To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sit down with four extraordinary women who are driving change in the business events industry.
Alongside the men who have supported their careers, we find out what it means to be a working mum at the helm of Asia’s events industry, their advice for women seeking leadership roles, and why #metoo isn’t just about women.
Marine Debatte and David Litteken, BI Worldwide
As BI Worldwide’s head of events, Asia Pacific Japan/China, Marine Debatte runs a tight ship in company’s Singapore office. She is often on the road planning or executing events and is the mother of two young children. It’s a tough juggling act, but one she thrives on.
“Motherhood is a big question for many,” she says. “It is tough and challenging and puzzling at times, but it is also a strength. I don’t think I’ve ever been so productive since becoming a mum.”
She adds: “Young women are worried they won’t be able or willing to put in the hours anymore, that their families will judge them for working, etc. Your support system is important. Is your family/partner/boss supporting your will to work or ambition to grow? If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you can’t embark on this journey alone.
“There is still a lot of pressure (and taboo) around being a parent and working in our demanding industry, but companies and leaders have a responsibility in being open, flexible and supportive… On the bright side, our industry makes us mobile. My clients will see me carrying my ‘office’ with me around town because, well, my work is where my laptop is. That flexibility is what helps me keep it together.”
Working at BI Worldwide, Debatte says she has never encountered a glass ceiling, but cautions that not all sides of the industry are as progressive.
“On the agency side, women lead very often and that gives us huge opportunities,” she says. “In some markets, being a women is a real edge, in others it’s a real challenge that is not spoken of much. On the production side, it is a very manly world, but there are some exceptions and these will only grow.”
David Litteken, APAC vice president, met Debatte in Shanghai when she joined the company five years ago.
“I remember that meeting like it was yesterday, primarily because Marine was so impressive. She was impressive then and she continues to amaze me with the way she directs our MICE business in Asia Pacific. Our relationship has evolved as our business has grown and our trust levels elevated,” he says.
“In the beginning, Marine was totally focused on the operations side. It is safe to say we have a solid account servicing model under her leadership and she wanted to do more and stretch herself by getting much more engaged in programme design and creativity. She is a natural and this creative outlet has let her continue to grow and thrive on the job.”
As a global company, Litteken says BI Worldwide supports all employees, not just women.
“There are many sweeping generalisations out there which would suggest the events business is and should be dominated by women. Men are really missing the boat on getting into the business. At BI Worldwide, we provide our staff with career opportunities and leadership paths.
“I believe about half of our key leaders globally are women, but that was not the case ten years ago. Women play a key part in the events industry and it is important that the leadership be representative of the composition of the greater workforce.”
As the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum internationally, Litteken says business leaders need to sharpen their focus on workplace safety.
“As an industry, we need to educate ourselves on how to spot the potential for [sexual harassment] and mitigate them from happening both in the workplace and when on-site at events. In addition, we need to have proven methods for managing incidents if they do occur when we are on a programme operation. We need to step our game regarding this in our safety and security plans, which means we at BIW have another strategic imperative to undertake in 2018.”
Debatte adds: “For me, #metoo is not only about women, it’s about the abuse of power, which can be applied to anyone regardless of sex, gender, caste or religion. In Asia-Pacific it remains an everlasting challenge to find balance between respecting local culture and putting an end to ancient traditions/behaviours that can be prejudicial.”
Prapaphan Sungmuang and Sumate Sudasna, Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA)
Prapaphan Sungmuang, affectionately known to her colleagues as Ying, has worked at the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA) for more than 20 years – and her passion for the business events industry is as fierce as ever.
“This year marks my 25th year with TICA and I am still learning new things. I love the knowledge the business events industry offers even though our industry is barely 50 years old. The people make the success of our business.”
As TICA general manager, Sungmuang says leadership is about nurturing young talent.
“A leader should be like a parent, here to guide the next generation of talent. Allow them to digest our legacy and draw inspiration from it to create tomorrow’s future,” she says. “Leading by example is what I have experienced from our president, Khun Sumate Sudasna, and industry colleagues who have never given up on me. It is their graceful leadership that inspires my style of leadership.”
TICA president Sumate Sudasna says Sungmuang has played an important role in the association’s progress.
“I had been on the board for some time when Ying joined TICA and have seen her progress steadily to the top of the association. Although the not-for-profit sector is not as robust as private enterprises, I see that it is never an easy task to get results while keeping everyone contented. To this end she has done very well.”
When it comes to equal opportunity in Asia, Sungmuang says Thailand is leading the pack.
“I feel that we are very lucky in Thailand. We are known for being progressive in Asia for embracing diversity and inclusion. Not only do we respect men and women, we respect all other genders. Because of our gentle nature, we tend to be more tolerant. We believe in getting the job done through teamwork and, regardless of gender, everyone plays a part.”
Sudasna adds: “I think our industry honours and respects women quite equally as we do work shoulder to shoulder across all levels and – not being prejudice myself – I believe women achieve better results, and I hope my male counterparts agree.”
With no shortage of female leaders in Thailand’s business events industry, Sungmuang, says we need to promote greater diversity and inclusion for all.
“Other than women and other genders, my success has been supported by many men too, especially when becoming a mother to my two daughters. Maybe our industry can adopt the hashtag #mentoo to celebrate our support for each other.”
Penny Lion and John O’Sullivan, Tourism Australia
Like Thailand, the business events industry in Australia is dominated by strong female leaders – including Penny Lion, executive general manager of events at Tourism Australia.
“Our industry is fortunate in having a strong female representation, not only at entry level but also in senior roles,” Lion says. “You only have to look at our Australian convention bureaus to see a high percentage are run by women. This has created a strong culture of equality and certainly in my experience there are equal opportunities for men and women, but more importantly there is a balance of opinion and a healthy respect for different points of view.”
Women make up 70 per cent of the workforce at Tourism Australia – where four of the six members on the executive leadership team are women.
Tourism Australia’s managing director, John O’Sullivan, who has worked with Lion since assuming his current position in 2014, is a strong advocate for promoting the achievements of women in the industry.
“I think the business events sector in Australia has been very good at empowering women and giving them a strong voice that is perhaps not evident in other industries,” he said. “It is really testament to the women at the forefront of this dynamic sector who pioneered the way and established this important sector of our visitor economy.”
And when it comes to empowerment, Lion says business leaders can learn a lot from the #metoo movement.
“It is important to foster an environment of support and communication that allows openness – and zero tolerance to inappropriate behaviour – and I think the impact of this movement has been felt across all industries. With business events being such a people to people industry, the movement can only bring positive results for both women and men – and the generations to come.”
Selina Chavry and Hervé Joseph-Antoine, Pacific World
Selina Chavry has risen through the ranks of global DMC and event management company Pacific World, and was appointed global managing director in 2015.
“I developed my career in the business events industry in London, Sydney and Singapore, which gave me the diverse cultural experience needed to expand Pacific World into major new locations worldwide,” Chavry says. “For me, being a leader means leading the next generation of our industry, and I lead by example with passion and energy.”
Chavry believes there are growth opportunities for both men and women in business events as the industry experiences rapid change.
“The industry is becoming more global, which means companies need individuals who are able to work with various cultures and who are adaptable to different working environments,” she says. “The events industry will benefit from more women who are willing to speak and give our industry a voice. We need to attract young talent in order to continue growing.”
Pacific World chairman and regional managing director Asia Pacific of Hotelbeds Group (parent company of Pacific World) Hervé Joseph-Antoine, says the company supports women in the workforce by fostering an environment that welcomes change and innovation.
“We pride ourselves in being at the forefront of the industry with our dynamic and multicultural event professionals. We expect for the gap to continue to close by encouraging women to advance to more leadership positions. Selina provides our team with an excellent example of an effective leader.”