Women in hotels are smashing the glass ceiling

08 March 2023 by

This International Women's Day The Caterer shines a light on women in the hotel industry, asking them how they rose to the top and what advice they would give to others

Grace Leo, co-owner and managing director, the Relais Henley, a PoB hotel, Oxfordshire

What was your avenue into hospitality?

My family were co-investors in a hotel in Hong Kong, so I grew up exposed to that environment. It left an impression on me, but it didn't drive me into the hotel business right away. I studied economics in Stanford in the US and transferred to Cornell to study hotel management. No one defects out of Stanford, but I was attracted to the idea of building a career in hospitality. At 26 I was working for Warwick International to build up hotel companies in Europe – it was an amazing opportunity for a young person and, having always loved the French culture, living in Paris felt a bit like destiny.

Did you have a turning point in your career?

For five years it was my job to redevelop hotels that had been acquired by the business. I was pretty much on my own for the first couple of years, and when you can either sink or swim, I managed to thrive. Having that vision – a bird's eye view of each hotel, knowing what came before and what will come after – that's always been my gift. Investors have hired me because of that vision and because I have the confidence to interpret and follow that path.

I then set up my own consultancy and, after a few difficult months without clients to pay the bills, I got my first assignment, which was the Le Guanahani in St Barts where I oversaw the six-month construction – I definitely perform best when I'm under pressure. This led to other projects by word of mouth, including Hotel Montalembert in Paris. This launched me professionally as it's considered to be the first design-led hotel in Europe. After a few decades in consultancy I co-bought the Relais Henley and then soon after the Relais Cooden Beach in Bexhill-on-Sea and founded Relais Retreats.

What advice do you have to women in the industry hoping to climb the career ladder to the top?

When I was just 26, I was a minority and a women. I was always in the room with 10 other guys, who all knew each other, who were all speaking French and smoking Gauloises cigarettes and puffing smoke at me. Success in any profession comes down to your competence and attitude – it's all about mindset. If you want to stick up for yourself, do it and don't count on anyone else, because it's up to you to achieve things and get ahead. We all have moments of doubt, but my characteristic of fearlessness means I'm driven and very motivated and passionate about what I do. I never think of myself as being not as good than anyone else because I'm a female. I really want this new generation of women to feel confident about themselves, because women are naturally good at multi-tasking, which is an excellent quality in a good hotelier.

Lynn Brutman, regional vice-president and general manager, Four Seasons Hotel London in Park Lane, London

How did you get into hospitality?

I grew up in New York and my parents were business owners. I knew I wanted to go into business, but I wanted it to be something customer-based and relationship-driven. I was searching schools and business programmes and I saw that the hotel programme sat within the business school, and I felt that was the balance I was looking for.

From that moment onwards I was surrounded by like-minded people. We felt like we were on a mission with a commitment to the industry and a shared common interest.

I graduated and got right into it, starting with the Four Seasons 32 years ago. Who knew I'd end up running the Four Seasons Park Lane in London? And on the journey there I had opportunities to travel and to experience so many different things, which is what's so spectacular about a hotel career. Hotels exist in every part of the world, so it can take you where you want to be.

How can we encourage more women into the hotel industry?

I think the industry needs to communicate how dynamic and flexible it can be. Whatever is happening in your life, you can create an opportunity for yourself. For instance, you might not be in a relationship so you can move around and take on a new adventure, or you might be starting a family and need to stay put because the kids are in school, so you wait. But when that phase of life shifts and changes, you can accelerate and go in a different direction. This career can be everything you need it to be. But it's about being comfortable with the imbalance in life and working around it. We need to recognise imbalance – whether it's work or family taking a bit more from you – and learn how to accept it and adapt to it.

How have you picked yourself up after a challenging point in your career?

In a career spanning 32 years, there have been many ups and downs, but I've come to realise that when I'm feeling challenged I am being stretched out of my comfort zone. When I'm in that moment, I think to myself ‘what is the lesson to be learned here?' That low point will be different for everybody, but I think about what questions I need to ask and who I need to lean on to get through.

Zoë Jenkins, general manager, Coworth Park, Ascot

What was your avenue into hospitality?

I've been in the industry since I was 14 years old, when I worked as a silver service waiter at weekends and the summer holidays. I did a four-year degree in hospitality and one of those years was spent in industry – I wanted to come to London and I was lucky enough to get a placement at the Dorchester in 1981. I worked in the kitchen, the switchboard, engineering, HR – all these different departments – and I noticed there were no women anywhere. Front of house, F&B, reception – they all had men running around in morning suits.

I realised I wanted to work in events and I worked at the Dorchester in the conference and banqueting department. We held state banquets for the royals and Nelson Mandela, polo events for Princess Diana – events you wouldn't see anywhere else. I really wanted to be the first female banquet manager on Park Lane, but when the Dorchester was being refurbished I was made redundant. I went to the Hyde Park hotel [now the Mandarin Oriental] in Knightsbridge and the Park Lane on Piccadilly, but I got the call for that role at the Intercontinental on Park Lane. That gave me the foot on the ladder, before I returned to the Dorchester in 1994 as conference and banqueting director, which was always my dream.

Did you have a turning point in your career?

When the proposition of Coworth Park [part of the Dorchester Collection] came up it was just a derelict building. I was asked to go there as director of operations. I needed a bit of coaxing into it, because I'd been in central London all this time, but I loved the company and completely supported and believed in what it was doing. So in May 2009, pre-opening, I went there and worked from a Portakabin to oversee the build and create the team. It was the closest thing to opening my own hotel as I oversaw every little detail of the 250 acres.

What has been the best moment of your career?

One was obviously winning the Manager of the Year Catey in 1999, but the other was when I was director of operations at Coworth Park. I was basically doing the job to see whether or not I could cut the mustard for the general manager role, which I'd spent so long aspiring to. There was a Dorchester Collection manager retreat in Milan and it was announced I would step up to GM in front of all the senior team and executive committee at the conference. It had been discussed, but they hadn't told me – it came completely out of the blue!

Sally Russell, general manager, Harbour Hotels

What was your avenue into hospitality?

I fell in love with it when I was very young. I started on the floor as a waiter when I was 16 in my local village pub, and I've worked in the industry ever since. I stopped studying because I enjoyed the job so much. I've been very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and managed to progress. It's a great industry to move forward in quickly if you put in the effort and listen.

What's been the best moment of your career?

I have a number of people who have worked for me in the past and the best moment is knowing that they're now fantastic managers. When I can see somebody I've taken on, with little to no experience [who] has gone on to do the Aspiring Leaders Programme and are now very successful, it brings me so much pride to know we've helped.

Can you tell us about some of these talented people?

Somebody who used to work for Harbour Hotels and is now doing a great job is Anna Sirba. She's at Bodmin [Jail in Cornwall]. She won the Future General Manager of the Year award at Harbour Hotels and she's gone on to a general manager position.

There are also a number of women who worked for me. My operations manager, Matilda, did the Aspiring Leaders course a few years ago and she is aiming to become a general manager, which I think is amazing. I left her in charge in Brighton when I was in Bristol for eight weeks and she did a great job. Harbour Hotels as a whole has been really impressed with her, so it's nice to be able to give that experience to someone else.

How can we encourage more women into the industry?

I think a lot of people are looking at their maternity and paternity offering. I'm an older lady now, so the menopause and being able to discuss that openly or having some form of policy about it would really help keep experienced people in the profession.

Rachael Henley, general manager, the Fife Arms, Braemar, Aberdeenshire, a PoB hotel

What was your avenue into hospitality?

I've always wanted to work in hospitality. I moved to France when I was 18 because I wanted to become bilingual and in France hospitality as a profession is taken more seriously.

I started a part-time job as a waiter and absolutely loved it, then I went to Vatel [to study international hotel management] and was lucky enough to work in French Polynesia on an internship. I then went on a management day in Germany for Kempinski and was offered the chance to go to Dubai or Rwanda. I chose Rwanda and I've worked my way up from there.

Did you have a turning point in your career?

The best thing I ever did was go to Rwanda. It taught me so much about people management and how to get people to respond to you across different skill sets and languages. I think to be successful you need to know how to get people to respond to you and you need to understand people. I am very team-focused – without a team you can't achieve anything.

I came back to England when I was 26 and took a role as restaurant manager at the Idle Rocks in Cornwall and quickly moved up to food and beverage manager. I then went to Grantley Hall [in Ripon, North Yorkshire] as F&B manager. I came to the Fife Arms as hotel manager two years ago and became general manager in November 2022.

What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?

Whenever there is a freak weather incident Braemer is always featured in the news. In November 2021 we had Storm Arwen and we were completely cut off. We had no power, no water and no communication – neither did the village. We were trying to keep the hotel going and we became the hub for the village. It was important for me to support the community, so the staff pulled together and we cooked for everyone. That was a real challenge, but a positive one.

Who has helped you along the way?

Nick Hanson was my general manager at the Idle Rocks and he was really inspirational. He had a very calm, measured approach and was very people-focused. He was an incredible person to work for. From Artfarm there's our group operations director Adam Dyke. He headhunted me and has been on my journey with me the whole way through.

How can we encourage more women into the hotel industry?

I think women in management need to act as role models for the next generation and show you can be a woman, you can have a management position and have a successful personal life.

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