A fireside chat with Lisa Conway, InnVest

Lisa Conway, vice-president and general counsel, InnVest Hospitality.

TORONTO — The hotel industry is facing challenges from this pandemic and InnVest is receiving loads of information on a daily basis from experts. “That information tends to change daily, and we’ve done a very good job at InnVest at adapting in compressed time frames to be able to change our plans and suit our business needs,” Lisa Conway told a Schulich Executive Education Centre virtual “fireside chat” on May 21.

“We are anticipating more staycations. To give an example, there are lots of us that live in big cities, but we may have elderly parents in a small town or relatives in a small city who we would need to visit this summer, but we can’t stay with them. Our Comfort Inns and Holiday Inns in many of these smaller places to give a good place to stay with great safety procedures in place.”

InnVest Hospitality has 81 properties, making it the largest owner of hotels in Canada. In addition they did purchase a management company last year. They manage their own hotels and act as third party management companies for many others, making 84 hotels in all. InnVest’s portfolio includes Hilton, Fairmont, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Hyatt, Marriott, St. Regis and Homewood Suites hotels across the country.

Conway was named executive vice-president and general counsel in August 2015. She has significant capital markets experience with senior level positions at HSBC, Toronto Stock Exchange, Macquarie, Citibank and BlackRock in addition to international experience in London and Singapore. Early in her career, she also worked with Journey’s End Corporation. Prior to joining InnVest, she led the Royal Bank of Scotland’s (RBS) business as their CEO for Canada and was chair of the board of RBS Capital Markets Canada.

“We have front line workers in our hotels, and right from the get-go, our first priority has been our staff and our guests, and our number one concern is safety. We over the past few years, have a closed loop feedback with them, first on a personal level, making sure they are well on a personal level; and second as people of the front lines in our different asset classes in different provinces and different scales of hotels. What better than to hear from the people who are on the front lines in order to be able to adapt our plans. So yes, communication is very important.”

Interviewer Alan Middleton, executive director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre, commented that during the pandemic, pyramids are getting flattened as people are dealing with guests.

“We have 100 people at our local Toronto office, and we host many town halls. We definitely want to keep all our team healthy and happy, we want to keep jobs so we’ve applied for the wage subsidies. And again, we have revenue people at our corporate office, and at this time when certain business is a bit short, we have revenue and sales people who have skills to go out and secure different kinds of business,” said Conway.

Middleton noted the importance of community and the opportunity for expanding activities.

“We are firmly ensconced in every community that we’re in, especially in the smaller ones. InnVest wants to be good corporate citizens,” Conway said. “When our buffets shut down, we donated all of our food to food banks. The Royal York Hotel has a respite program for workers. Unfortunately, there are other people having hip replacements or dealing with cancer who need a little respite. We are having these people stay over in our hotels as well.”

Asked by Middleton about communications across organizations and silos getting better, Conway said they are working with their partners, lenders and suppliers. They are securing government contracts. so they work with the government and the associations. “Everyone is pulling in the same direction. And our brands as well — the brands really do lead the way,” she added.

“Everyone is doing quite well. I’m very impressed with the fact that we are a hands on service business, and we have adapted to Zoom and contactless efforts. Overall, it’s been a very well-run transition,” Conway said.

“During the pandemic, InnVest did close a number of their hotels, which are all are due to reopen soon, because we did want to get it right, all the safety concerns — wearing masks, etc. In the long run and the short run, we’re great job adapting and ensuring safety for all of our guests,” she noted.

InnVest has also been looking to the global community for information on how to recover. There are other markets are far along in their recovery stage and that’s been very helpful to see — how they had to pull back and have there been incidents. So far InnVest hasn’t seen any major disruptions, she said. “We do have a global travel industry as well — that’s quiet for the moment but we do expect that to resurrect. So we are keeping the pulse on what’s happening abroad, for sure.”

Conway is working from home and has a teenaged family. “I think I’m managing well. I think I am busier than ever, which is a good thing. I think the thing about working with remote and with Zoom, you constantly feel like you have to be available. I have two boys and they are in online school, and now we’re about to hit with the summer. But I think overall it’s been a smooth transition, because right from the beginning, we had very good planning.”

Conway’s background is in the financial services sector, which had its own challenges, she said. “The difference for me personally is that I was general counsel in a number of those roles, primarily focused on the legal. That had evolved by the time I got to Royal Bank of Scotland and I became CEO there for a period of time. In this role, I do manage a lot of different areas. It’s legal, butI manage all or H.R., all the administration. I think my role has grown, and so I’ve I’ve seen lot of different aspects of the business including the operations. Hotels are really the real estate, and operations within the business. [There are] different challenges than banking, but once you learn certain skills, you can manage the content.”

“This was beyond human control, unlike when we had the 2008 crisis, which was more human error,” said Conway, speaking about the pandemic. “You need to have a plan, and as the facts unfold you can lead with your vision.

Conway said that she does believe that in the future, people will return to leisure travel, and that business travel will come back as well. “[During the recovery,] we have to get this right in terms of guest views and perceptions; we have to do things correctly, be sensitive, accommodating and empathetic to the situation.”

Conway also believes there are great opportunities out there for strategic alliances and strategic partnerships. Middleton asked about associations with other groups including transportation and wedding organizations. “We still continue, even at the moment to host things like weddings,” Conway said. “I think our hotels with proper distancing will be able to accommodate these events, and we will certainly host the families.”

Conway’s leadership style is to let people have autonomy for their departments, “but I am very hands on,” she said. “We have weekly team meetings and metrics showing performance.”

Asked about key things that will help people get though this pandemic and create an agile organization, Conway said adaptability and agility are things they have always had. Communication is important, but it must be communication where the organization is receiving feedback, listening and implementing those ideas.

The Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC) has been hosting a series of fireside chats dealing with “Leadership Lessons in Troubled Times.” These virtual sessions are designed to provide participants with insights into effective leadership and global best practices during disruption. SEEC’s expert faculty, industry executives and thought leaders deliver these fireside chats in crisp 30-minute interactive sessions, including Q&A from participants from across Canada. To view the full Fireside Chat, click here.