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A hotel group’s journey to improving gender balance

At a time when gender equality is still seeping through the hospitality industry, Ireland’s largest hotel operator, the Dalata Hotel Group, is set to have a gender equal board from 1 January 2022. With gender diversity being championed at a senior level, Hotel Owner speaks to Dalata’s board about the importance of gender equality.

The board of Dalata Hotel Group is set to become gender equal once its CFO, Carol Phelan, takes on her role next month. Phelan says that being female is “only one element” of who she is. However, a CFO and a Plc director who happens to be female is unfortunately “statistically far less common than it should be”. Phelan says “I hope that my being female and having these roles helps someone else to see that it is possible.”

Dalata Hotel Group’s portfolio currently consists of 29 owned hotels, 12 leased hotels and three management contracts with a total of 9,161 bedrooms. Dermot Crowley, CEO of Dalata, reveals that 42% of the group’s executive team are female, and that its management teams across the hotels comprise 55% of females and 45% of males. Meanwhile, Dalata’s latest graduate intake is interestingly 80% female and 20% male, although its general managers within the group consist of only 31% females and 59% males.

So why did the hotel group decide to include gender equality across its board? John Hennessy, non-executive chairman of Dalata, explains that gender equality has always been a “hot topic” for him, not as a box ticking exercise, but because he has “always had a genuine belief that any kind of diversity enhances a board”, particularly gender diversity.

As a group that started out with a board of six men and only one woman put together by other advisors, Hennessy says: “I made it one of my targets to improve gender balance on the board over a period of time. Obviously, it takes time to do that, but I said many times that my view is that at least 50% of the time, the best person for a job is female”. He asserts that while you need the best people to fill positions, “you also want to make sure that if those best people are women, that they have a fair shake at it, and that the playing field is level.”

Additionally, Phelan adds that diversity and inclusion in the workplace are “absolutely vital”. She says: “We need to see and hear from people that reflect society with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives to shape better, more nuanced collaboration and decision making. With our gender equal board, we are now set up to even better reflect the profile of our communities, our customers and our employees.”

Benefits of having a gender equal board

Diversity is something that “permeates the group” at the board level and, as Hennessy explains, women bring “different perspectives, different ways of looking at things, and different approaches”. He highlights that “you have a richer environment when you’ve got difference, as long as it’s a positive difference, and in our case it is. Women bring a lot of things that men don’t, and men bring a lot of things that women don’t, so when you add it together, you get a better group and it’s diverse”.

Meanwhile, Crowley adds that diversity and inclusion are crucial because having a diverse organisation “better reflects the society in which you’re operating”, therefore Dalata will have a “much better understanding” of its customers. Additionally, Crowley emphasises that you have to have inclusivity on top of diversity. “Gender balance, and different races and different nationalities are important, but people have to feel included within the company as well. There’s a huge advantage for the company both from an employee perspective, recruitment, customer and cultural perspective, if there’s a focus on diversity and inclusivity,” he adds.

With diversity and inclusivity at the forefront of the group, Crowley says Dalata has a “far better balanced workforce and therefore we open ourselves up to a fair, better recruitment tool, and we can anticipate needs better”. He adds that “when you’ve got a balanced workforce, in terms of gender, in terms of race, nationality and interests, you’re more likely to understand the business you’re dealing with”.

Meanwhile, Phelan shares that the Dalata leadership has assisted in removing any barriers that would have prevented her from being able to “contribute effectively.” An example she reflects on is the additional flexibility she was provided as a parent of young children. “Figuring out how to support people in all their glorious diversity with their own different individual challenges and responsibilities is critical to ensuring we allow everyone to lead balanced lives and shape their workplaces and their communities for the better” she says.

Advice for creating gender equality

Hennessy has three recommendations for companies to include gender equality in their business. “First of all, you need to actually say it and to actually call it out as something you want to do so that everybody involved in the organisation, and externally, knows you’re doing it, and you’re accountable for it. So it’s not just a silent objective, it’s actually stated,” he shares.

Secondly, he emphasises that businesses must be conscious that there are “all sorts of biases and prejudices built into ourselves and the systems that we operate”. He clarifies: “You can have unconscious bias, i.e you don’t even know you have it among people and among decision makers. Therefore, I think you have to design your processes with an awareness of the fact that there may be all sorts of factors built into a system that you need to challenge in order to make sure that the playing field is level for everybody.”

Lastly, Hennessy encourages organisations to involve women in the appointments that are being made in the organisation because “that will help to eliminate any unconscious bias”. He adds that “even if the organisation doesn’t have as many people at a senior level as they would like to have, you have to be a little bit creative about this and you might involve outside assistance if you don’t have people at the right level”.

Biggest challenges

With gender equality being something the Dalata Hotel Group is tackling, the next challenge for the group is the inflationary pressures resulting from a surge in utility and labour costs as a result of current shortages. Meanwhile, given the current state of the hospitality industry, the group’s biggest challenge remains to be the presence of Covid and “knowing what restrictions are around the corner”. In the UK especially, “the availability of talent is a huge challenge for the industry”, Crowley says.

“We’re not suffering as badly because we made a conscious decision at the start of Covid to protect all of our management teams, and to protect the hotels and as many people as possible,” Crowley explains. While staff were on furlough, Dalata “did a huge amount of engagement” through online training, online engagement and well-being programmes. “As a result of that, we have suffered less in terms of the availability of labour than the industry as a whole, but it obviously is a big challenge for us,” he says.

To tackle the recruitment issues being felt by the industry, Crowley suggests the best thing to do is to “treat people correctly, give them career paths and treat them as human beings. It’s as important to treat the person who might be processing an invoice in an office or cleaning a bedroom as important as your most talented general manager because ultimately, they’re all people and we’re a people industry.”

He adds: “People asked me what my priorities are as I came in as CEO and the number one priority is people in the hospitality industry. If you live that and you believe it, people start noticing it and then you’ve got less difficulty in recruiting than your competition, but it’s something that has to be at the forefront when you come in every morning.”

What’s next for the hotel group?

Having recently opened a hotel in Glasgow, the Dalata Hotel Group revealed it is opening two hotels in Manchester early next year, as well as a hotel in Bristol, another hotel in Glasgow, and two hotels in Dublin. “We’ve got four other hotels which are either under construction or about to go under construction, and I’d love for us to start our expansion into New York as well,” Crowley notes.

“Probably more important than all of that is we need to get our existing hotels back up and running to where they were in 2019,” he concludes. He also adds that it’s also important to “have a bit of fun” and that people working within the group should “feel fulfilled when they’re walking in here, and as part of their overall life. That’s not easy to do, so that’s the big task ahead.”

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