urge you to continue championing gender equality, not just within this industry, but in every sphere of life.”

In a breakout session titled Let’s Talk Women, a quartet of female restaurateurs addressed the trials and tribulations of being a woman in the industry and what they’ve had to do to achieve success in what has been a typically male-dominated business. Moderated by Caira, the panel featured Angela Lawrence, COO of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group; Kate Taylor Martin, founder & CEO of Nutbar.Co; Nicki Laborie, owner, Reyna Hospitality Group; and Jacqueline Nicosia, CEO & co-owner, Ardo Restaurant, Dova Restaurant, & Viviimports Corp. The women talked about the challenges and the opportunities they’ve dealt with, pre- and post-pandemic, and how they’re balancing their careers and personal lives.

Taylor Martin said in the beginning of her career, there weren’t a lot of role models that she felt she could turn to “and really let my guard down and be myself. For the first couple of years, I was searching for role models and mentors, or people that I could come to and say, help me, what do I do? How did you do it? That has slowly changed and I talk a lot about the power of that community that I’ve built since then.”

For Lawrence, who started with Gusto 54 on the property-development side, the challenges were a bit different. “The challenges I had were more associated with working in an even more male-dominated industry, which is construction, and managing a team of architects, general contractors and an interior designer. As a woman, I had to be very laser focused on what the end result was. But it was a challenge that I was up for.”

“My biggest challenge that I’ve had is with the gender bias in our industry,” said Nicosia. “It doesn’t help that it’s male dominated and my partner is male; he’s not only male, he’s the male head chef and he’s also my husband. So, there’s a lot of things that are stacked up against me with the gender bias. We’ll walk into a meeting and they’ll go to shake his hand, and then just kind of stand there, and then I’ll have to interject, put out my hand and say, this is my name, this is my title, and remind them as to who I am.”

She said at the start of her career, she stood back a little bit and accepted that the business would only succeed if her husband was in the forefront. “I figured I’m going to push him forward. And then I don’t know what happened during COVID, but something clicked in me and I decided, ‘screw this, I’m done with this.’ Now I’ve started to take some chances and come out from behind the curtain.”

Laborie wasn’t in the restaurant business but had an online magazine called View the Vibe. “When I opened the restaurant, [people only saw me as a] blogger so I had a bit of pushback there and my confidence was very wobbly. But I stuck to it and we kept going, but the challenges have been non-stop,” she recalled, adding the actual business side of restaurants is the biggest roadblock. “The lack of respect that you can be faced with is quite amazing. I will say that Toronto is a lot better than New York; New York is frightening. My landlord can’t even look me in the eyes and I’m the one that pays the bills. But if my operations director, who is male, stands next to me, the conversation is with the male versus the female. So, I think you just have to stand your ground.”

The afternoon portion of the event kicked off with an awards presentation. The Gender Equality Award was presented to Air Canada, while the Katie Taylor Economic Empowerment Award was presented to Mandy Farmer, CEO of Accent Inns. 

The first workshop of the afternoon delved into the acquisition landscape, the intricate anatomy of the capital stack and the challenges posed by shifting capital markets debt to equity and rising operational costs. Moderated by Mark Kay, principal broker and president at CFO Capital, panellists included Robin McLuskie, managing director I Hotels at Colliers; Tracy Prigmore, founder of She Has a Deal; and Sam Mercado, owner of Orpheus Management Services.

The discussion also focused on advancing diversity and inclusion, exploring ways to shatter barriers and create a more inclusive ownership landscape.

Next up, Amrita Bhalla, founder of AB Consulting discussed personal branding and networking. She emphasized authenticity and openness as essential traits in personal branding and explained how these traits contributed to building meaningful connections. She led the audience on a journey of discovery about how to cultivate relationships built on trust, respect and mutual growth.

Bhalla provided practical tips for building a personal brand by emphasizing the importance of clarity and simplicity.

“People tend to think about a personal brand as bragging self-promotion, but it’s something much more important. It’s your reputation. It’s how people perceive you and it’s what people think about you when they hear your name, as well as what people say about you when you’re not in the room,” she said. “In our connected world, every single one of us has a personal brand, whether we like it or not.”

Additionally, Bhalla motivated the audience to think about their target audience and emphasized the importance of personal branding. She also highlighted LinkedIn as an influential networking tool and encouraged the audience to revamp their LinkedIn profiles.

“The largest contributor to developing a personal brand is failure,” she said. “It can be failure on a project or a career hiccup. I’ve been through it, and it was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life. Failure is what helps you connect the most with your personal brand. It asks you to be very honest and open with yourself.”

Bhalla concluded the workshop by encouraging the audience to find their “ikigai,” a Japanese concept meaning your reason for being, and emphasized the importance of creating a compelling personal brand statement and using them in various networking scenarios to make meaningful connections.

The last workshop of the day featured Lisa Elder, president of Heads Up, who shared strategies with the audience for asking good questions to gain greater understanding and ultimately gain more personal impact. These powerful questions can lead to success at work and at home.

Through her research, Elder said that many people rarely get 10 minutes of someone’s undivided attention or are talking in sound bites, prohibiting deep conversations.

“When you ask good questions, you will gain knowledge beyond the surface, true understanding and great empathy,” said Elder. “This allows you to foster deeper connections with any one that you choose,” adding there are several things that benefit the person asking the questions, including an elevated spirit, less conflict, increased credibility, increased abilities and greater influence.

Then, Elder asked the audience to channel their inner researcher as she uncovered four skills for asking good questions. The first was to just ask and don’t assume; the second was suspend judgement; the third was don’t ask why to find out why; and the fourth was to go four deep instead of asking shallow, rapid-fire questions.

She went on to highlight behaviours to avoid in oneself or to address in others, including freight-train talkers, assumptive talkers, one-uppers, topic skimmers and passive listeners.

The last panel of the day, moderated by Reetu Gupta, Chairwoman and Ambassadress, The Gupta Group, featured Tracy Prigmore, founder of She Has a Deal; Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels of Canada; Sarah Glenn, COO, Canada, Caribbean, Mexico & Central America, Accor; and Julie Denton, Chief People Officer and Chief Technology Officer at Recipe Unlimited. Together, the panellists shared best practices of how they’re changing the conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion, starting with who they hire and how they’re retained.

“Marriott’s Bridging the Gap program is one initiative we’ve put together, which aims to increase development and ownership of Marriott properties among women and other under-represented groups,” said Cleary. “We also have an Emerging Leader program across Canada and the U.S. Our classes are getting bigger every year, with nearly 50 participants this year. It’s highly targeted to women and minority groups and focuses on mentorship and exposure to senior leadership. I’m happy to say that approximately 60 per cent of the people from this program have been promoted to senior positions over the last few years.”

Prigmore is also working to create pathways for ownership and development for women through the She Has A Deal platform. “We expose women to this profession, and most importantly, we teach them how to do it,” she said. “It’s not the type of education that you would receive in school, it’s the education that a mentor has to provide to you. A mentor is someone who really cares about your success and they have had the experience that you’re seeking in a particular area. Our platform is built on that foundation.”

Denton went on to say that Recipe has partnered with a not-for-profit organization to teach DE&I training. “These are half-day, facilitator led, roleplay workshops that are focused on DE&I and unconscious bias training for all employees, including franchisees and general managers of our restaurants,” she said.

Other topics included how women in the boardroom are making a difference and creating social impact; how leading companies are delivering on this goal and maximizing the bottom line; and how workplaces are evolving to reflect the communities they serve.

The event wrapped up with a closing keynote from Mandy Farmer, CEO of Accent Inns, who expressed her passion for creating positive workplace environments within the hospitality industry and asserted that industry professionals could shape and design these changes. She discussed the importance of having a team that shared her vision and said, “If you’ve got a worker who doesn’t have the right values, fire them and then get the right people on the bus so you can start to make things happen.”

Farmer shared her core values of being real, making everything better, having each other’s back, leading with love and being accountable, highlighting the significance of personalization in the workplace experience. Within her own company, Farmer has focused on employee well-being and happiness through initiatives such as personalized employee recognition, which has led to outstanding results, including high customer ratings, improved employee retention rates and enhanced workplace culture.

Creating a positive work environment not only benefited employees but also contributed to the company’s financial success.

“We created a work environment with people who care about one another and who look out for one another. It’s about holding each other accountable and constantly asking how we can help one another,” she said.

Farmer urged the audience to prioritize the well-being of hospitality professionals and concluded her keynote with a rallying cry. “We need to make our industry is an industry of choice for people who want to work in it. We’re overworking our people and this can’t happen. We need to put our foot down and say we’re not going to work like that anymore because we have to take care of ourselves and each other.”

Click here for more coverage of the seventh-annual WITH Summit.


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