Working at a woman-owned business with a focus on luxury hotels and hospitality, all we have to do is look around the Hawkins International offices in New York and Los Angeles to know that women have influence in the travel industry. But a glance at the calendar tells us that March is “Women’s History Month,” so let’s look a bit further.
Among intriguing statistics bouncing around that caught our eyes: Women make 80% of all travel decisions, regardless of who they travel with, who is footing the bill, or where they’re headed; the number of travel companies catering solely to women has grown by 230% of late; and women account for 75% of clientele on adventure, cultural, or nature trips. Also noteworthy, as detailed recently in Forbes, travel empowers women in myriad ways, from increasing their confidence to building community, lifting women out of poverty to educating girls.
Meanwhile, according to the 2020 Women in Hospitality Industry Leadership report from the nonprofit Castell Project, the hospitality industry has a ways to go to reach gender parity, though there have been strides. Seven women in hospitality were promoted to CEO in 2018 and 2019, a 20% increase; and in 2019, women represented 12% of leadership positions in the industry – such as managing director, president, partner, principal, and CEO – an increase of 9%. Women were similarly represented in leadership in accounting, HR, marketing, revenue management, and procurement, as well as legal, asset management, and operations.
More recently, the Castell Project’s 2021 report on Diversity of Hospitality Industry Public Company Boards found, among other things, that the boards of hospitality public companies and the Russell 3000 Index average 23% women, and that after peaking in 2019, progress on the inclusion of both Black and female hospitality board members nearly stalled in 2020. All of the above said, Peggy Berg, chair of Castell Project, noted hopefully, “While the pandemic created additional hurdles for women and minority hospitality workers, we seem to be moving in the right direction overall. Momentum will grow for corporate boards that better relate to the actual market. We will get there.”
(Berg told us both reports will be updated later this spring. For now, full copies can be found here.)
HISTORY OF WOMEN IN HOSPITALITY
Through the 19th and early 20th centuries the idea of women even working in hotels, much less managing or owning them, was unheard of. Though some did crash the party early.
One standout was Rebecca G, Howard, who arrived with her husband in Olympia in the Washington Territory in 1859, opened the Pacific Restaurant the following year, and two years after that broadened the business’s focus and changed its name to Pacific Hotel and Restaurant. Known as “Aunt Becky” to her patrons, in 1870 Howard was the only Black woman listed along with 220 White men in a census of the Territory’s taxpayers. Ten years later, she hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy.
Another pioneering female hotelier was Margaret Jane Anderson, who relocated from Iowa to California with her family in 1874 and by 1903 was managing the Hotel Hollywood with her son Stanley. Later, the pair turned to The Beverly Hills Hotel, built by a local developer for $500,000 and opened in 1912 two years before Beverly Hills was even on the map. Margaret’s motto, “Guests are entitled to the best of everything regardless of cost,” struck a chord with early stars of the film industry. When Hollywood’s original “it” couple, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, built a house directly above the hotel in 1920, The Beverly Hills Hotel’s reputation as a celebrity hotspot was secure, and bright lights including Charlie Chaplin, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Faye Dunaway, and too many more to count have enjoyed “The Pink Palace,” now part of Dorchester Collection, over the years.
THE ORIGINAL TRAVEL INFLUENCERS
Trailblazers such as Howard and Anderson aside, the influence of women on hospitality can be traced to the very start of the luxury hotel genre in the early 19th century. With travel transformed from a privilege of the wealthy to an escape from routines and way to maintain friendships, women emerged as influencers of a sort, stepping into the popular market for travel writing, one of the few “respectable” public activities open to them at the time, and penning guidebooks that opened eyes to the joys of luxury hotels and travel.
Distinct from male-centric taverns and coffeehouses, early luxury hotels were substantially styled for the comfort of women. “Hotel managers courted them as customers by providing elaborate public rooms furnished for women’s use and by advertising their hotels as suitable for families,” noted Carolyn Brucken, then a grad student, now Chief Curator and Director of Research at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA, in the academic journal Winterthur Portfolio in 1996.
Indeed, gender was “implicit” in design choices of hotel builders and financers, with large communal areas replaced with specialized spaces that limited interaction between single men and families, including dining rooms, parlors, reading rooms, and lobbies – all pillars of hotel spaces today. Luxury hotels spared no expense setting scenes to appeal to women: The St. Nicholas Hotel, for instance, which opened in 1853 as New York City’s first $1 million-plus building, had curtains on windows in the ladies’ parlor priced at $700 apiece and gold embroidered draperies at $1,000 a pair – $23,800 and $34,000 today. “Women,” Brucken observed, “were conspicuous within hotel design.”
Yet it wasn’t until World War I sent so many men overseas that women found their way onto hotel teams, hired to fill positions such as room clerks and elevator operators. While their numbers decreased after the War, it didn’t dip to prewar levels. As Mark Young, Director of the Hospitality Industry Archives at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel Management, observed in Lodging Magazine: “Women who would later own, operate, and play leadership roles in the hotel industry had gotten their foot in the door.”
So how far have those feet traveled?
TWO STEPS FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
The pandemic has been the great un-equalizer of late. Just in December, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 56.6% of job losses in the leisure and hospitality sector, despite making up 53.1% of the industry. Last September, UN Women reported “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception,” adding, “the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls.” Closer to home, Vice President Kamala Harris recently observed on the op-ed page of The Washington Post, “About 2.5 million women have lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic. That’s enough to fill 40 football stadiums.”
But back in 2019, Kelly Curtin, Executive Vice President of NYC & Company, told Smart Meetings: “When I started in the business 21 years ago, I knew of no female general managers of big-box hotels in New York City.” The article went on to pinpoint 73 female GMs known to NYC & Company in hotels “from boutique to big-box, design-oriented, luxury, and budget properties.”
In the same vein, our firm’s President Jennifer Hawkins recalls not knowing of a single female GM when she started out in hotel public relations in the early 1990s. Now Hawkins International represents several properties helmed by women, including our first client XV Beacon in Boston, now managed by Amy Finsilver; The Wigwam in the West Valley of Phoenix overseen by Managing Director Kay Powers; Thompson Seattle led by Amanda Parsons; and three Dorchester Collection properties including Le Meurice in Paris managed by Franka Holtmann, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles managed by Denise Flanders, and Coworth Park in Ascot managed by Zoe Jenkins.
WOMEN IN TRAVEL, TODAY AND TOMORROW
Beyond oversight of brick-and-mortar, a new generation of female influencers has become a – if not the – driving force in the travel space, practically acting as extensions of marketing teams to celebrate hotels and hospitality in creative and entrepreneurial ways. Stepping beyond mere reviews, the best of them fully embrace their hotel experiences, guiding their thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of followers with storytelling that lets people know to where to go, what to do, which slice of beachfront, roaring waterfall, or authentic local coffee shop is the best place to snap a photo to inspire envy in family and friends, and more. Among female travel influencers we’ve grown to admire:
- Jessica Nabongo of thecatchmeifyoucan.com is a first-generation American, born and raised in Detroit to Ugandan parents, and the first black woman documented to have visited every country on the planet. A self-described “dreamer looking to craft a life and career that interconnects her passions and talent,” Nabongo uses her storytelling to educate and inspire others to experience the world.
- Allison Anderson of allisonanderson.com followed her interests to earn a degree in broadcasting but instead “decided to roll the dice” and make a living as an online creator. At the start of 2018, she made a New Year’s resolution to start traveling solo, and her popular blog and YouTube channel are excellent resources for women itching to do the same.
- And Haley of readysetjetset, a native of Austin, Texas, who started traveling during her sophomore year of college and quickly “became a travel addict and never looked back.” A follower on our Digital Team describes Haley admiringly as “one of my go-to influencers who knows what she’s doing, has been doing it for a long time, and always partners with a great female blogger to accompany her on trips.”
For some good tips from our Digital Team on hosting successful hotel stays for influencers, whatever their gender, click here.
So here’s raising a glass in celebrating Women’s History Month and the women who put their talent to hard work in hotels and hospitality. As with travel itself, the only way to look for them is forward.