Angela Xavier on women in the hospitality business

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

MISSISSAUGA, ON—Late last fall, when Queen’s  University held its 15th annual conference on Women in Business, they invited Angela Xavier, vice president, sales for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Canada, to address the audience, and later participate on a multi-industry panel. The theme of the conference was A Limitless Generation.
“The conference was put on by the commerce department and included participants from other universities and some Queen’s students as well. The purpose of the conference is to prepare graduate women for the workforce, but it was also a fabulous recruiting ground,” said Xavier, who has never really left behind her early years in career and employment counselling.
At the conference, she promoted hospitality as a meaningful industry and career. “I wanted to stress what our industry means to the world. And it’s an industry that they maybe didn’t consider working in.”

Accidental career
Xavier had no intention of working in the hospitality industry. She grew up in Owen Sound, ON, a town of 20,000. She followed in the footsteps of her teacher parents, after graduating in psychology from Western University in London, ON. Her first job was teaching career and employment training and counselling at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough, ON. At the same time, she supplemented her income by working at the Holiday Inn Peterborough on Saturday nights.
But she really wanted to work in Toronto, and turned to her Holiday Inn colleagues for help.
Xavier ended up working in “a fabulous hotel with one of the best general managers in the business. The hotel was the Holiday Inn Toronto Yorkdale, and the general manager, both then and now, is Armand Abitbol. Xavier considers him a strong mentor.
“He took me under his wing and had a vested interest in my career.  He took me all the way to hotel manager.  He allowed me to grow within the business.”
Xavier saw her work with Holiday Inns as a temporary stop on her way to other things. Now, after 17 years working with Holiday Inn and its parent, the InterContinental Hotels Group, she finds it a rewarding career.

Big leaps of faith
Xavier sees her career as a series of big leaps of faith—faith that she could seize opportunities to take on different roles that she didn’t know a lot about. She always embraced the opportunities and the leadership role.
Six years ago, she became director of sales for Canada. And when Gopal Rao, regional vice-president, Canada for IHG was promoted to a job in India, IHG waited for Xavier to come back from maternity leave, and then appointed her as vice president of sales, Canada, taking over many of Rao’s responsibilities.
Xavier is married to Kraig and has two sons, Morgan, 8, and Connor, 14 months.
“The company was amazing,” said Xavier. “They told me to take as  much time as I wanted to take. They were very supportive, and it was wonderful of them to wait for me.”
IHG is proud of its role encouraging women in leadership positions. While the company has a formal program for the hotel community, there is also a training and mentorship program for the IHG corporate offices.

What attracts women to hospitality leadership?
Some of the aspects of the hotel industry that attract women can also be a drawback.
“It’s a 24/7 business,” Xavier pointed out. “It can be tailored to suit how and when you want to be working. If you need to work nights, our industry needs people to work nights. If you want to work part time or full time, it can work well for single moms or for those juggling dual careers.
“You can grow up in this business—you can start in it without a lot of formal education. That’s enticing to a lot of people, including women.
“And there’s the softer side of the business—the caring for people that naturally attracts women.”
But, she cautioned, the 24/7 nature of the business can also be one of its biggest challenges. “I spent a lot of New Year’s Eves at hotels. In 1999-2000, I was there making sure the whole thing didn’t crash,” Xavier said ruefully. “You are on call all the time.”
The key to making things work is to be flexible. “In our department here, sales also appeals to women, it’s partly a working-from-home role. With average Canadian commute times at 62 minutes, the opportunity to work from home is especially attractive for mothers. It can mean the difference of seeing the children in the morning, or having dinner as a family.”
On the other hand, “We sell all over the world, and time zones mean we are sometimes on conference calls at 10 p.m., or trying to reach hotels in the early morning hours. It’s not a nine-to-five job.
“By being flexible, we can ensure that they get the job done, but can still manage their life. If they need to get home, that’s fine, but most of us are online long after the kids are in bed.”

Personal/professional

While there’s a lot of talk about work/life balance, Xavier believes in having one life. “For me, the personal and professional are one world,” she said.
Nevertheless, juggling the demands of family and work does involve setting priorities.
Hobbies have gone by the wayside—Xavier said she and Kraig had plenty of time for those before they had kids. “I get someone else to clean the house, and have been known to use Grocerygateway.com.
“The weekends are all about family time. If we go to bed and there are toys all over the living room floor, that’s okay.”