Women Leaders: Speak Up! (But Do This First)

The speakers for this year’s Boutique Design Power Players: Women Leaders in Hospitality Breakfast and Panel Discussion kicked off day two of the BDNY conference with words of wisdom for fellow females navigating the still male-dominated world of hospitality owners and developers. (Along with some funny and not-so-funny stories from their years in the industry.)

Suggesting tactics as simple as taking a prominent seat at the long table, the group stressed the importance of voicing your opinion throughout the process and confidently defending design decisions. For example, Yabu Pushelberg design director Marcia MacDonald said she sits next to the chairman in ownership meetings “whether they’ve asked me to or not, because I’m there to talk to him.”

But panelist Laura Benner—who lent an owner’s perspective to the discussion as senior vice president, hotel asset management, at NYC-based Colony Capital, Inc.—advised that it’s critically important to do your homework first.

“My biggest takeaway for designers is you have to understand hotel operations. You can’t spec something just because it looks nice. It has to last the test of time,” she said, citing myriad examples of guestroom choices that create extra work for housekeeping or don’t stand up to the rigors of daily use.

“As the owner, when I do design walks I make sure the GM, the housekeeper and engineering are there—and everybody has a voice,” Benner said. “We may not agree on everything, but I want their input. I want the designer to come back to me and say ‘but here’s why we picked this.’”

Laurie Miller, owner and principal of Chicago-based hospitality interiors firm Anderson/Miller, Ltd., echoed that central theme. “We all have to know what we’re doing, and have confidence in our voice. That’s why we’re being hired.”

Of course, not all client relationships are rosy, and the conversation pivoted to what can be done when things go sour. Miller drew applause when recounting her firm’s response to a three-project client who called her a choice, unflattering word in an email to a supplier. “We had to decide to resign from those projects, because you don’t treat others that way,” she said.

Another challenge addressed by the panel was a lack of respect for women in family businesses or partnerships. Allison Barry, principal of the art consultancy founded by her father, Kevin Barry Fine Art, said work experience and lessons learned outside the family business at the start of her career were critical for establishing credibility and earning respect in the industry. Elaine Molinar, an architect and managing partner (along with her husband) of Snøhetta’s U.S. offices, shared stories of being asked by prospective clients if her role at the meeting would be note-taking—then relishing their response when she began the presentation and summarily demonstrated her expertise.

For women at the beginning of their hospitality careers, Tru by Hilton global brand head Talene Staab advocates taking full advantage of company mentoring programs to build expertise quickly and glean insights from those in leadership positions. “Not in a mentoring culture? Reach out to everyone around you and invite them to coffee,” she said. “Be proactive and try to learn from everyone.”

Sponsored by: Faulkner + Locke and Floor and Décor

The 2019 BDNY Women Leaders panel included: Allison Barry, principal, Kevin Barry Fine Art; Laura Benner, senior vice president, hotel asset management, Colony Capital, Inc.; Marcia MacDonald, design director, Yabu Pushelberg; Laurie Miller, principal, Anderson/Miller, Ltd.; Elaine Molinar, partner, Snøhetta; Talene Staab, global brand head, Tru by Hilton; and moderator Mary Scoviak, editor in chief, Boutique Design.