Soul of Travel: Women's Empowerment and Travel Podcast

Women Transforming Tourism Leadership with Eljesa Saciri

May 24, 2023 Christine Winebrenner Irick, hosted by Lotus Sojourns Season 4 Episode 130
Soul of Travel: Women's Empowerment and Travel Podcast
Women Transforming Tourism Leadership with Eljesa Saciri
Soul of Travel Podcast
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Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to the third installment of this special interview series on the Soul of Travel Podcast. We are excited to partner with Women in Travel (CIC) to bring you exclusive conversations with their community members to set the stage for the upcoming International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum, being held on June 22nd at Google headquarters in London. 

This partnership is important because of the aligned missions of Soul of Travel and Women in Travel, which is founded by past podcast guest and award-winning founder Alessandra Alonso. Women in Travel (CIC) is a UK-based social enterprise dedicated to empowering all women using travel, tourism, and hospitality as a force for good. They offer employability, entrepreneurship, mentorship, and male allyship programs and communities. 

In this episode, Christine hosts a soulful conversation with Eljesa Saciri, General Manager at the Zetter Townhouse Marylebone. 

Eljesa is a pioneer in the hospitality industry who passionately advocates for women in business, equal pay, and gender equity. She has been recognized by a number of media outlets, including Top50Boutique Hotels, Inspiring Women in Hospitality, and The Independent Hotel Show. 

Christine and Eljesa discuss:

  • Women in leadership in hospitality management
  • Breaking down barriers
  • Women taking leadership roles in the workplace
  • Getting comfortable with taking up space and being more visible
  • Acknowledging and celebrating our successes and accomplishments

If you are inspired by this conversation and want to connect with other women influencing change, be sure to join us for the International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum. 

Join Christine now for this soulful conversation with Eljesa Saciri.


To read our episode blog post, access a complete transcript, see full show notes, and find resources and links mentioned in this episode, head to the Soul of Travel Website. 

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Take a look at Women in Travel (CIC)!

Register for the International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum and Awards here!

To learn more about The Zetter Hotels & Co, visit the website.

Connect with Eljesa on LinkedIn, or follow The Zetter Hotels & Co on Instagram.

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Credits. Christin

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I'm Christine Weiner, I founder of Lotus Sojourns and passionate advocate for gender equity in the tourism industry. Welcome to this special interview series on the Soul of Travel podcast. Soul of Travel honors, the passion and dedication of women making a positive impact around the world in the tourism industry. I'm excited to partner with Women in Travel CIC to bring you exclusive conversations with their community members. To set the stage for the upcoming International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum, being held on June 22nd at Google headquarters in London. This partnership is important to me because of the aligned missions of Soul of Travel and Women in Travel, which is founded by my past podcast guest, the plural nominated award-winning founder Alessandra Alonzo. It is a UK-based social enterprise dedicated to empowering all women using travel, tourism, and hospitality as a force for good. They offer employability, entrepreneurship, mentorship, and male allyship programs and communities.

In this episode, I'm speaking with Eljesa Saciri, general manager at the Zetter Townhouse. Marla Bone, a true pioneer and hospitality professional. She has made it her goal to change and develop this industry for the better. Eljesa has made it her objective to be part of the bigger change within the industry as a passionate advocate for women in business, equal pay and gender equality, she has been recognized numerous times by media outlets such as Top 50 boutique hotels stating her as one of the women paving the way in the boutique hotel sector. In our conversation, we speak about the importance of bringing more women into leadership roles in hospitality management, to continue to break down barriers, why women need to stop falling into traditional female roles in the workplace, and how we can get comfortable with taking up space, be more visible, and acknowledge and celebrate our successes and accomplishments. If you are inspired by this conversation and want to connect with other women influencing change, be sure to join us for the International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum. Join me now for my soulful conversation with Eljesa Saciri. 


Welcome to Soul of Travel podcast. I'm so excited for our third conversation in this exclusive series for International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum, coming up in June in London. And today I'm joined by Eljesa Saciri, who's the general manager with the Zetter Hotel Group. And we are going to dive into looking at women in the hospitality industry. So I'm so excited to have you here today. Welcome to the podcast.


Thank you very much for having me. It's an absolute honor to be here and the third guest, um, on your panel.


Thank you. Uh, well, to begin our conversation, I'd love to just give you a moment to introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about, uh, who you are, uh, the position that you hold today, and a little bit about The Zetter as well.


So my name is Eljesa Saciri. Um, I am originally from Kosovo, Albania. I was born in Kosovo, um, and moved to London quite young, um, and have been here since I studied here. Went to school here, um, university, and then my career in hospitality. I currently work as a general manager at the Zetter Townhouse in Marylebone. We are a boutique hotel group centered in the heart of London, essentially. Um, we currently have three properties, but soon to be expanding. So it's very exciting over here at the moment. Um, and we offer a very bespoke and unique service and product to our guests. Um, we're quite set aside from what you usually see in the hospitality space.


Excellent. Well, I can't wait to hear a little bit more about that. Um, but before we get into that, I would love to hear from you how you got into the hospitality industry and, um, how you realized that this was a place that you really wanted to invest your time and skills and work to really create an impact for women in the industry as well.


So I got into hospitality like 90% of other people, which is completely by accident <laugh>. Um, I started as a bar back when I was sort of just beginning uni, um, just for the funds essentially. And in time I realized that there was so many different roles within, at the time I was working in a hotel, there were so many different roles that I'd never known existed first and foremost, but also there never seemed to be at the time any female decision makers there never used to be, or, or they, I wasn't exposed to them. Might be the better way of phrasing that, um, to women sort of leading the way within the sector in the same way that men were at the time. Um, you know, you'd walk past, I was quite young at the time, but you'd walk past these board meetings taking place and it was a room full of what we used to call suits.

Um, and very, very rarely did you see a woman in that space. And I think that for me, subconsciously at the time, much more consciously now, was something that I wanted to make a change and I wanted to be in one of those rooms. I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to be a decision maker that was paving the way for a better industry and a better future, both for myself, but also for other females within, you know, younger generations or females that were to be after me to show that this is accessible and it is achievable regardless of who you are and what your background is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and I think that sort of started for me that spark of I want to be someone that I would want to see in one of those rooms. And that's, that was the beginning.


Yeah. I love that awareness that you have. I, when I reflect back on my early days in my career, I noticed that's something I was seeing as well, but didn't really, wasn't really thinking about it at the time, but I kept thinking like, is there a barrier to me being in that room or why are there not women in that room? Um, and I was working in the, the adventure travel industry, um, still am in that space, but I thought, well, is it just because, you know, men are the ones that kind of started as the adventurers and worked their way into those leadership roles. But I kept thinking that there was obviously an imbalance in the industry in this space that I was working in. And then when I was, uh, launching this podcast, you know, that was something I was reflecting back upon is the women that have inspired me over the years and kind of that there were not that many.

And I thought, well, gosh, why is that? And realizing that there was just certain women that were constantly the ones that were selected on the stage, the one woman in the one, you know, in a panel or the one woman who was a keynote speaker at an event. And so then again, I realized that there just wasn't the space. And so I wanted to create that because I knew there were so many amazing women working in the industry and we needed to just shine a light on them. So I love that we have kind of that similar awareness driving what we're working to create. Um, I'd really love to hear more from you about being a woman in the industry. What has that been like for you? And, you know, you mentioned you only had limited people that you were looking up to, but if we bring more women into management and have more women in senior roles, how do you think that helps to break down some of those barriers that we're facing?


That's a really good question, and I'm gonna answer it. I'm gonna dissect the question. So being a woman in the industry, I'm going to begin with that. Um, where I am now within my career and the company that I am with, there are no barriers. And that's for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that I am now much more confident within myself and the knowledge that I have and the capabilities that I have than I was 10 years ago. I also have a phenomenal support system of people that I work alongside that never make anything. I do feel like a barrier. And so I'm fortunate enough within the company and the group that I'm currently in, not to fill those challenges. However, stepping out of these doors, those challenges very, very much exist from when I first began in the industry to where I am now.

And it's quite, I think there's layers to it. And one of them is my name is very foreign, no matter which way you look at it from the spelling to the pronunciation, my name is a very foreign name. So you immediately are aware that I am foreign. Another part of it is being a female, which is something that I've noticed throughout my career. People expect you to be very nurturing and very soft and very delicate and very someone else's pa someone else's note taker. Someone's, someone's something, people never expect you to be the head of the room. Now, I love proving them wrong, brings me great pleasure, but I still think that it's quite disappointing that we are still at a stage where this is a thing. I think it's so unfortunate. Um, and another thing is my age, I've frequently been told even today, but, but you are so young and I still fail to understand how that impacts anything that I do, how that impacts anything that I'm capable of.

And I understand I may not have 50 years background, but I'm building that at the moment. That is the journey that I'm on. Um, and I think it's super important that the more female leaders that we have in place, the more female leaders that are visible, the more we are encouraging other females to join us in this industry on this journey and to be and create what we are currently doing. I think one of the most important things I learned in my career was that you are the only barrier and the only boundary that you set on yourself. So if you choose to allow people, and it's, I feel like it's, it can be very easy to automatically let people step all over you because it's that avoidance of conflict, right? That's the easiest thing to do. But I had gotten to a point in my career where I refused to do twice as much as my male counterparts for half of the money, for half of the rewards, for half of the anything that they were getting for double the hours. And I want to show other females that it is achievable, it is attainable, and you can do it if I who came from Kosovo as a refugee can do it, anyone can do it. It's not unaccessible, but we need to be those people that are making it accessible for others.


Yeah. Um, thank you for, for sharing that. I think there's so many things for people to think about and, and this kind of goes into the next thing that I wanted to talk about is the condition behaviors that women may not even realize they're exhibiting. And that's kind of some of those things you were talking about, the being smaller, being quieter, um, not wanting to put your opinion out there, kind of avoiding conflict, all of those things. And um, and also the ways that women can be assumed to or made to assume female roles in the workplace as well. And that also I think like decreases our authority if we're the one that's assumed to be even getting coffee and tea and taking notes. Like these are the, I think, I think some of the things that we do without thinking that we really need to witness in one another and also support one another in breaking out of those. But I'd love to hear your thoughts on, on those, those assumed roles. And also that like how we can take up space and establish our voice and be in our power that we should have


Assumed. Role is a very, very much old age thinking it's what's expected of us, but also how we are conditioned to behave and act. Um, as children, as young girls, we are told, you know, don't upset anyone, don't hurt anyone, don't this, don't that. And even if it's not consciously, it's something we saw our mothers do or the female guardians around us do. So naturally, and I think whilst it is a phenomenal attribute to have to be able to be nurturing, to be able to be empathetic and gentle, which I believe everyone needs to have men, women, and everyone alike, we cannot allow that to be our defining factor. I've walked into meetings and been asked, can you take the notes on this? And for years, regardless of my role, I've never been someone's pa but regardless of my role, I took notes for people because it, it was assumed that I would, because quite often I was the only female in those rooms.

And now if someone asks me to take notes, I will outright decline to do so because I'm not your note taker. Now, should my job be a note taker, absolutely I won't refuse that. But that's not my role and that's not why I'm here. I'm not here to bring you coffee, I'm not here to hang your jackets. I'm not here to do any of that for you. I'm here because I have the same power and the same voice as you. Now where I think, maybe not we go wrong, but where I think we miss a step a little bit is that we don't want to dis not we don't want to disgruntle anyone. We don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. So we will cause discomfort within ourselves to ensure that everyone around us is comfortable.

You need to, if you as a female, as an individual that's walking into one of those rooms, regardless of what it may be and not comfortable yourself, you can forget about how comfortable everyone else is because you will be seen as the person who will continue to do whatever it is that they're told to do, whether it is of an advantage to them or not. How many times have you walked into a meeting and a man has been asked to take notes when there's a woman in the room? I have never seen it happen to this day. I have never seen it happen.

Once you get to a point that you understand that your voice is just as valuable, things begin to change. Now the dichotomy lies where yes, we're nurturing, yes, we're empathetic, but you don't want to be too much of that because then you are made to be everyone and anyone's assistant. And then you have the flip side of that, which I saw when I was coming up in my career, was the women that both, very few women that were in power and were in those positions emulated men. So they dressed in suits and they wore no makeup and they presented themselves with the same body language as men did. And I also tried that for a while and I think it got to a stage where I was like, I don't want this. If I have to be that you need to find your balance. You need to find what works for you. You could be the most soft spoken person, but you still have power. And it's just understanding where that power lies with you. And it took me years to learn that. And I feel if I had had a female mentor at the time, it might have spread up, sped up that process of me understanding myself and I didn't have that.

So I'm very much here to enable other women to find their voices, but also respect and understand that everyone's voice is different and everyone's power is different. My power will never be the same as yours. And I think it's a learning process. I think it's going to take some time. And I think one of the key things which is changing is women seeing women as competition. I think that's a huge problem, especially in the industry. And as I said over the last few years, I can see it's changed quite a bit and I'm also working on being a part of that bigger change. But it was that, again, old age mentality of if I struggled to get here, she could struggle too. We cannot expect male allyship if we are chewing each other's heads off.


Hmm. So many good things. I'm like, oh, I wish that I could go back to every line and go through each piece. Um, but you know, I think some of the really important things that you were talking about is how I think, like you said, many women try to emulate a male role model to be in a position of power. And I think that puts us at a disadvantage because we are not showing up as ourselves. And I'm, I'm kind of a also re recalling myself earlier in my career in the uncomfortable suit still, like trying to wear nylons and heels and a jacket and like, just all of that was a barrier to me being able to be effective in work because I was really uncomfortable and I, I would show up in a space looking uncomfortable and therefore, like that authority I'm trying to build is kind of just melting away because I, I'm not, I'm not there as myself.

I'm there acting out this character. Um, and now I, I love really seeing women like yourself where you, you walk into a space and you see their like full strength and you see that they're showing who they are. And like now, I think that's what we're seeking to emulate is, you know, a woman having both masculine and feminine qualities and being in balance, which actually makes us stronger. Um, and I, I think that that's kind of the, the shift we're seeing in many industries, but I think in the hospitality industry is recognizing even for men that they have to find that balance within themselves because it's also very draining for them to be constantly in that heightened masculine state as well. Um, so I, I really loved thinking about that and uh, just how important it is for women to really know who they are and put that forward.

And like you also said that no one will have the same strengths. And I think once you acknowledge that, you can also really acknowledge that there's not competition because every person is bringing something different to the table. And while you might not be right for this position because of who you are, you are inherently right for this other position. And also I think what we can do is women well, and what I try to do is then kind of like see everyone's superpower and the minute I see something available for them, I'm like, okay, I know this is this person's superpower and, and I I put them up into that, you know, in front of the person they need to be in front of. So like you said, that need to feel like I had to work so hard to get here, why would I give someone else a lift?

I just think that is hopefully crumbling, I think in this sphere that I spend a lot of time in. It definitely is, but it's exciting to just see the progress that has happened in those conversations. Um, I think this leads into, um, you know, why communities like women in travel c iic are so important and why the International Women in Travel and Tourism Forum is important in the context of community and networking and how this allows you to have a successful career. Can you talk about why that has been important or why you in would encourage women to be a part of communities like this?


Absolutely. I think it's very simply expressed 10 years ago you would have never, and I promise I can vouch for it, never have seen someone that looks like me and that acts like me in the position that I am in right now, in today's industry, it's becoming normal. There's still ways to go. I won't deny that, but it is becoming a normality. Now. I would've given at the time, 10 years ago, anything to have seen someone that, and I'm not saying looks like me, aesthetically, I'm saying someone that puts on the makeup like I do, dresses up, does the hair, has the nails, because for me it would've been okay, you can be super powerful and have your feminine energy at the same time. It's that balance of feminine and masculine energy, which we all have. And it takes a while to learn it and understand it within yourself.

Things like women in travel are opening up. The space for those conversations to be had are opening up the space for women to see each other and seek each other in their development and in supporting the growth of others within the industry of presenting fearless women, of presenting powerful women powerhouses within the industry and ensuring that voices are being heard by those who may be in the position that I was in 10 years ago and showing, Hey, we are here and it's happening and the change is happening and we are the change, and we want you to be that change with us. You are not alone. And it's very, some, it was previously very difficult to have certain conversations because you didn't have a support network of women around you to have those conversations with. And at times, and I'm speaking back here of my earlier days within my career, you would think, is this normal or am I crazy? Because things that were, that should not be tolerable seemed to be okay because I was a woman. Whereas now with platforms like Women in Travel, those conversations are being had much more openly and we're able to normalize subjects that may have been within the industry previously. And I think it's a fantastic opportunity for women to meet others and seek that relationship and network and essentially a safety network.


Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I I think that all of that is so important. And I think the other thing that I've noticed in those communities too is it, um, also allows us to see the, the real journey of many of those women who are leaders. And I think for so many years they were inaccessible and therefore we, even if they were in front of us, we couldn't see ourselves as them. Um, and when you have community, then you start to hear like a certain struggle that they're facing within their business or their personal life or creating, you know, a balance of, of something that they're navigating personally and how that's impacting them professionally. And we weren't having conversations like that before. So we would see in ourselves that as a weakness or as a flaw or something that was gonna hold us back from success, I think. And having these conversations in community and allowing some of that authentic part of our journeys to come through, I think is also really helpful because it, it shatters that, that pedestal that these women might have been on and allows us to really acknowledge that we can all get there. And I think that that is, is all is equally as important as the, the community and connections and networking that comes from those spaces.

Thanks. Uh, well before we end our call, I had one other thing I wanted to tap into, but we're gonna run out of time. Um, but I know that I already would love to have you come back because there's so many things before we even got on this call that we could have added to the list in our conversation. So we're gonna put a pin in it, but I love so much that these, um, conversations in this series have brought such incredible women into this space. So thank you for being here. Um, the last two questions are, um, play homage to the rapid fire portion of a traditional soul of travel conversation. So there's just two questions, uh, to end this, uh, conversation. The first is, what are you reading right now?


New book I'm reading, um, Simon Sinek Leaders Eats Last and a second book, which I keep going back to is Crucial Conversations.


Thank you for sharing those. Um, and then the last question is really just, um, an acknowledgement of women in this space. Soul of Travel is really for telling the stories of women and, um, os honoring the positive impact that they're creating. I'd love for you to share the name of one woman you'd like to recognize in this space.


One of the, someone that I consistently go back to because she was, she blew my mind when I first started in the industry because it seemed like she was the only woman in the drinks business at the time, um, who was paving away and she continues to celebrate women is Anna Sebastian,


Thank you so much and thank you so much for this conversation. Um, I feel like we packed so much into this amount of time and there's so many things that I want to go back to and reflect upon and I think a lot of things that, um, women can listen to and really take away some insight on, you know, what the opportunities are, um, but where there are still barriers and how we can support one another in moving through those. So thank you so much for your time today. Thank


You for having me and I look forward to our second conversation. Yeah,


I can't wait. Thank you.


Thank you for listening to Soul of Travel podcast. I hope you enjoyed the journey. Thank you to Women in Travel, cic, ELIZAs Saciri, and the Zeta Maron for this special episode. If you love this conversation, I encourage you to follow, write the podcast and share this episode with others when sharing on social media. Be sure to tag Soul of Travel podcast and women in Travel cic. You can find them on Instagram at Women in Travel underscore CIC and on LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram at she dot sojourns or at Soul of Travel podcast. Stay up to date by joining our mailing list. Visit I look forward to getting to know you and hopefully hearing your story.