BY GENEVIEVE MASHBURN
My occasional social anxiety had decided to make an appearance and was causing my ears and face to flush with nervous heat as I navigated the art deco opulence of the Dewberry Hotel lobby.
As I approached the ballroom, I had already equated in my mind, this oncoming experience to that of a baby or bridal shower, Junior League meeting or sorority mixer: the kind of dense congregation of women the likes of which I’d made it a habit to avoid.
Checked in with laminate and materials in hand, I scanned the room for familiar faces, and admittedly, the bar. Targets acquired, thank god. My friend Ashley, general ray of sunshine and manager for a celebrated local restaurant with a newly won James Beard under their belt, was already chatting with a small group and sipping rosé. As a matter of fact, everyone’s drinking rosé. Go figure...
Fast forward about an hour and a half: I’m now sitting on the tented patio adjacent the ballroom, tears in eyes, clapping earnestly and enthusiastically for Laura Wagstaff, the special events coordinator for Nomad Hotels and Make it Nice Hospitality Group. She’s just delivered the keynote: a refreshingly grounded tale of personal and professional struggle due to surprise health-related circumstances and the lessons learned therein. Looking around the crowd of women, all applauding and clearly moved in the same fashion, I am relieved and, moreover, excited for the two days of lectures and events ahead.
The tone for FAB, an educational conference for females in hospitality, has been set. In hindsight, I feel foolish and narrow- minded for my earlier concerns and anxieties. What has been cultivated here and has called these women to take part, is an unique opportunity for judgement-free, all-inclusive information sharing, support and empowerment.
This is the second year of FAB, which takes place in the southern culinary mecca of Charleston, South Carolina and was founded by many a F&B gal’s friend and mentor, Randi Weinstein. Randi says the goal of the conference is to ‘Educate, Inspire, Activate or Re-educate, Re-inspire, Re-activate - depending upon where you are in your career.’
FAB offers two tracts to select from and follow. The 101 track is geared toward women committing to develop a career in the industry, while the 202 is aimed to aid women who currently own, or are interested in owning, their own businesses. Both involve two days of workshops: carefully chosen topics covered by a specifically selected panel of four hospitality professionals and one moderator to move the conversations along. Topics run the gamut: from Tech to PR and Marketing to HR to Sustainability to Industry Trends and beyond.
My first workshop was ‘Cut the $hit, Embrace Sustainability’, a truly inspiring conversation about moving your hospitality business into a more sustainable future. While some seemingly obvious points were touched on: using every part of your product (stems and tops and bones), recyclable vs. compostable, etc., the overarching message here was flat out education. In order to make your company more sustainable, you have to generate the understanding of why that shift is important and valuable. As an owner, operator or manager you must then parlay that knowledge into enthusiasm for the ‘cause’ in order to maintain the buy-in from your staff, your customers and the local community. Your goals may feel lofty and unobtainable, and the push back may be palpable, yet hearing the panelists discuss their business’ massive strides towards sustainability only further reinforced the fact that if you stick to your guns, your company CAN make a difference.
Riding this inspiration high, I charged through my next five panels, devouring information and insight. From ‘Creating & Sustaining Culture’ to ‘Inspiring Strong Leaders’ these sessions all largely dealt with the psychology of our industry and how we might save ourselves and mentor others to navigate a hospitality career in a healthy and balanced way. As I am sure is relatable across many fields, the hospitality industry demands a great deal of us. Often it is necessary to wear many hats and multitask readily, to be extremely physically active for hours on end, and abandon any sort of reliable sleep or eating schedule. For those of us who aren’t naturally extroverted, the social aspect of interacting with guests and navigating the many personalities on your team can be particularly draining. This year’s FAB was on the heels of Anthony Bourdain’s untimely passing and the context was resonating profoundly.
The panelists offered a wealth of advice to take with you, such as create a green space on your business’ property, allow yourself to be vulnerable and present but be wary of excessive empathy, and do not be afraid to speak truth to power. There was also plenty of blunt candor: talk of unabashedly smoking pot and playing video games to unwind and why they were let go from a past position. In this manner, these heavy topics were addressed with voices that were encouragingly relatable and also balanced a tone of respectful professionalism with unapologetic realness. Hearing the questions and testimonials from the other attendees and then seeing their faces upon the close of each workshop, I knew I wasn’t alone in this assessment.
I could of course go into more detail on these dynamic conversations. Then I could describe the other aspects which contribute so greatly to the experience of FAB: the curated catering services, clever pop-ups, tasty luncheons and buzzing social happy hours - all of which incorporating female-run businesses.
I could portray the pure joy and admiration emanating from a gaggle of bright-eyed, young F&B women surrounding Barbara Lynch as she held court on the steps outside Tu restaurant. Then paint a picture of the female filled dining room of tables enjoying their inventive fare and clinking glasses in celebration and camaraderie.
I could elaborate on how this conference was just what the doctor ordered, after only this spring I chose to walk away from a labor of love/dream concept due to a particularly toxic professional partnership. Yes, I could wax poetically for pages on all these points. However, for me and for many other attendees I’m sure, the greatest take away was: you are not alone. Our personal and professional realities are more often than not, extremely similar to one another. In reaching out, connecting, and communicating we can tap into incredible strength, knowledge, inspiration and support. FAB facilitates this connection.
Oh, and that rosé everyone was slinging back at the welcome event: that company is founded, owned and operated by a mother/daughter team.
A heartfelt thank you to Genevieve Mashburn for sharing her FAB experience so eloquently.
Have you been to a FAB event? Let us know in the comments below!