When asked how she ended up becoming the first and only female GM in Saudi Arabia, Hessa Al Mazrou is emphatic: “Because I deserved it.”
She has had a long history in the hospitality industry, initially with the Al Hokair hotel group. She originally started off in the PR and communication field in 2004, noting that she has always been a “marketeer by nature”, but has now held a position as GM for over two years within the “exciting” hospitality sector.
Al Mazrou is a part of the ‘Women at Accor Generation’, a 10,000-strong global network that was launched to “overcome gender stereotypes, promote gender equality and offer support to women within the Accor Group”. The hotel brand recently re-launched the scheme in November of this year, renaming it to ‘RiiSE’, and confirmed its desire to “promote diversity and renewed its commitment to diversity and inclusion”.
During the first few months of 2017, Al Mazrou reveals, she was offered the opportunity to become GM of Novotel Suites Riyadh Olaya Hotel, which she says was given as a “challenge to prove my capability”. One of the biggest aspects that she felt she had to overcome was proving that she can “run the position perfectly and compete with the other men in this field”, and adds that first impressions from some guests is still often surprise. However, she firmly believes that it is a “nice surprise”, and has found “great support” from the guests who offer her “luck and encouragement”. “Comments like these from my guests definitely make me feel even more encouraged to work,” she adds.
GROWING OPPORTUNITIES IN SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia has long faced criticism for its stance on women’s rights, but as a result of its ‘Vision 2030’ plan there has been a slew of widespread initiatives to increase the participation of women in the workplace. Other changes include women being able to join the military, drive, and visit sports arenas and cinemas.
Al Mazrou says there is a “huge number” of opportunities for women who “want to be a leader in the hospitality sector”. She also believes that her experience sets a good example for other women aspiring to enter leadership roles. “I think the leaders in this sector such as AccorHotels, Al Hokair and other hotel chain businesses want to give opportunities to Saudi women if they are willing to take up the challenge”, she says.
Al Mazrou believes there is “no one who will give you a chance if you don’t deserve it” and says she considers herself “very eager to learn and to take up challenges”. She points to her family as main source of inspiration, and says it is with their support that she was encouraged to realise her full potential. She goes on to say that the hotel industry is a actually a very “feminine zone by nature”, and women really have the opportunity to show their “feminine signature within and through the service that they provide”.
Worth mentioning are the events Al Mazrou has participated in for women’s empowerment. The first was in November 2017, in Abu Dhabi, where she gave a speech about her experience and story of becoming the first female Saudi GM. She says she was greatly supported at the event and “felt a great amount of pride”. Another was in the city of Jeddah, during the first few months of 2018, and was the second edition of AccorHotels’ Women’s Empowerment and Integration Forum which looks to inspire a new generation of young Saudi women to reach the “highest level” of professional development. “It was very special for me as I had a opportunity to speak with other Saudi women working for AccorHotels,” she says, “and I was yet again filled with a great amount of pride when they said they see me as a great role model. I was so happy when I heard that.”
Overall, Al Mazrou says she was “delighted with the opportunity” and considers herself to have been “very lucky to get such a chance like this”. She adds that Accor has supported her with “knowledge, kindness and training”. She also says she couldn’t be “more proud working with such a great team”, adding that senior staff members have always given her their full support. “They also have the best intentions when it comes to my learning and training, and I believe AccorHotels are different when it comes to the service and how it facilitates their guests. It has been an outstanding experience working with them.”
Al Mazrou thinks women have to believe more in themselves and their capability. “You have to work to prove that you deserve the position you are aspiring to. We have an arabic quote, which translates to ‘the more you work, the more you get’.” She hopes to eventually become a GM for a British hotel in Saudi Arabia, and concludes by saying she wishes to continue to be a “great role model for other Saudi women”, and set “a good example for them so they can achieve even more than what they are doing now.”
BACK IN THE UK
Closer to home in the UK, Jacqui McMillan is also a member of the Accor’s ‘RiiSE’ scheme, and is based in the “male-dominated environment” of Canary Wharf. McMillan originally began her career with AccorHotels as a rooms division manager at Novotel Glasgow in 2000 and has also held general manager positions at Ibis Glasgow City, Novotel Glasgow, Novotel Bristol and Novotel Reading and recently as GM of Novotel London Blackfriars.
Having worked in Canary Wharf since April of 2018 she notes that due to the “nature of the businesses that are here” some guests and business people she meets “assume they are going to meet a man”. “I have walked down to say hello and introduce myself to them you can actually this look on their face which is like ‘oh really, you’re the GM?’,” she adds. McMillan says that there is this assumption that GM of Canary Wharf “should be a man in a shirt and tie”, so high end contractors looking to work with the the business often “get a shock”.
This is just one of the challenges she says women in leadership roles can face in the UK, and recalls two years of her career when she was working in London for Accor as one of the only female GMs in the mid-scale sector. She notes that this made things “very interesting in meetings”, as it could be a “genuine challenge at times to be heard as a woman”. “When you are in a room with 14 guys they can be just like peacocks. Whereas for women you tend to sit back just a little bit more, but in turn are able to listen more. We don’t need to be the loudest person in the room.”
However, McMillan is adamant that there are inherent strengths women have such as the ability to “better engage with their male and female staff”. She can also tell when she walks into a hotel if the property is managed by a man or a woman. She adds with a laugh: “You can tell immediately, and I am not the only one who thinks this.” Attention to detail is one of “strengths that we have as women”. “I think we can see things that other people don’t, and it’s not just about something being pretty.”
Is being done by the hospitality industry to appoint women to leadership role? “We are getting there, but a lot of companies still have a long way to go.” However, she says this shouldn’t stop anyone, and it is always about “pushing yourself” and “never being afraid of doing something that you don’t think you can do”.