ABTN speaks to Sue Williams, general manager of the The Bath Priory, London’s Sydney House and Gidleigh Park in Devon, and one of the few women to be appointed Master Inn Holder.
What do you think the hotel business is like for women?
It is one of those industries where I believe the opportunities are equal. I just sometimes think that their domestic lifestyle arrangements stop a big number of them joining the chaps at the top of the business. I do believe to be a good leader and effective manager, you have to be so very dedicated, so it does take a big chunk of your time. It’s definitely a 40-hour working week. It takes up a bit more than that. I think that sometimes if ladies have to juggle families and hours, that’s where it becomes challenging. If you take the family scenario out of it, it’s definitely an industry where you can excel as much as the next chap.
My happy scenario this year is I’ve just been awarded Master Inn Holder status – it’s all tied in with the liveries. Liveries existed in the square mile in London way back in the 14th and 15th century to regulate trade. They were very powerful at that time. With bridges and railways the whole dynamics have changed, so the power of the liveries diminished. Now a lot of them are ceremonial. For the Master Inn Holders, we’re charged with charitable works for the industry and, very importantly, educational initiatives. It’s mentoring the next generation coming through.
There are approximately 100 Master Inn Holders, and only around 10 are ladies. I’m very proud of course to be amongst them. It lasts for a lifetime. You need to be an acting general manager and have a successful track record behind you. You have to be engaged in industry initiatives and you have to go through a formal application process and interview.
Do you think it’s harder to reach the upper ranks of the hotel industry as a woman?
I wouldn’t say it’s harder to do, it’s just whether they can project themselves forwards and imagine how their life will be in a busy hotel management role.
Do you think juggling home and work life is challenging?
It is challenging, yes. I think there are a lot more lady general managers out there than we imagine. I have a fair few friends who are lady general managers, but it is true if you go to the General Managers Conference, a three-day event that the Master Inn Holders organise, you’ll be in a room of about 350 general managers and it is true to say there are a lot of suited gents. I don’t know what the proportion is, but it does strike me that of 100% at least 85% are chaps and 15% are ladies. They don’t seem to come forward for the big events but they’re out there doing it, I think.
Why do you think they don’t put themselves to the fore?
I’m not sure. Just quietly putting their heads down and getting on with it.
Do you think the hotel business could make it easier for women and for working parents?
We have a lot of support as general managers and in actual fact the work on the way up can be incredibly flexible. One lady might leave her position as a deputy manager to have a baby, but actually decide that she might like to come back and work as an events manager or reception manager. The hours can be more regular, or more flexible. Overall I think the industry for both parents is pretty good.
[However, as a woman], if you do embark on having a family, it does make it tough getting to the top, unless you have a husband who genuinely wants to work from home, or take a part-time job. It still does remain weighted to the chaps.
In your work with the Master Inn Holders will you be working to encourage more women to join?
Absolutely, I’d love to use my position now to try and get more people to take up some of these more senior positions. I’m not mentoring anyone at the moment, but I’m hoping to get that opportunity in a year or two’s time, at a senior level. You have to earn your own stripes.
At the moment I get involved with local schools and with universities, speaking to students or giving them work experience and trying to inspire them while they’re here. One of the initiatives that is in the industry at the moment is the 14-19 diplomas. These are becoming embedded in education and they are for a number of industries. There is now a hospitality diploma. It is taught in schools and colleges from the age of 14 to 19.
The idea is that when people leave school they will have some of the skills that a recruiter is looking for, and some comprehension of what that industry might be leading them towards. What they needed was some champions for these diplomas and I went up to London to an induction process to become one. I can now go out there and speak to different schools.
I held a day where I brought the teachers into the Bath Priory hotel – a group of about 20 from the south-west – to convey to them what it is we are looking for as employers and to answer some of their questions about the industry. Some of these teachers have not got a lot of hotel industry experience, yet they’re going to be delivering the diplomas, so I wanted to be the one to bridge the gap. It’s largely a craft-based industry, so the whole diploma route makes sense to me… We want aptitude over experience, initially.
What would you say to young people looking to become general managers?
It’s important to get a good wide range of experience within a hotel. It’s invaluable to you to look back and be able to draw on your abilities to run a function, restaurant or reception desk. It’s important to have a broad handle on the business. A junior coming in would be quite wise to find themselves a management internship, where they move every six months to a new department.
I did one with Concord Hotels. I knew I never wanted to be a chef, but the fact that I did five months in a kitchen was invaluable. And housekeeping – I knew I didn’t want to be making beds all my life, but as a general manager it’s no use standing there saying I want that room cleaned in 10 minutes when it’s a 40 minute job.
What should employers be thinking about to encourage women to reach the higher levels of management?
We should be trying to work on the hospitality industry’s image. I think it has high and lows. We do work irregular hours, but a lot of people will say they are happy to be working on bank holidays as they don’t want to be stuck on the road with the rest of the country. I would much rather go away mid-week. There are some real pluses to it. It’s quite hard to sell that to the youth coming in.
Somehow we do need to work on building a better reputation for our industry. It’s not about glamour. You may work in fabulous surroundings, but to make them work it is a lot of hard work, but incredible rewarding. I love it, and the people you come across is fascinating. You never know who is going to walk through the door.