AAHOA’s take on the 2022 ForWard Annual Conference
by HEATHER CARNES
This week, American Hotel & Lodging Association’s 2022 ForWard Annual Conference took place at the Hilton Chicago, with more than 500 in attendance. The event recognizes women in the hospitality industry and aims to champion the next generation of leaders.
Over the course of two days, attendees heard important insights and candid remarks from some of the most successful women executives in the industry.
Twelve representatives from AAHOA attended the sold-out conference, including Lina Patel, Female Director Eastern Division, Nimisha Patel, former Female Director Western Division, and Jyoti Sarolia, AAHOA Ambassador, South Pacific Region, among many other influential women hoteliers from across the nation.
Some common themes throughout the event included being resourceful and eliminating waste in a post-COVID landscape, embracing technology, as well as Environmental Social Governance (ESG) and DE&I initiatives.
In a one-on-one interview on stage, Amanda Hite, STR’s president since 2011, spoke with Chip Rogers, AHLA President & CEO, about her unexpected career journey and how she ended up in the hospitality industry. Executives at STR championed her early on in her career at the organization, giving her the autonomy to make decisions to propel the business forward.
At one point when starting out at STR, when responding to Hite regarding a decision she wanted to make, an executive asked, “Are you going to sink the company with this decision?” To which she realized the answer was “no.” That put everything into perspective for Hite.
Through understanding that failure is an option, and that taking risks was encouraged, she leaned into the advice. She started to tell herself when it came to decision-making that she’s not going to sink the company with any one decision – and to simply do what she thinks is best for the organization. This became a pivotal point in her career, empowering her to make quick decisions without fearing the outcomes of her intuition.
In another panel, Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt, spoke of DE&I initiatives across our industry, saying it’s a “journey that doesn’t end in order to achieve complete inclusivity.” Hoplamazian said that the benefits of diversity and inclusion are “painfully obvious” for our industry and that we should be doing a lot more. Hoplamazian, known for his “Empathy + Action = Care” equation, said that empathy is one of the most important aspects of leadership. “Listen to understand, not to respond,” he reminded the audience. “Seek to ask follow-up questions for better understanding.”
Other leaders and executives in the industry shared insights on stage regarding how they got to where they are today, including the value of mentors along the way.
Jyoti Sarolia, AAHOA Ambassador, South Pacific Region, President & CEO, Ellis Hospitality Group, and 2022 ForWard Advisory Committee Member, sat down with Azim Saju, President & CEO, HDG Hotels, and AAHOA Lifetime Member, for a “Mentorship Match” session where they shared more about their meaningful mentor-mentee relationship.
“There’s no rulebook or playbook for mentorship,” Saju said. “But Jyoti showed up and she was enthusiastic about the opportunities.” They elaborated on the fact that mentorship is a two-way street. “Oftentimes, the mentee becomes the mentor,” Saju said.
“I like to be around like-minded women and learn from them,” Sarolia said in response to why she attended this year’s ForWard event. “We’re all very similar, experiencing similar challenges, and I take back what I learn here and the things they share and implement them in my business and personal life,” she said.
“The other thing I noticed while being here, is when you’re at a conference, typically there are laptops out, phones out, everyone is multitasking,” she said, “but at this conference, the women are very engaged, very attentive, and there’s so much respect in the room, and I like being a part of that.”
What is her simple but effective advice for women? “You need to show up,” she said. “If you want a seat at the table, you can’t have one without being present.”
In addition to showing up for opportunities, Sarolia mentioned that even though she didn’t feel prepared for half of the things she was doing in the industry and even at AAHOA, she said to speak and share from your perspective, regardless of how intimidating it can feel with all the smart people in the room with so much experience.
“But it’s the things that you’re uncomfortable doing that really make an impact and help you grow,” she said. “You’ll be surprised about how much what you say impacts others, contributes to the conversation, and is truly respected.”
On Day 2, Rob Palleschi, CEO of G6 Hospitality, sat down with Rogers for a conversation on leadership, DE&I initiatives, and mentorship over the course of his career. During the interview, Palleschi said that he “doesn’t get the mentorship thing.” Instead, he said that “we’re all in a position to lift each other up and champion each other – that’s simply what we do as leaders.”
The event ended with breakout sessions where attendees learned more about how to deliver powerful presentations, leadership growth opportunities, how to attract and build a better team and build resiliency in a post-pandemic organization, making the most of a candidate market, and financial literacy.
In a breakout session with Denise Thomas, President and Owner of The Effective Communication Coach, she reminded all the women in attendance that they do not have a weakness. As annual reviews have conditioned us to balance strengths with weaknesses, she simply said that we need to “stop expecting ourselves in others.” It’s through our diverse talents and contributions that we built cohesive teams that can tackle anything.
“We’re conditioned to think that we all have weaknesses,” Thomas said. “It’s simply a distraction from operating in your strength and power.”
The women of AAHOA left this year’s event renewed, empowered, and ready to take action. Thank you to our allies and partners at AHLA for bringing together such a powerful group of women to celebrate our achievements and create “ForWard Momentum” now and into the future.
To learn more and see additional photos from this year’s event, visit https://www.ahla.com/events/forward.
Heather Carnes is the Vice President, Marketing and Communications, for AAHOA. She can be reached at [email protected].