Across the industry, strong women leaders are breaking barriers and reaching new heights
by AMY BELL
We hope you’re wearing shoes, because women are crashing through glass ceilings all across the hospitality industry. It’s no secret that the hotel industry historically has been male dominated. Even today, women are still largely underrepresented in executive-level positions.
According to a Castell Project hospitality leadership report, only one in 22 CEOs and one in nine presidents were women in 2018. Fortunately, this trend is shifting, slowly but surely, as an increasing number of determined professional women are stepping into hotel leadership positions.
We recently had the privilege to speak with five inspirational women leaders in hospitality. Keep reading to learn more about these fierce women, their motivations and aspirations, and what drives them on their leadership journey.
Komal (Tina) Patel, Managing Director, ALKO Hotels, AAHOA Director (various roles) 2012-2019
Tina Patel is the Managing Partner at ALKO Hotels, a prominent hospitality management company in Eugene, OR, and also serves on the AAHOA Independent Hoteliers Committee. She and her husband, Al, moved to the U.S. from India in the late 1980s with little more than the clothes on their backs. Today, Tina owns, operates, and manages multiple franchised hotels across the Northwest region, including flagship brands such as Marriott, Hilton, IH, and IHG. She was also the recipient of AAHOA’s 2019 Outstanding Woman Hotelier of the Year Award.
When it comes to career achievements, Tina points to when she and her husband took the leap to create their first franchised hotel. “That step opened the doors for us and other franchises,” she explained. “Another huge success was being able to create a successful hotel management company.”
As an active member of AAHOA, Tina is thrilled to see more women rising to hospitality leadership roles. “AAHOA has seen a significant increase in involvement from women hoteliers,” she added. “More women are getting involved in the community and participating in boards and committees.”
Even so, she believes there always will be challenges for women pursuing hospitality leadership roles. Her words of advice to these women? “The way to succeed is to have perseverance and cultivate support with other women hoteliers. Always know what you want and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Sarah Gulati, Attorney & Counselor at Law, Gulati Law, P.L.
Sarah Gulati is an accomplished attorney who helps clients purchase and sell hotels across Florida. She also assists hoteliers in the resolution of lawsuits and other legal matters. As an AAHOA Member, Sarah is an integral part of lobbying efforts for hotel owners’ rights. For three years in a row, she has been elected as a Super Lawyer™.
When her family moved from the UK to the U.S. in 2000, Sarah’s father opened a hotel. “I was hooked, first helping my father in his independent hotel, and then assisting other family members in theirs,” she recalled. “After starting my law firm, I was able to help clients buy, sell, and develop businesses and hotels, and I never questioned my path.”
In recent years, Sarah has seen a surge of women hospitality leaders. “Being part of AAHOA’s women hotelier’s focus group for the past few years, we have seen an amazing increase in the activity of women,” she said. “As this nation is changing as a whole, women are voicing the power and value they bring.”
Sarah is proud to be entering the 10th year of her law practice and title company, which she started from scratch. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, particularly in an industry dominated by men. “I believe entering a field in which men are sometimes more highly esteemed (both in law and hospitality) can be an intimidating task, and I have had to work doubly hard to earn respect,” she said. “Luckily, I have formed relationships with many people in the industry, both men and women, who have seen the value I bring and assisted me in my success.”
Jagruti Panwala, President & CEO, Wealth Protection Strategies, AAHOA Past Chair
As the Immediate Past Chair of AAHOA, Jagruti Panwala was the first chairwoman in the association’s history. Born in Surat, India, Jagruti immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1991. She graduated from college with degrees in finance and economics.
“I worked my way through college in the financial services industry,” Jagruti said. “During a meeting with a prospective client, I noticed that one of the independent hotels he owned and operated was underperforming. I saw an opportunity to invest in that property and make it profitable. I took the idea to my father, and we put together a plan and secured the loans to buy the property.”
When she wasn’t studying, Jagruti helped run the hotel. “With a lot of hard work, we made it profitable,” she said. “It’s immensely satisfying to see your hard work pay off.”
In 1999, Jagruti founded Wealth Protection Strategies Inc., an investment management company specializing in succession planning. She and her husband, Ahmed, own multiple hotels throughout the Northeastern U.S.
In addition to her business successes, Jagruti is extremely proud of her work with AAHOA to empower women hoteliers. “Many first-generation hoteliers operated their properties as a wife-and-husband team,” she explained. “AAHOA recognized that women wanted professional development and networking opportunities, and we worked to create those.”
Today, the women hoteliers session at AAHOACON draws the largest crowd. “At our 2019 convention in San Diego, the session attracted over 1,000 women,” she said. “Through our ambassadors, positions on the board, and committees, AAHOA creates many avenues for women hoteliers to get involved in the association, expand their network, and make vital contributions to the direction of the association.”
Dorraine Lallani, Director of Asset Management, Westmont Hospitality Group
After graduating with a bachelor’s in business administration in May 1984, Dorraine Lallani took a job with Westmont Hospitality Group, where she continues to work today. “At the time, it was just the principals of the company, one other employee and me,” she recalled.
In 2006, Dorraine left Westmont to join JLL in their Select Service group handling Investment Sales. In 2009, she returned to Westmont and took on the asset management of the company’s large economy-branded portfolio. She also is a member of the Board of an economy brand that Westmont controls and has spent the past 11 years as the asset manager for Westmont’s investment in that brand.
Dorraine ended up in the hospitality industry by accident. “When I graduated from college, I called a CPA I worked for in the summers, and she told me about the position with Westmont,” she recalled. “I never dreamed I’d be here all these years later.”
Mentoring is extremely important to Dorraine, and she considers the long-lasting relationships she has developed throughout her career one of her greatest achievements. “I’m proud of the women I have mentored and continue to mentor today,” she said.
While she has seen some progress over the years, Dorraine said there is still an imbalance between men and women leaders in hospitality. “While we have come a long way, there is still a long way to go,” she stresses. “When I first attended industry conferences, there were so few women. While the number of women has certainly increased over the years, there is still a lack of women in the most senior roles in our industry. More often than I like, I still experience being the only woman in a meeting. It shouldn’t be that way in any industry in this day and time.”
Alexandra Jaritz, SVP of Brand Management, Asia Pacific, Hilton
Alexandra Jaritz is focused on evolving Hilton’s brands to offer superior value to owners and guests across the Asia-Pacific. Before her current role, Jaritz served as the global brand head of Tru by Hilton.
“Developing and launching the Tru by Hilton brand was one of the highlights of my career, and it is all because of the team,” Alexandra recalled. “I always call it magic that our team could successfully create this brand from scratch and bring it to life in under two years.”
Alexandra was born into the hospitality industry. “It’s 100% true when I say I’ve never known life outside of hotels and hospitality,” she said. “It’s part of my heritage and DNA.”
Originally from Germany, Alexandra and her family moved from country to country managing different hotels. “I had the wonderful opportunity to experience life in seven countries as I was growing up. I’ve always loved the buzz of hotels with team members and guests coming and going every day.”
Since Alexandra earned a bachelor’s in hotel administration from Cornell University, she said the industry has evolved to embrace more women leaders. “At Hilton, across the board, from middle management to executive level, we’ve seen an increase in the number of women leaders. As an industry, we are more conscious of ensuring there is diversity in our business.”
She believes mentorship is another driving force behind the change. “The reason there has been an increase in women leaders is the presence of visionary leaders – men and women – who have stepped in to provide mentorship to young women professionals,” she said. “I speak from experience, having been fortunate to have had mentors at various levels. All across the world, we’re seeing women finding their voices. It’s a positive cycle: the more women leaders speak up, the more they empower others to do the same.”
But Wait… There’s More
AAHOA is fortunate to count a growing contingent of strong women among its membership, supporters and advocates. Here, just a handful of them offer some insight into what developments they’ve seen and what advice they’d offer to other women in this industry.
“Women have always comprised a large portion of the travel workforce, but in recent years we’ve seen more and more women taking on important leadership roles – opportunities that weren’t always widely available. From managing hotels to leading executive teams, it’s encouraging to see so many qualified women at the helm of our industry.”
Tori Emerson Barnes, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy, U.S. Travel Association
“As a wife and mother, dealing with ever-changing priorities, multi-tasking, problem-solving, nurturing, offering support and words of encouragement, and comforting and caring for others seem to be instinctive. These same instincts have served me well during my nearly 30-year career in the hospitality industry.”
Lynn D. Minges, President & Chief Executive Officer, NC Restaurant & Lodging Association
“While the industry as a whole is still deeply unbalanced, it’s heartening to see a growing number of female leaders in hospitality. The more women that have a seat at the table, the more women they will be able to empower to achieve their career goals. Trust your inner voice! Once you learn to trust yourself, it becomes much easier to be relentless and persistent, championing your own results. Demonstrate eagerness and drive by being the first to raise your hand and use your voice, as perception truly is reality. Never underestimate yourself!”
Dee Patel, Managing Director, The Hermitage Hotel
“Now is the time for innovation in the hospitality industry. Studies show that companies with female executive leadership excel in this and other key performance areas. It is imperative for women to lean in on redefining what the future of hospitality looks like.”
Andrea Foster, SVP Development, Marcus Hotels & Resorts, and 2020-21 Chair, AHLA’s ForWard