Meet The Hotelier: The Women Behind Regenerative Resorts

Across the planet, the women behind some of our hotels and resorts serve as not only an inspiration to us but to also many throughout the tourism industry.

From their focus on empowering the women of their host communities through employment and training programs to spreading awareness about gender equality and women’s rights, our female leaders truly represent the fight towards parity that so many remain vocal for worldwide. 

Earlier this month, we caught up with some of our female hoteliers and asked them to reflect on any challenges they’d faced throughout their working careers related to being a woman, to provide some insight into the projects and missions of their hotels aimed at accelerating gender equality as well as to share any advice for other women out there who may be hoping to pursue the same dream.

Gender-Specific Challenges Experienced in the Workplace

According to the World Economic Forum, the global gender pay gap stands at 68.6 percent today and remains unlikely to close for at least another century. Opportunities for women to reach positions of senior leadership are also still lagging – evidenced by the only 1 in 4 females who hold managerial titles worldwide – while accounts of sexual harassment towards women in the work-place continue unabated. As millions around the world took a moment to reflect on women’s rights last month, this still largely ubiquitous discrimination and maltreatment faced by women in the work-place inspired us to ask our female hoteliers about any challenges they’d faced throughout their careers that they felt were specific to their gender.

“We, as women, still have to think about how and when we speak.”

Kirsten Dixon of Within the Wild, Alaska, was keen to voice her story. “Early on in my career, I really wanted to be a chef. And in those days, in the 1970s, girls didn’t go to culinary school – it just didn’t happen. It was reserved for a more robustly male culture. So, I think women who came along in those days had a struggle. But these days the system has changed. There are more female Michelin star chefs in France, for example and it’s been wonderful to see that development. I was originally a nurse and only came into hospitality and cooking later on in my life when I realized that actually, I could do that and make a living out of it.”

Kirsten grew up in the United States when the international feminist movement was just starting to gain momentum. However, with the help of protests and activism for women’ empowerment across the 1970s and 80s, an acceleration towards parity has been achieved. Today, for example, the country is led by a female Vice President, Kamala Harris and Kirsten optimistically comments that she can’t wait to see how the nation’s new VP will use her platform to advocate for women’s rights.

Another of our US-born female hoteliers, Renee Kimball, who co-runs Tranquilo Bay Resort in Panama, also described her experience. “I definitely faced some challenges. I had employees in the past that suffered from machismo and didn’t enjoy, in the early stages, having to take direction from a woman – never anything direct – but I do think we were sometimes not as productive as we could’ve been. I also find myself in some of my roles, not here, but in the broader community, where I can be made to feel uncomfortable. We, as women, have to think about how and when we speak. Sometimes, I feel I must hold my tongue which can be tricky, but I have learned to sit back and try as best I can to take stock of what is going on and figure about the best way to approach these issues. It can be a little like a game of chess – deciding which move I should take and always considering what’s more important: my longer-term goals or a short-term win.”

It is interesting to hear that after 15 years of working in the hospitality sector, Renee still faces some of these challenges. Though, it is important to note that whilst Renee grew up in the United States, which has seen remarkable progress in gender equality, women in Panama continue to have low levels of participation and representation in decision-making spaces. Across many Latin American and Caribbean countries today, women also remain disproportionately at risk of poverty and continue to represent the minority of the labour force. 

That being said, another of our Caribbean-based hoteliers, Portia Hart of Blue Apple Beach in Colombia, describes a very optimistic experience so far, “I’ve actually never experienced a challenge specific to my gender. I’m fortunate to work in Colombia, which is an astoundingly forward-thinking country when it comes to gender equality. Many of my tourism-industry peers here are women and only yesterday I learned that one of Colombia’s 2-star generals is a woman. I do notice a lack of young, female hoteliers around the world, though, so I know it isn’t the same everywhere. But in Colombia, it’s quite the opposite – there’s even a feminine word for boss in Spanish (patrona) so female leadership is a part of everyday lexicon!”

Blue Apple Beach
Blue Apple Beach

Portia’s positive experience working in Colombia may certainly reflect the significant advances to women’s rights and equality that have occurred there over the past two decades. In just 2018, Colombia was ranked at 40th out of 153 other countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index but rose recently to 22nd place in 2020. The nation’s rapid success in gender equality is due largely to policy changes in the past decade. The adoption of a normative system to protect women’s rights has helped to enhance women’s equality, for example, whilst in 2010, Colombia became the first country of the world to formally recognize the invisible economic contribution of female’s unpaid care work by law.

How The Missions And Projects Of Our Female Hoteliers’ Resorts Align With Gender Equality

Despite Colombia’s recent triumphs for gender equality, gaps in pay and women’s hopes of promotion remains structural and global challenges for females in the work-place. Though, it is important to stay optimistic as the tourism industry, in particular, has increasingly been recognized for the role it could play in reversing some of this inequality. 

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), women currently make up the majority of the international tourism sector’s workforce (54%) and the gender pay gap across the sector remains narrower (at 14 percent less) than it is in the broader economy (at 16.8 percent less). The prospects for women to start their own businesses in the industry, across countries of all income levels, are also especially promising whilst the opportunities to enrich women’s skills and education remain higher than in many other sectors.

“A glass ceiling still exists – and it needs to be shattered.”

In spite of women holding this majority, the UNWTO has also cautioned that within many of the world’s regions, women typically hold lower-level positions and are consistently underrepresented in managerial positions. A lack of formal education and training also endangers women’s active participation in the industry and, across the sector, pay remains lower for both men and women compared to average wages in the economy.

The true inequality between how far we may have come and sadly, how far we still must go, was also succinctly highlighted by Dana Krauskopf of Hamanasi Resort in Belize. “There’s definitely been some huge changes. It’s a norm now for women to be working and it’s not surprising at all for women to hold positions of leadership. I do think, however, that a glass ceiling still exists, and it needs to be shattered. It’s still so important for us to keep focusing on the subject of domestic violence. There might be laws in place now to protect women but there’s still much more that needs to be done.”

Given the persisting gaps in pay, labour force participation and the number of women working in positions of leadership across the tourism industry, we also asked our hoteliers to tell us a little more about the missions of their resorts and to describe the actions that they were specifically taking to tackle this disparity.

Hamanasi Resort

Dana Krauskopf of Hamanasi Resort in Belize was quick to ensure “At Hamanasi, we have always tried to lift up women. I think that the tourism sector in particular is a great way for women to enter the workforce and to climb up the leadership ranks. In fact, having women in tourism is critical and foundational. The industry offers so many avenues for women to grow and succeed and these achievements really penetrate into the family and the community.”

Dana’s Hamanasi Resort currently runs a wellness programme where they are attempting to help women learn how to take care of themselves mentally and physically. With a significant emphasis on domestic violence, Dana and her team are endeavouring to educate women about their rights and the steps that they can take to protect themselves in these situations. She is also hoping, post-COVID, to launch a women’s empowerment programme at the village level to give women who want to start their own businesses the “foundational tools and business skills to make these ideas a success”. Across her resort, maintaining a 50:50 balance in pay and managerial positions also remains central to their ethos as she explains, “it’s critical in paternalistic societies for women to be seen as strong”.

“Our way of doing business is to be fair to everyone.”

In fact, whilst speaking with each of our female hoteliers, the subject of equal pay and opportunities for staff regardless of their gender, was consistently emphasised. As Portia Hart describes of her Blue Apple Beach House in Isla Tierra Bomba, Colombia, “Our way of doing business is to be fair to everyone… we may not be specifically focused on gender equality, but to give you an idea of the kind of business we are, every single member of our management team is from an underrepresented group of some kind.” 

Aside from maintaining a gender friendly workforce, The Green Apple Foundation, a not-for-profit social enterprise that was born out of Blue Apple, has also helped several women local to the island to start their own businesses. These women are presently selling high-end artisan glass pieces made from the foundation’s own glass recycling machine. Portia’s words on equal pay and opportunities were also echoed by Anne of Chloe Mjini Treehouse Lodge in Tanzania who states, “we employed women and have always paid them the same, even when some of our male staff were initially apprehensive”.

Chole Mjini Treehouse Lodge

The story behind Anne’s Treehouse Lodge is especially inspiring when thinking about the role of tourism in women’s empowerment. Situated on a tiny Islamic island off the coast of Tanzania, Anne describes the significant struggles she faced when first setting up her business. “For us, gender equality has always been key. When we first arrived, it was hard because the local women had been discouraged from sharing their opinions for so long. Women were denied the right to go out or even leave the island without their husbands’ permission. So, when we set up our business and began to employ women, some of the traditional members of the local community were really not happy about us and even tried to resist what we were doing.”

Since founding her business with her husband, Jean, Anne has made it her mission to improve the lives of these women. By offering a variety of employment and apprenticeship schemes to teach women about business, banking and savings, Anne explains that they have “definitely managed to instil some confidence and open up a host of opportunities that were not there before.” 

At her resort, Anne and her team are also committed to providing education opportunities for the local children. They have built a kindergarten, supported the local primary school and continue to offer scholarships for secondary and tertiary education. She tells us,

“It takes two generations to make a difference and well, we’ve made that our mission…when we first came here many of the kids were actually chasing pigeons for protein, but we are now starting to see the first generation leaving the island and landing white collar roles. Our work is never finished, but we will continue to provide these opportunities for the women and their children.”

Finca Luna Nueva

The idea that education is central to any attempts at empowering women was also highlighted by Kimberly Farrell of Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica. She describes “One of the central challenges in our local community is women’s empowerment to seek higher positions – which needs to be brought up in education. We would absolutely love to see more girls from the community become more successful and take on decision making roles as opposed to the kitchen and house-keeping tasks, but this has to come from educating these women to not settle for jobs that just give them an income and to actually go for the more senior positions.”

Through her eco-lodge, Kimberly explains that her team is now a female powerhouse. All the staff in decision-making roles are women and by continuing to offer opportunities for employment, she hopes that she can keep helping the local women to move up the ranks and realize their potential.

At Regenerative Travel, we are deeply committed to working with resorts that promise equality, fairness and inclusivity for staff of all genders. Social impact continues to present one half of our core values, and it will remain our mission to highlight the wonderful projects that our hoteliers are working on for women’s rights and empowerment. So, we thank our female hoteliers for all the incredible work that they have been doing over the years and especially look forward to what is to come.

Advice To Aspiring Hoteliers

We asked each of our female hoteliers to share the advice that they would give to any of our readers who may be thinking about pursuing the same dream.

Kimberly Farrell, Owner of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, Costa Rica

“The advice I would give to any woman though is that anything is possible. I come from little Costa Rica where there’s still some macho hint of men having better lives and ideas, but you know, it’s 2021, we have a stronger voice and a stronger community. We can rely on others to help us pursue our dreams. There’s no limit – my advice is just go for it. There is no stopping us, seek for people and surround yourself with people that make you feel like you can do whatever you want to do in the world.”

Renee Kimball, Owner of Tranquilo Bay, Panama

“Have a plan because it’s always important to know the end game. To make progress we need to know where we’re going. There are challenges we face every day, and we won’t always make it. For instance, we’ve been in business 16 years and the 15-year mark is often described as the point where you see a lot of differences. Then, of course, Covid happened. This was a huge challenge for us so now, we are really taking it day by day now and treating it as a transition. But most importantly, have a plan!”

Kirsten Dixon, Owner of Within the Wild, Alaska

“Yes! Always think down the road and don’t think too small. If you’re building a house think of where you want to grow to – and this one’s a no brainer: do what you love. I was originally a nurse, but I loved to cook. I never thought about it as a career. But one day I thought yes, I can do this. I can make a living out of this and here we are now. So, my advice is to listen to the inner conversations you have with yourself about what you love to do, and you know, do it!”

Dana Krauskopf, Owner of Hamanasi Resort, Belize

“Do your homework, be persistent and be polite. Don’t give up and know that you have to work really, really hard but that’s okay because it’s through that hard work that you can grow. Do what you set out to do and don’t let others stop you because you’re a woman.”

Portia Hart, Owner of Blue Apple Beach House, Colombia

“I have an opera singer for a mother, a military colonel for a sister and my father was the stay-at-home parent, so It never occurred to me not to go out and do exactly what I wanted to do. Not all girls are born in such a confidence-boosting environment, so I would say – find yourself a role model to remind yourself of what is possible. Then, just crack on. Don’t worry too much about the world around you and what it thinks. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve, and your gender really has nothing to do with it. Focus on what it is you love, what you’re good at, and approach everything you do as if it is the most possible thing in the world. When I look back at the logic of starting a business, I knew nothing about, in a country where I knew no-one, in a language I didn’t speak, it seems impossible. But because it never occurred to me that it was outside of my reach, it happened. One day at a time…”

Anne De Villiers, Owner of Chloe Mjini Tree House Lodge, Tanzania

“What I would like to say to anyone, but especially women, is you have to invest in knowing who you are. Know your strengths and know what you like. You will constantly be told you shouldn’t and can’t be doing what you’re doing. Having the knowledge of what you’re doing will make you more robust and have the ability to stand up. Unless you know why you’re doing something, it can be really hard. Build resilience and believe in why you’re doing this. And also, you have to be able to ask for help. There’s a tendency as a woman to do everything and keep all else going – in the home, with family – but to keep going but you have to know that you can’t do it all. You’ll be burned out – you have to have to support systems to help you on your journey.”

We are proud to be working with and sharing inspiring women’s stories with the world.

This article is part of our Women in Regeneration campaign where we are taking a moment to celebrate the achievements of women, girls and non-binary people, raise awareness about women’s equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity and fundraise for women-focused charities.

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