Women in Hospitality: Shafiyya Steinhilber, Associate Director of Sales at Hotel Jen
For our latest Women in Hospitality interview, we speak to Associate Director of Sales at Hotel Jen, Shafiyya Steinhilber. In an industry where women make up only 8% of the workforce (of which only 3% are Maldivian women), this series aims to spotlight women in leadership positions throughout the Maldivian hospitality sector. Here Shafiyya talks about how she started her career journey as a restaurant hostess and worked tirelessly to become Hotel Jen’s youngest associate director.
Where did it all begin for you? What was your first role in the hospitality sector and what did you learn from it?
It all began in school. I was very different to my classmates, always dreaming of excitement – studying was a necessity but utterly boring! I was attracted by the tourism industry and the chances it offered of financial independence. So as soon as I left school in 2002, I joined Conrad Rangali Island as a restaurant hostess. It provided me with the excitement and challenges that I had been craving and also it meant that I was earning to support my family. I was one of only two Maldivian girls on the resort at the time and I can remember feeling daunted. However, I soon learnt what it meant to stand on your own two feet and finally, I felt independent.
How did you move on from there? How did your career progress?
As I was not a bookworm, I had to put all my efforts into my career in the hotel industry – I believed I could still make it without a diploma or a degree if I pushed myself to learn and grow. I’ve also been goal-oriented and I knew one day that I would be in a managerial position with a big team. From Hilton I moved to Taj Exotica as an F&B supervisor then to Four Seasons as to work in guest relations and I hopped around quite a bit. Then I got married and wanted to be in the capital city so I joined Holiday Inn as Reservations Supervisor, thinking I that I would move again in a year’s time.
In November 2010, the hotel was taken over by Shangri-La and was re-branded as Traders Hotel Malé, Maldives and I found myself with my first managerial position as assistant reservations manager. It was here that I truly changed; gone was my desire for continuous hopping from one resort to another. Here I found I could grow roots and develop my career. Here I found stability.
What is it that attracted you to working in sales?
As reservations manager, I was based in the sales & marketing department. I was multi-tasking and slowly I began to do a lot of sales-related work, without even realising it! I liked it but I was very happy in reservations I so was hesitant to leave it behind for a dedicated sales role. I actually turned down the opportunity twice before finally making the move. I love meeting new people but even more than that, I like being able to close a sale and deliver on a promise. It gives me great satisfaction. I also like leading my team, it gives me a purpose to cultivate my skills as well as develop my team.
What has been your greatest professional accomplishment to date?
My greatest achievement is being where I am today, as an associate director of sales. It’s a big accomplishment having come from a humble beginning as a hostess. As a Maldivian I’m proud to be working for an international hotel company.
Over the years, I have also been a model for several fashion TV shows and catwalks and that has also given me the confidence to pursue my career. Having had that experience, I realised that perception is something that is often hard to control but it gave me the strength to work hard.
Who has been your greatest inspiration professionally? What did you learn from them?
There are three people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. First and foremost is my mother. She is gentle yet has grit. She instilled in me the need to be honest and sincere and independent. I am nobody without her. My next biggest hero is my husband Rainer, who encouraged me to stand tall and strong, whilst supporting me all the way in my chosen career. Professionally, my general manager, Vathsala Subramaniam is a key source of my inspiration. Over the span of two years, she pushed me into revenue management, exposed me to overseas trainings then slowly (without me realising it) guided me into sales. She is tough but she picks you up, dusts you off and then pushes you forward again.
You’ve been in the industry for over a decade. What have been the most noticeable changes and trends during that time?
Obviously the most noticeable change in recent years has been the shifting of our clientele from mostly European guests to mostly travellers from the Asia Pacific region, namely the Chinese. I have also noticed in recent years that the competition between resorts is getting tougher, there are so many new resorts opening every year, and you need to be quick and decisive in your actions, especially in sales strategies to be able to stay on top in this business.
What trends do you predict will influence the Maldivian hospitality industry in the future?
I think the near future will be dominated by an increase in sustainable tourism. Especially in the Maldives, we all have to be more aware and to be careful with our natural resources, not only in the hospitality industry. We need to understand the fine balance between business and revenue growth on one side and being environmentally friendly on the other side. It is important to incorporate sustainable CSR programs in coordination with local communities, and I think we’ll see an increase of these.
During your time in the sector, have you encountered any barriers to accessing a leadership position within the tourism sector?
Definitely. I think I’m being honest when I say that as a woman you have to work harder in order to achieve the deserved recognition and success in your work. Management is still an overwhelmingly male domain. However, I believe that with hard work and dedication you can achieve anything, whether you’re a woman or a man. Society is changing and there is more acceptance of women in leadership positions now. The hospitality industry provides many opportunities to women willing to succeed.
In your opinion, why are there so few women in the industry? How can this issue be tackled?
Nowadays, there are an increasing number of Maldivian women in the tourism industry, even in management positions, which is great to see. When I started my career back in 2002 it was almost seen as a sin for a local woman to work in a resort. I remember that my parents were not too pleased with my choice because the perception they had is different from what we see now. Yet, there’s still more that can be done to educate the community. I believe that we have to move forward and young Maldivians have an incredible opportunity here – they have international brands on their doorstep waiting for them to join. It’s frustrating for me that many young Maldivians don’t realise this!
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
I believe the challenges are the same as they were back when I started my career, but nowadays the society is more accepting. People can now see what women can achieve with proper education, hard work and steady dedication. Looking at my own family it makes me happy to see how proud they are of me and my achievements. I am proud to say that I am respected within the industry as well as in the local community. I hope that I can inspire young girls to follow in my footsteps in the hospitality industry.