Leah Edwards doesn’t need to read the many global reports or peruse international panels to know that female executives are few and far between in the luxury hotel business — she’s lived it. Currently, Edwards is the GM at the west side’s trendiest new property, Venice V, but after years of working in hospitality, she’s had plenty of personal experience with being the only woman in the room. Kicking off her career as a reservations agent at the Oceana Hotel in 2007, Edwards eventually worked her way up to GM at the property, but even then, the view from the top wasn’t necessarily welcoming.
“When I started at age 29 I was the only female GM in Santa Monica,” Edwards remembered during our recent in-person interview. We camped out in one of V’s coveted penthouse suites to go over some of her past experiences, which reveal just how dire the lack of diversity in Los Angeles hospitality still is. “It was interesting, because I didn’t know that the city put on GM meetings, or that they had committees that hotels were a part of. The first committee I walked into, there were just all these middle aged white men looking back at me. I was the only woman.”
Like plenty of people who end up building a career in hospitality, Edwards actually fell into the field by accident. Born and raised in Laguna Beach, California, she’s a SoCal native with two older brothers, and a self-described “tomboy” growing up. After attending Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, she graduated from their business school in 2007 — and moved back to California to begin looking for a job during one of the most brutal economic recessions in recent history. A few months in with no real prospects, she accepted what she thought would be a stopover gig.
“I saw an ad on Craigslist for a reservations agent position at Oceana in Santa Monica,” she remembered. “Applied for it, interviewed with the GM at the New York property, and started there in 2007.” Around that time, the property had just finished a $15 million renovation, and Edwards was coming on during the hotel’s grand reopening. But after three months as a reservationist, she found herself bored with the relatively easy process and asked her boss for more work, leading to a role as a sales coordinator. From there, she was quickly promoted to sales manager, then reservations manager, and finally, revenue and front office manager.
“I got to the point where I was really overworked and underpaid,” she said. “I was really burnt out, doing three jobs and getting paid for one, so I had a conversation with the SVP of the property. He said ‘Well where do you see yourself in three years?’ and I said ‘I see myself as the GM.’ And he laughed in my face. So I quit.” Knowing her worth worked — after a year and a half, the very person who laughed in Leah’s face called and asked her to come back as GM. To her credit, she did return, and served as Oceana’s GM for three years, eventually moving up to Corporate Director of Revenue for the property.
Leah’s story is one with a relatively happy ending, and just one example of a larger problem that isn’t confined to Santa Monica, California, or even America. The gender gap in hotel management is a long-recognized global problem within the hospitality industry. Just this month, Hospitality Net hosted a panel that sought to “move gender diversity from a female fight to an industry fight,” noting that while women do make up half of the workforce in the hospitality sector, there’s a “significant gap in terms of rank, pay, role and general progression in women’s leadership positions.” The panel also noted that “female representation falls as women rise in their careers.” Hotel Business noted in 2020 that out of 40 hotels in the Connecticut-based group HEI Hotels & Resorts, just four of the GMs were women.
And it isn’t something that can just be blamed on career shifts within the context of the pandemic, either. Back in 2018, Travel Weekly reported on the gender gap in hospitality management, speaking with British hotel group Dukes Collection’s managing director, Debrah Dhugga, who said that she’s the only woman at the general manager or higher level at a London luxury hotel. “It’s very traditional,” she told the trade publication. “I think it goes back to the old days where it was always male-dominated. When you think of old pubs and hotels and the main master keeper of the keys […] It’s getting better, but there’s a lot of development that still needs to happen.”
Proper Hospitality, who manages Venice V as part of The Collective – “a curation of design-driven independent hotels” — is a company where that kind of change is coming. Edwards said she’s noticed a shift throughout the industry, particularly since beginning her role at the Venice property this spring. “I will say I have seen more and more female GMs come up in the ranks,” she said. “For instance, Proper, we have four female GMs in the company. That’s a great example of how companies are changing. A lot of the female GMs that I know are much harder workers than the male GMs, because they feel like they have to prove something. And that’s unfortunate that, especially in 2021, we’re still having to do that.”
When I first met Leah, it was during a press stay at the newly-opened Venice V this summer, a familiarity tour to show journalists around a property in consideration for coverage. She was bright and friendly checking me in, as I mentioned I’d left my wallet on yet another recent stay, and was therefore put a credit card down for the usual incidentals hold fee. I expected her to need to consult a manager on the subject, or get flustered, but she waved my inconvenience off like it was nothing, making me feel welcome despite the issue.
This, I think, is the real marker of hospitality — letting someone feel like their failures aren’t that. Making a guest feel at home with whatever they’ve brought to the table. It was only later, when another member of the hotel staff mentioned she was the GM, that I realized I’d never met a female GM before. Even after several years of experience covering travel, women were always maids and front desk staff. I’d grown used to the hospitality world’s easy, predictable sexism, accepting it without even noticing.
Edwards ended up working at V after the tumult of 2020 began to subside. Her last role at Oceana, as Corporate Director of Revenue led to another corporate level gig at Pacifica Hotels, where she served as the Regional Director of Revenue Management for about a year. Last summer, though, economic fallout from the pandemic led to her furlough and eventual lay off from that role. Never one to rest on her laurels, Edwards used the time off to take two hotel management certification classes through Cornell, one in real estate investment and assets management, and another in HR essentials.
It was the former that opened her eyes to some of the unconscious bias she’d experienced over the years. “I never really understood conscious bias, or felt like I was in any way looked down upon,” she said. “But it was wild when I was doing the HR essentials course, because I realized that was 100% what had happened to me. The more I thought about it, the more angry I got. Until I finally just accepted it and decided ok, now I know what to do moving forward.”
Taking the job at Venice V in April, Edwards is looking forward to showing guests her personal definition of hospitality at one of the only beachfront, boutique hotels in the eclectic neighborhood. If the lobby mural composed entirely of skateboard wheels doesn’t tip you off, the bold design choices and artistic touches in each room will drive it home — whether it’s a mini fridge made out of a converted speaker, custom tiled showers, or bohemian chandeliers.
With just 34 rooms, staying at the V is a cozy, unique experienceon LA’s west side, which tends to favor space over charm. Housed in a historic 1915 brick building — that was once occupied by famous residents like Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow — the property was originally known as The Waldorf, and dubbed “the Jewel of Ocean Front Walk.” Thoughtfully restored with no two rooms alike and a whopping seven rooftop penthouse bungalows (!), ocean views and Instagram-worthy interiors abound. Exposed bricks and wood beams live alongside wicker furniture, rawhide throws, and preserved graffiti or local skate and surf photography.
Another obvious draw for this property is beachfront access: The hotel hosts private yoga classes most mornings, along with providing bike, surfboard and skateboard rentals to help guests make the most of their visit. For locals, a great way to check out the property without breaking the bank is taking advantage of a midweek 20% discount for a lovely staycation by the water. And if you need anything along the way, Leah will be there to accommodate every guests’ needs as best she can, all while upholding her own personal integrity in a tricky, still-evolving field.
“Hospitality is an innate quality that you have to have,” she said. “I’m the type of person where I’m not a people pleaser, but I love to make people happy. You have to maintain our own personal integrity and appease the guest — and there’s always a way to do both. There’s a very fine line between being personable and personal, and you have to walk that balance. Especially at a hotel of this size, if you can’t provide spectacular service, you’re not doing your job right.”
Learn more about Venice V here.