COVID-19 Had an Outsized Impact on the Leisure Industry
The leisure and hospitality industries have changed in response to multiple trends in consumer behavior over the years. Digital and personalized services have taken precedence due to the rise of non-traditional competitors. Increasing demand for experiential travel among younger consumers has shifted the demand for certain types of leisure services.
However, the most pressing challenge facing the leisure industry and a key driver of changes in leadership within these organizations is and has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions enacted by governments and municipalities to slow the spread of the virus have resulted in a dramatic drop in travel, dining, and in-person events.
For leisure companies that host high-participation events, safety concerns have been the most important challenge, both from an operational perspective and from the perspective of revenue. Although restricting the number of visitors to a restaurant, hotel, or tourist attraction runs counter to these organizations’ revenue interests, it has been paramount to ensuring customers feel safe enough to engage with their brands. According to one survey, 63% of attraction visitors said they wouldn’t return to an attraction if there were no controls in place to limit the number of people in each area.
As such, companies that successfully pivoted to outdoor events, strict sanitation protocols, and more innovative forms of service have found themselves in a stronger position than those that simply shut down or stuck to business as usual.
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) have also become a significant challenge for leisure and hospitality companies. There are increasing incentives for organizations in these industries to include women, people of color, and individuals from other underrepresented groups in their leadership teams and at every level of the organization. And while awareness among consumers plays a role in incentivizing D&I, companies are also discovering that improving diversity at the leadership level can improve business outcomes.
As we will see, several of the most innovative organizations in this space were headed by female boards and leaders.
Diversity and Inclusion within the Leisure Industry
Diversity in corporate leadership continues to be an important topic for organizations internally, but also for investors and diversity advocates across industries. Historically, the leisure industry—the business sector focused on travel, hospitality, entertainment, recreation, and tourism—has lagged some others in terms of female representation in leadership positions. For example, a recent report from PwC signaled that representation of women in leadership in the leisure industry stood at just 25.5% in 2020.
Numerous studies have indicated that boards and leadership teams with strong female representation are more innovative, profitable, and socially responsible. According to Harvard Business Review, firms with more women in senior positions also provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences—a key determining factor in the success of leisure companies.
A 2021 leisure industry analysis of 57 organizations from BoardEx indicates that female representation in the leisure industry is still deficient at many S&P 500, S&P Mid-cap, and S&P Small-cap organizations. With an average board size of roughly 10 members, most of these leisure organizations have an average female board membership rate of under 30%. Likewise, executive leadership teams are roughly nine members in size on average and have an average female membership rate of roughly 25%.
Nonetheless, there are outliers in the data that indicate some forward movement on this issue. Multiple organizations with low average board tenure also have higher rates of female representation on their boards, suggesting these companies are trying to place more women in board positions. Some of these organizations have also made headlines recently for their innovative approaches to leadership and their ability to continue to thrive during one of the largest contractions in the leisure industry in recent memory—a resultant effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost All Boards and Leadership Teams Are Male Dominated
Only two leisure organizations in the BoardEx study have boards that contain over 50% female leadership: Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc., and Starbucks Corp.
Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. (formerly Ruth’s Chris Steak House before May 2008) has a board of five women and three men for a female membership rate of about 63%. Its leadership team is also 100% female, and it’s one out of only three organizations in the study that has a female chair.
Starbucks Corp has a board of four women and seven men for a female board rate of about 36%, but its leadership team has a female leadership rate of about 57%. The Starbucks Corp leadership team consists of four women and three men.
Roughly 75% of the organizations in the study have boards that are less than one-third female.
Significantly, many of the organizations with a low average tenure among board members (under six years) have predominantly male boards as well. This indicates that although these organizations are bringing on new board members, they are still choosing mostly male candidates to fill the roles.
The one exception is YUM! Brands, Inc. (formerly Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. before May 2002). YUM! Brands, the parent company of recognizable fast-food restaurants like KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, has a board membership rate that is roughly 42% female, at five out of 12 members. However, the company’s leadership is only about 21% female.
Organizations that have a high average age among their board members also have predominantly male boards and leadership teams. For example, Las Vegas Sands Corp, which has the highest board member age average of any organization in the study (72.3 years), has no women on its leadership team. Only three of its 11 board members are women.
Similarly, Carnival Corporation & plc, the British-American operator of Carnival Cruise Line, has the most board directors with more than 10 years of experience. However, its leadership team is 0% female.
By contrast, Shake Shack has the youngest average age of board members at 52.9 years old, while Expedia Group has the second youngest average age of board members at 53.7 years old. The female membership rates on Expedia’s board and leadership teams are relatively high compared to other organizations in the study at roughly 42% and 31%, respectively.
Female-Led Leisure Organizations Demonstrate Innovation, Agility, and Equity
Leisure organizations with high rates of female leadership have been given accolades both before and during the pandemic for their groundbreaking approaches to business and their commitments to advancing female leadership. Even as the leisure industry has struggled to reconcile with a drop in attendance in recent years, several of these companies are making deep commitments to their leadership diversity efforts and even investing in novel ways to provide services.
Here are a few of the most prominent examples from the organizations represented in the 2021 BoardEx data.
CEO Cheryl Henry Guides Ruth’s Hospitality Group Shows Agility During COVID-19 Pandemic
Ruth’s Hospitality Group named Cheryl Henry its CEO in 2018. At 46, Henry is young compared to other leaders at Ruth’s Hospitality Group, as well as to leaders throughout the leisure industry.
Henry introduced a new strategy to draw younger clientele into the company’s restaurants. This included a strategy to upgrade and expand the restaurant chain’s bars and add less expensive items to its menus. Henry also helped launch the chain’s “Sides to Go” program, which allows customers to get sides for their home meals directly from the restaurant.
These efforts proved important to the company’s agility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although private dining sales expectedly declined during the pandemic, the company’s off-premises program captured between 20% and 25% of its previous sales. Other efforts, such as a pivot to outdoor dining amid lockdown orders at some locations, also helped the company maintain healthy sales amid a steep decline across the industry.
As a result, in Q3 2020, Ruth’s Hospitality Group achieved more than 95% of its operating profit from a year previous. Despite a drop in sales and the closure of a few locations, Ruth’s Hospitality Group has endured the pandemic and doesn’t expect to close any further locations in the immediate future.
“The loyalty and the dedication of the guest base to the brand has been outstanding,” Henry said to FSR Magazine. “I think that’s something we can leverage going forward. I think both understanding what this team is capable of and understanding just how resilient the brand is and how people view it certainly has an opportunity.”
Female Leisure Industry Leaders Launch “Women in Travel Thrive” Community
Women leaders in the travel and leisure industry banded together to launch a global movement at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Named the Women in Travel Thrive community, the purpose of the movement is to reduce career regression among women in the industry and increase the representation of women in leadership roles across the sector.
The group was founded by 20 female leaders in the leisure industry, specifically from companies that specialize in travel and hospitality. Among its founding members are Melissa Maher, SVP of marketing and industry engagement at Expedia Group, and Silvia Camarota, senior director of North America market management lodging at Expedia Group.
“None of us could sit back and watch our roles and representation in leadership suffer amid the COVID-19 crisis, so we decided to do something about it,” said Camarota. “In just a few months, we have built a community where women are each other’s greatest champions and the connections we are making will undoubtedly ensure women not only achieve their potential but also secure their future in the travel industry.”
The group provides free access to professional development and mentorship resources for women in the leisure industry. It also helps empower women to maintain and build on the successes they’ve achieved in the industry in recent years.
Yum! Brands Named to 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index
Although BoardEx data indicated that Yum! Brands only has a female representation rate of about 21% among its leadership team and 42% on its board, the brand has been added to the 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI) for its commitment to advance women’s equality and transparency in gender reporting. According to a press release, Yum! Is one of 380 companies on the Bloomberg list bringing transparency to its gender-related practices and policies. Primarily, the company is being recognized for its disclosure of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data.
“Investing in our culture and talent with a focus on equity and inclusion is key to creating a workplace that attracts, develops, and retains the best and brightest people in the industry,” said Tracy Skeans, Yum! Chief Transformation & People Officer. “Being named to the 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index reaffirms our efforts and shows that we’re on the right path when it comes to our continued work to build a diverse and inclusive culture and to advance our gender equity strategy.”
Moving forward, Yum! Brands will implement an equity, inclusion, and belonging strategy that focuses on investing in programs to support women and underrepresented minorities. This strategy includes inclusive leadership training and mentoring.
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Yum! Brands has over 50,000 restaurants in more than 150 countries and territories.
Female leaders have demonstrated that they can bring fresh ideas to the embattled leisure industry and help to transform it into a more innovative and inclusive environment. Companies in this sector have shown that they are eager to showcase their commitments to equality on their boards and executive leadership teams. Through press releases, they champion the positive changes their female leaders have made over the past few years.
Unfortunately, the data on the makeup of their boards and leadership team indicates that many of the world’s largest leisure companies have a long way to go before they can achieve true equity in their leadership, at least when it comes to female representation. Most organizations’ boards and leadership teams are less than one-third female, and only a few outlying organizations defy this trend.
Companies that have made commitments to improving rates of female leadership must now look to peers that have made strides in this area. Investor and customer sentiment suggests that leisure brands would do well to work toward concrete and iterative goals in the coming years.