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Wo-maning the desk
January 31, 2013 COMMENT comment
     
Wo-maning the desk
By Juhi Baveja
 
 
A relic of the mid-20th century, in a bid to make women travellers and the elderly feel comfortable, women-only hotels were opened up in some pockets of metropolitan cities around the world. However, the idea fizzled out soon enough. Since then, the scenario has changed rapidly, creating many opportunities in the hospitality industry for women
willing to put in the hard work that is necessary to make it to the top. The changing face of the industry has aided women in rising through the ranks – from serving behind the scenes to representing the hotel by being on the front desk, and subsequently handling its public image and media interactions. We speak to some of these women who share what it is like to be a woman in the industry.

"My purpose in life was to make other people feel at ease around me. I also wanted a workplace that would offer me enough challenges to keep me engaged. Therefore, the hospitality sector was always my first preference as it combined both the things I had been looking for," says Pooja Chabbra, director of business development for DoubleTree Hilton, Gurgaon. She commends the influence of Indian culture in the hospitality sector. While trends have been heavily influenced by international hotel chains, the hospitality and service has been personalised according to Indian culture. "Indian hospitality is a sunshine industry and will continue to be so for another decade at least; it's an industry employs on the basis of a willingness to learn with the right attitude," she adds.

However, the burgeoning passion for connecting with an array of different people – including those from varying professions and dispositions – have also led many women to step out of the comfort zone of nine-to five jobs, and become a part of the hospitality industry. "Having been in the industry for long, I have had a chance to meet people across nations and cultures, and learn what makes us all ‘tick' as humans – a rewarding experience that I'm eternally grateful for," says Nidhi Verma, senior marketing manager for Pullman Gurgaon, Central Park.


Coming in the wake of the surging popularity of the industry in the early 2000s, Almost Single by author-scriptwriter Advaita Kala particularly delved into the internal mechanisms of a pied-a-terre. The book, faithfully adapted to fiction, follows Aisha Bhatia, a guest relations manager at a hotel in the capital, who knows her wines and cheeses, but finds herself taking on different taxing roles with no respite from a lousy boss. Talking about this insight derived from working at The Oberoi, Taj, and Jumeirah Group of Hotels, Kala says, "Hotels for me have always been microcosms of the world they inhabit. And since most of my experiences of a new place and people have been via a hotel, I have often formed a composite of a city by extending those experiences beyond the world of hospitality. I examine the heart of the hotel, the back of the house, with all its diversities of gender, age, social class, education and so on." Kala is currently director of communications for Shangri-La Eros, New Delhi

However, the question still remains: Does being a woman in this sector hinder or further growth options? "Personally, I haven't faced any gender-related issues in my career span so far. In fact, I would like to think that being a woman – hospitality comes naturally to me, " quips Chabbra. The positive approach of these hotels has banished sexism to a certain effect, but hasn't changed the way women are treated by guests. "As a hotelier, I have dealt with situations that required the help of my male counterparts. So yes, I have been solicited," reveals Kala. Glamorous as it may seem, working in the service industry naturally means working long hours, relentlessly under pressure. And that's hardly a deterrent for those love the profession. "I don't know why the hospitality sector is labelled so. If we see other professions, even doctors and journalists have equally long working hours," offers Verma. Chabbra argues in the same vein: "There are work pressures in all industries and there are boons in each. Hospitality is a well-balanced occupation in my opinion, just like any other customer dependent industry today."

Despite its set perceptions, these women posit that their gender adds a certain touch to the operations. "I think women make great employees since they possess a higher emotional quotient, which is a requisite in any industry that involves daily interaction with people," says Chabbra. However, they feel that training and experience is equally essential. Many institutes in the country are now offering hotel management courses and advanced sales and negotiation skills training. "Many hotels and standalone restaurants are offering vocational training, which I think will give one an insider's view into how operations are run," recommends Verma. Chabbra, who has over 14 years of experience in the industry, says that a primal interest in hotels and serving people should make it at the top of the list. Talking on the same lines, Kala, who is also the scriptwriter for the Bollywood blockbuster Kahaani, muses about what really fascinated her in the beginning: "Hotels that come with a lived history have always intrigued me and I am far more likely to choose a hotel from the past, than a glitzy new poser. Even when I chose to work in Dubai in the golden years of construction and real estate, it was in a hotel that drew its inspiration from traditional Emirati architecture."


With the ever-expanding luxury traveller segment in India coupled with the great influx in overseas travel, the demand for new hotels and services is sure to rise in correlation. A tectonic shift in the employment of women has made other occupations evolve alongside. These women exemplify the success rate of those willing to take on new and challenging roles.

Talking about the perks of her job, Chabbra says, "I have met several celebrities in the course of my work and have been involved in many shoots for international fashion magazines and even Bollywood movies! It gives me the satisfaction of seeing the result of my hard work instantly through the feedback given to us by the guests and delegates. But most of all, I enjoy the challenge of making business happen." A lot of corporate companies today want their employees to train with these women because of the soft skills and the positive attitude that they possess. "I get to meet and interact with new people from different industries and it is truly humbling, the amount of praise we receive," says Verma.

As a hotelier, one might essay many roles – that of a secretary, public relations officer, administrator and even a room attendant because it may be the need of the hour. But a woman's poise and adaptability makes her a perfect fit for all the roles that this sector demands.

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