By Amy M. Gregory – PhD, RRP

As the sun rose and began to warm the cool March morning, the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College campus came alive in a new way on Friday, March 20th. For this morning began the first Women’s Hospitality & Leadership Forum. Imagine 300 female hospitality industry students and practitioners gathering in one location to discuss leadership excellence…the chatter, the laughter, the clicking of heels in the parking lot, the sidewalks and the hallways, and then the hush that came over the crowd as the event began….this group meant business and they were there to learn, to network, and to have fun. By all accounts, that is exactly what happened that day and what is planned for next year’s 2nd Annual Women’s Hospitality & Leadership Forum.

What began as a self-proclaimed “small idea” became a dream come true for many women, including the UCF NSMH Chapter President, Jacinda Turner. According to Ms. Turner, the occasion was spawned from a request for an event that would assist the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality (NSMH), a domestic student organization with a thriving and active chapter at the University of Central Florida (UCF), in accomplishing their mission to aid in the advancement of minorities in the hospitality industry. The members of the organization were looking for guidance as to how to carve their paths through the hospitality industry, learn networking skills, and build soft skills that could help them throughout their careers. Under the guidance of Dr. Cynthia Mejia, the UCF NSMH Chapter faculty advisor, and with solid support of Dr. Abraham Pizam, Dean of UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, the event began to come to life.

With two key note speakers, Nancy Johnson (President, Johnson Hospitality Motivation) and Sarah King (Executive Vice President, Wyndham Vacation Ownership) on board, and five distinguished industry leaders (Leslie Menichi – Vice President, Rosen Hotels & Resorts; Vail Brown – Vice President, Smith Travel Research; Thea Sargent – Director, The Walt Disney Company; Barbara Bowden – Managing Director, Loews Hotels at Universal Studios; LaShawn Cartwright – Chick-fil-A) to guide the breakout sessions, the event was taking shape. Intentionally set to occur during March, Women’s History Month, the agenda for the one day conference was established. Breakout sessions on Organizational Awareness, Relationship Management & Negotiation, Change Management, and Managing Your Professional Image were flanked by the two key note sessions. The day’s events would conclude with a panel session including Nancy Johnson, Sarah King, Vail Brown, and Sally Setta (President, Red Lobster) in a thoughtful discussion on Carving a Career Path: Proactive Strategies for Advancement. The dream was becoming reality, but one question remained “will people come?”. In short, yes; they came!

Advertising and promotion of the event began in January and the event sold out weeks in advance. Women from all segments of the hospitality industry, most from the central Florida area, came alone or in groups. Some paid the nominal conference fee on their own and others were paid for by their company. Sponsors signed up to support the event (Gold Sponsor, Customer Count provided lunch; Silver Sponsors (Chick-fil-A, Hilton Grand Vacations, HSMAI, NACE, Shepard) and Bronze Sponsors (AHLEI, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, iBrand, JDRQuest & Co., UCF Fairwinds Alumni Center, and Valic) receiving registrations, visibility and networking booths. In addition, two organizations provided their members with continuing education credits for attending the conference.

Dean Abraham Pizam welcomed the 300 conference attendees by dispelling the myth of the glass ceiling and borrowing from a well-known advertising campaign, telling the audience that they certainly “have come a long way.” Reflecting back on the evolution of the hospitality industry and looking toward the future, Dean Pizam thanked the group for assembling and wished them well as they enjoyed the day’s events.

Sarah King modestly took the stage and led the audience in a “girlfriend chat”, sharing her career path and encouraging women to support each other, be confident, advocate and “take the lid off the jar” to find your full potential. Attendees of the event were riveted to their seats and engaged in learning from the speakers and from one another. The breakout sessions were fully subscribed with attendees choosing two of the four tracks to attend. Individuals could be seen strategizing over which session to attend, often splitting up among various sessions and then reconvening to share what they learned. The buzz about the event was positive and energetic. Despite the full agenda and a delicious lunch, the auditorium was yet again packed as Nancy Johnson took the stage. In a heart-felt talk about her career journey, challenges, setbacks and successes, Nancy reminded the audience that 70% of the workers in the hotel, catering and tourism sectors in the United States are females. She encouraged the audience not to underestimate hope and to “keep your internal spark alive, as someone will see it and you will be given opportunities.” Finally, the executive panel (Sarah King, Nancy Johnson, Vail Brown, and Sally Setta) rounded out the session by putting a ribbon around it all and discussing personal strategies for success.

When all was complete, the attendees and speakers had gone, and the event was wrapped up, the members of NSMH and their faculty lead reflected back on a job well done. The event came together, sold out in record time, had expansive support of industry in the form of active speaking roles, sponsorships, and attendance, and people left asking if there would be another event next year. Dr. Cynthia Mejia, the faculty lead on the event said “Based on the overwhelming positive response and the apparent need, we plan to continue this event in the future. Next year’s event will carry on the mission of this inaugural event — to bring together industry leaders, employees and students to promote leadership excellence among women in the hospitality and tourism management industries.”

Amy M. Gregory – PhD, RRPDr. Gregory is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management where she is responsible for teaching various lodging related courses, developing the timeshare curriculum, and furthering academic research in the segment.