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More than 25 of Atlanta's Top Hotels Are Run by Women

By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 9, 2009 - The number of women becoming general managers of Atlanta hotels is growing rapidly, those among its ranks say, and the metro area may be a leader in gender diversity in the industry.

More than 25 of the metro area's top lodges are run by women -- from Tracy Johnson at the Holiday Inn Gwinnett to Erica Qualls at the Marriott Marquis, Atlanta's largest hotel at more than 1,600 rooms.

And more are coming. Danni Williams, who started her career with Marriott Corp. in 1981, was named general manager earlier this week at the Renaissance Hotel downtown. Valerie Ferguson, a former general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, is coming back to the city to become head of the Loews Hotel in Midtown, which is slated to open in spring 2010.

That's a contrast to years past when the position was almost exclusively filled by men, industry leaders said. The long hours -- general managers usually work 15 hour days and often on weekends -- were not considered "family friendly" for women.

"When I would go to general manager meetings, I would be the only woman there in a room of 100 men," said Marylouise Fitzgibbon, general manager of the recently opened W Buckhead. "And that was five years ago.

"Now when I go, at least 10 percent are women," she said.

Hotels are big business for metro Atlanta. They are a critical part of the area's $11.4 billion hospitality industry, which draws tourists, businesspeople and conventioneers of all stripes. At 93,000 rooms and growing, Atlanta's hotel industry is one of the biggest in the nation.

Mark Woodworth, president of PKF Hospitality Research, said increasing the number of women in the general manager ranks has been a priority for the past two decades.

"There is no question that over the last 20 to 25 years in the domestic lodging industry, many, if not most, of the major hotel companies have had proactive initiatives in making sure that females in the organizations have opportunities to reach the highest levels," he said.

Qualls said hotel companies -- especially those dedicated to diversity -- recognized early on that because women were making up more and more of the lodging industry work force, it was important for leadership to reflect that staffing.

"In my first year in the industry, my general manager heard me say, 'I think I want your job,' she said of working in Santa Clara, Calif. "He said, 'That could absolutely happen.'"

When Ruth Benjamin became a general manager for Hyatt Hotels six years ago, there were only a handful of women in the position within the company. Today that number has almost doubled because of Hyatt's management initiatives, she said.

"We are definitely becoming more prominent," Benjamin, general manager at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead, said of the Atlanta number. She said Atlanta has probably attracted so many because of the city's low cost of living and mostly good weather.

"It is unusual to have this many in one area," said Benjamin, who said there were few female managers in Chicago, the city in which she worked before coming to Atlanta about a year ago.

Fitzgibbon, 35, said the increase may also be a generational function. To be competitive today, workers have to be able to multi-task, which has erased the notion that a woman can't simultaneously raise a family and have a time-consuming career.

"Companies are changing their views on work-life balance," said Fitzgibbon, who also is an adjunct professor in the hospitality school at Georgia State University.

Women mentoring other women also has fueled the trend, the leaders said. Gabriele Webster, general manager for Hotel Indigo in Midtown, said she had a woman mentor who helped set her on the right career path and she is likewise doing the same for her field director, Susan Zuppardo. Fitzgibbon said part of her motivation for teaching at GSU is to help groom the next generation of female general managers.

Like any change in the perceived traditional makeup of a job, there are downsides to women moving into the general manager role, the women said. Because the job has traditionally been filled by men, women general managers often get a surprised look on a guest's face when they are introduced as a hotel's leader, Webster said.

"They'll ask for Mr. Webster, and I'll say this is Gabriele Webster, and then they're shocked," she said.

But there are advantages to being a woman general manager, too, she said. She thinks women can be more empathetic to customers and staff and that unhappy guests temper their ire when the find out the head honcho is a woman.

"They are not quite as harsh as they would be with a man," she said.


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