The South East Asia Hotel Investors’ Summit 2017 got underway on June 13th at the Dusit Thani in Bangkok with an all-female opening panel discussion moderated by founder Wimintra Jangnin. Answering the questions were Dawn Teo, Amara’s Director of Strategic Planning and Corporate Development; Sabine Schaffer, Managing Partner at Pro-invest; Jennifer Cronin, President of WHARF Hotels, and Anchalika Kijkanakorn, Managing Director of the Akaryn Hotel Group.

The discussion itself covered a range of topics including expansion, RevPAR, mergers, brands, and OTAs – along with the question which a ladies-only panel is perfectly placed to answer: is it hard to succeed in a male-dominated industry, or can it be advantageous to be a woman?

The answers suggested that discrimination may not be a significant problem, with Anchalika pointing out that she had not directly experienced inequality, and Jennifer stating that she believed the best person would usually get the job regardless of gender. Sabine explained that above a certain level, a woman who had reached a high position may well be better equipped to succeed because she may have had to work harder to reach the top – a point to which Jennifer added that she had chosen to undertake further academic studies to ensure that male competitors would be less likely to be promoted in her place.

The major point which did emerge, however, was that while it is possible for women to reach the top, the challenge for a mother to do so is a separate issue with the family/work balance at stake. The panel made it clear that time management is critical in this case, although the desire among working mothers to be more productive at work in order to meet family commitments at home can in fact be a strong positive. Moreover, both Dawn and Anchalika admitted to using their mastery of corporate spreadsheets to organize their children’s lives too.

The session had opened with the issue of RevPAR, and in particular the fact that much of South East Asia trails Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia by a wide margin. Nobody foresaw any short term change to that situation although Jennifer noted that during the last three years the situation in Hong Kong has not been quite as rosy on account of mainland China, although the Philippines in contrast was performing well. Dawn added that the region would have to match the growth and stability of the leading markets in order to close the gap, although the staging of major events was one way of pushing ADR higher.

On the subject of expansion into new markets, Sabine explained that one important limiting factor keeping her activities within Australasia was that investors would not accept instability, which is unfortunately a characteristic of much of the Asian region. Jennifer described her approach as profits over flags, while suggesting that major gateway cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and Jakarta would be of interest. Anchalika had been interested in Laos but a recent project had fallen through as an overnight government policy change scuppered the deal. She described Myanmar as the Wild West, and said that with land prices in Yangon sometimes higher than New York, the better choice would surely be New York.

The idea that brand proliferation leads to confusion was next up for discussion, but all four panelists took the view that one or two brands were sufficient and had no plans to make additions. Similarly, while mergers and consolidation have been widespread in general, it was deemed unlikely that any of the panel would take that direction. Jennifer explained that the current size of her business allowed profitable operation while retaining control. Control would be lost, however, if communication were to be weakened by enlargement through a merger, and it was that control which allowed brand standards to be maintained.

Finally, on OTAs, the ladies’ pragmatism once again came to the fore, with an admission from Jennifer that since hotels are not technology specialists with unlimited marketing budgets, the best approach is to work with the OTAs rather than try to compete against them. Dawn confirmed that hotels can benefit from the resources offered by OTAs, but were also paying closer attention to becoming more efficient in revenue management to address the threat posed. Sabine added that the idea of using loyalty programs to counteract the OTAs had indeed been effective for their partners, IHG, arguing that contrary to some suggestions, the overall cost to hotels of acquiring customers through such schemes is not higher than acquiring them through an OTA.

The idea of the all-female panel thus served as the perfect demonstration that despite the ladies’ claims that women are more productive than men, better at multi-tasking, and more skilled in building working relationships – once the subject turns to actual work, expertise is expertise regardless of gender.