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Future Hospitality Summit (FHS) Saudi Arabia: Women in Hospitality

Future Hospitality Summit (FHS) Saudi Arabia: Women in Hospitality

FHS Saudi Arabia, taking place in Riyadh from 29 April to 1 May, has a strong female focus this year, reflecting the rise of women in the Kingdom’s hospitality and tourism industries, and encouraging more to embark on a career in the sector.

With International Women’s Day (8 March) just around the corner and FHS Saudi Arabia less than two months away, female forces in the Middle East’s hospitality sector share their thoughts on what women already bring to the industry, and how hospitality and tourism businesses can turn KSA’s young women of today into the leaders of tomorrow.

As part of its commitment to recognise the important role of women in the sector, FHS Saudi Arabia organiser, The Bench, has launched #FHSWomenPower, a new campaign for this year’s event.  Under the initiative, The Bench is offering female Saudi nationals who hold leading positions in the country’s hospitality sector to attend FHS free of charge.

Read on for insight and expert opinion from Marie-Louise Ek, Vice President Human Resources Middle East and Africa, Hilton; Shaikha Al Nowais, Corporate Vice President of Owner Relationship Management, Rotana; Marloes Knippenberg, Chief Executive Officer, Kerten Hospitality; Eng. Orobah Filfilan, Architect, Saudi Icon; Norah Al Tamimi, Chief Executive Officer, Baheej Company, and Aseel Bondagjy, Hotel Talent Development Manager, and Maryam AlQahtani, Brand Experience Professional, NEOM.

What is your organisation doing to champion gender diversity and women empowerment in the hospitality industry in line with Saudi Vision 2030 and the region’s social and economic aspirations?


Marie-Louise Ek, Vice President Human Resources Middle East and Africa, Hilton: At Hilton we are in a business of people serving people. We lead with culture and we are committed to creating an inclusive work environment, driven by purpose, offering strong growth opportunities, and providing support to empower Team Members to thrive every day. Last year, we were recognised as the World’s Best Workplace and we remain committed to providing a great place to work for all.

Gender diversity is a key objective for us and we’ve taken significant steps toward recruiting and upskilling more Team Members. Recently, we trained over 15 internal facilitators to run our ‘Women in Leadership’ programme across the Kingdom to help train and nurture the next generation of female leaders and hotel General Managers. Additionally, we’ve welcomed more than 250 trainees through our doors, including more than 200 women in the last two years, further igniting the passion for tourism and hospitality among youth. The impact is evident in the fact that 20% of our Team Members in KSA are now women working in roles ranging from frontline to hotel managers, and we have tripled the number of women in Heads of Department roles since 2021 across the Kingdom.

Eng. Orobah Filfilan, Architect, Saudi Icon: Saudi Icon gives equal opportunities to all its employees and embraces a positive team culture. I was hired as an architect, but upon viewing my skill set and potential, the company provided me with the choice to expand my field of responsibilities, roles, and tasks as an employee within the company and grow my career as a Saudi female architect.

Aseel Bondagjy, Hotel Talent Development Manager, NEOM: We are committed to promoting gender diversity and women empowerment in the hospitality industry. Our initiatives are aligned with Saudi Vision 2030 and include targeted programs such as culinary arts and leadership training, which aim to empower Saudi women with the skills they need to achieve success in the hospitality sector.

Marloes Knippenberg, Chief Executive Officer, Kerten Hospitality: As a global enterprise, championing gender diversity and women empowerment is encoded in the DNA of Kerten Hospitality, aligning closely with Saudi Vision 2030 and regional aspirations. Gender diversity in recruitment, implementing mentorship programs, and cultivating an inclusive work environment is in our nature and forms an integral part of our UBBU (United Building a Better Universe) agenda. Nakhati, is one of the many ways we exemplify our commitment to empowering women and fostering community engagement. One of Kerten Hospitality’s brands, Nakhati stands as a pioneering force – the first female-led, purpose-driven brand. Saudi entrepreneur Eman Fallatah tirelessly cultivated both the brand and her own capabilities. Now, Eman passes the torch to another remarkable Saudi woman, Executive Chef Walaa Taher. Under Walaa’s leadership, Nakhati enters its next transformative phase, laser-focused on a franchise model aimed at empowering more women.

Shaikha Al Nowais, Corporate Vice President of Owner Relationship Management, Rotana: Rotana is committed to advancing gender diversity and empowering women in the workplace, across all departments and levels of our operations. As a company, we embrace diversity and inclusion that brings different perspectives, skills and experiences to the decision-making process. Whether equal pay and benefits, education and training, and supportive workplace policies. We introduced our flagship TAROT (The Accelerated Refinement of Talent) programme, which offers our employees a fast-track development path to be trained for 12 months with progressive growth opportunities. We currently have several female candidates across all departments, participating in this programme.

Norah Al Tamimi, Chief Executive Officer, Baheej Company: At Baheej, we believe in giving everyone – regardless of gender – a fair shot at success. While we are newly established, being the CEO of the company shows our commitment to gender equality and the progressive values of our shareholders. We’re not just talking the talk; we’re walking the walk, sending a powerful message about our commitment to breaking barriers, and creating a welcoming space for everyone to thrive.
In your opinion, what qualities and skills do women bring to the sector? 

Marloes Knippenberg: Women bring valuable qualities such as empathy, communication, attention to detail, adaptability, and creativity to the hospitality sector. Their diverse skill set and perspectives enrich the industry, driving innovation and enhancing guest experiences.

Eng. Orobah Filfilan: I believe that women possess the acumen and capability of viewing all sorts of issues and concerns with fresh lenses and from various perspectives, which enables us to provide insight and feedback that tackles all the most vital aspects of any given situation that might not be very axiomatic at first glance.

Norah Al Tamimi: Although I don’t like to generalise, from my experience, women excel at building strong teams, fostering cooperation, and lifting each other. Additionally, their communication skills facilitate effective collaboration and understanding within teams. Women also tend to demonstrate exceptional attention to detail, ensuring meticulous execution in all aspects of their work.

Shaikha Al Nowais: Women bring invaluable qualities and skills to the hospitality sector, including a refreshed sense of innovation and creativity. Their attention to detail, problem-solving skills, and collaborative nature enhances team dynamics. Companies with women on boards may be better positioned to adapt to changing market dynamics, and develop products and services that resonate with a broader audience.  Their resilience and adaptability in navigating challenges make them indispensable assets to our industry’s success.

Aseel Bondagjy: Women bring a unique perspective on the warmth of Saudi culture to the table. Historically, we have managed family-run guesthouses, catering services, and small-scale food businesses, serving women and families. Women have also always played a crucial role in welcoming and hosting pilgrims during Hajj and Umrah. It is in our nature, and we bring diverse skills and qualities to the hospitality sector which contribute to creating a vibrant and inclusive industry that reflects our rich cultural traditions.

How do you tackle challenges associated with working women, such as motherhood and cultural dynamics? For example, do you offer flexible working hours?

Marloes Knippenberg: We foster a supportive and inclusive work environment where employees are encouraged to openly communicate their needs. By providing agile and adaptable solutions, we empower our workforce to balance their professional responsibilities with personal obligations, ensuring they can thrive both personally and professionally.
Norah Al Tamimi: At Baheej, we recognise the importance of supporting working women in overcoming challenges such as cultural dynamics and family responsibilities. That’s why we offer flexible working hours, maternity leave, and perks like lactation rooms and childcare assistance. We’re all about supporting our team to thrive both personally and professionally.

Shaikha Al Nowais: While it’s challenging to pinpoint a single most impactful action, supportive workplace policies such as flexible working arrangements, parental leave policies, and childcare support create a more inclusive work environment. At Rotana, we are proud to offer a comprehensive range of benefits to support working parents, including flexible working arrangements, 10 weeks maternity leave, and more. These measures ensure that all employees, regardless of gender or family responsibilities, can thrive in our organisation.

Eng. Orobah Filfilan: I don’t see the relevance of comparing a woman’s career and personal life, such as motherhood and the like. Yes, it does take a toll to juggle between the two, but history has always given testimony to the complexity of a woman’s role in society. Saudi Icon understands the importance of that role, so they provide their employees the option to discuss the most suitable workflow that not only maintains ideal output, but also a healthy work-life balance.

What percentage of your current workforce is female and how does this compare to this time last year, and five years ago?

Marloes Knippenberg: Diversity is a cornerstone of our workforce, with women comprising 57% of our team, reflecting our commitment to inclusivity. We prioritise diversity within our leadership, recognising the invaluable contributions women make to our organisation.

Shaikha Al Nowais: We are proud that, out of Rotana’s total Saudi workforce, 31% are female. Currently, women represent 20.5% of the total workforce for the group. Rotana has made deliberate efforts to enhance its gender diversity through targeted recruitment, retention strategies, and inclusive policies. This upward trend reflects our commitment to fostering an equitable workplace where all individuals can thrive and contribute effectively to Rotana’s success.

Eng. Orobah Filfilan: Since the establishment of Vision 2030, there has been an evident increase in the percentage of female employees in the workflow in the last decade.

The Riyadh School for Tourism and Hospitality will open in 2027 as part of KSA’s vision to diversity its economy and boost the tourism sector.  How will this – and other educational initiatives – further encourage females to choose a career in hospitality?

Norah Al Tamimi: Hospitality has seen an increase in opportunities for young female leaders. The Saudization of the industry, together with the Ministry of Tourism’s initiatives to train and empower women, will provide more women with the skills and confidence required to seek career paths in hotel management. With government assistance in challenging preconceptions and developing talent, the industry is paving the way for a new generation of female hospitality leaders.

Marie Louise EK: It’s important to engage with individuals early on in their careers and we actively collaborate with hospitality schools and academic institutions across the Kingdom to provide training and internship programmes. Our partnership with Bunyan for Training, a Saudi affiliate of the renowned Swiss Hospitality Management School Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne has resulted in internships and job placements for 32 young Saudi nationals with more than half of the students being young women graduating later this year. This shows a great collaborative effort, helping to pave the way for the next generation of young Saudis to kickstart a thriving career in hospitality. 

Shaikha Al Nowais: These initiatives will provide specialised training and education tailored to the industry’s needs, empowering women with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in various hospitality roles. Through these programmes, successful female role models within the sector are highlighted, helping to inspire more women to consider and pursue opportunities within hospitality. Gender-inclusive environments are at the forefront of attracting and retaining top talent as employees often seek workplaces that prioritise diversity and inclusion.

Marloes Knippenberg: Initiatives like the Riyadh School for Tourism and Hospitality empower women to pursue careers in hospitality by providing specialised education, breaking gender stereotypes, and fostering an inclusive environment. By showcasing diverse career opportunities, these initiatives inspire women to become leaders and innovators in the industry.

Aseel Bondagjy: It is wonderful to see these initiatives and shows how Saudi Vision 2030 continues to bring progress every day. These programs, like the ones of NEOM Hotel Division in collaboration with partners like ZADK Academy, will create a pathway for Saudi youth, including women, to become the changemakers and cultural ambassadors of our industry. And when young women across our Kingdom see women succeeding in this industry, I know they will want to join us to be part of something truly transformative.

Eng. Orobah Filfilan: From my experience, most of the career concerns young women have been often centered around the guarantee of securing a job. Knowing that there will be a high demand for Saudi employees in the tourism and hospitality sector—among other related industries—will encourage women to pursue that path and seize the opportunities that would allow them to advance further in that sector.

Over 60 per cent of the KSA population is under 30 years old. How can the hospitality industry seize the opportunity to turn the country’s young female population of today into the hospitality and tourism leaders of tomorrow?

Norah Al Tamimi: The Kingdom’s hospitality sector has hit 21.7 percent Saudization, and 11.3 percent of them are female workers. By recognising hospitality as an emerging field for both talented young men and women and leveraging the ongoing hospitality projects in Saudi Arabia, we can create pathways for female leadership by breaking down cultural barriers and providing equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

With notable female figures making significant strides in the industry, like Eman Fallatah, Culinary Director at Kerten Hospitality, Mayada Badr, CEO of the Saudi Culinary Arts Commission, and Maram Kokandi, General Manager of Radisson Jeddah Madinah Road, it’s evident that women play an indispensable role in the future of hospitality in this country. Moreover, some of the region’s most successful hospitality groups, including Jumeirah led by Katerina Giannouka, Kerten with Marloes Knippenberg, and ENVI with Noelle Homsy, showcase the invaluable contributions of women in leadership roles within the industry.

Maryam AlQahtani: We are poised to transform the country’s young female population into future leaders. There is a real opportunity here that we must take. By providing education, mentorship, and career development opportunities, we aim to empower them to become cultural ambassadors and leaders to define the future of the hospitality sector.

Marloes Knippenberg: With a young population there is immense potential to nurture future leaders. Targeted education, mentorship, and creating inclusive workplaces are vital. By removing barriers and providing opportunities, we empower young women to excel in hospitality and tourism leadership roles.

Shaikha Al Nowais: Through the unique “Duroob” programme, Rotana makes it a point to tap into the vast native talent pool across host countries, ensuring young, local citizens are always recruited and offered the training, mentoring, and work experience needed for them to secure various jobs across property operations. By fostering an inclusive and supportive environment, the hospitality industry can unlock the talent and innovation of young Saudi women and shape them into future leaders for the country and the industry.

From your perspective, how can events like FHS help drive diversity and women empowerment in the industry?

Eng. Orobah Filfilan:In the current era of rapid modern progress, it is essential to make use of every resource available at hand to keep up with a world that is perpetually evolving. Events such as the Future Hospitality Summit will expose women to experiences that might not have been as well-known and allow them to network and become acquainted with the multifaceted aspects of the industry.

Marie Louise EK: Industry events such as the Future Hospitality Summit help provide a platform for female leaders in the industry to share their expertise and engage and connect with industry peers. We are proud of the strides that we’ve made in gender equity within Hilton in KSA and we remain committed to ongoing efforts in this direction.
Marloes Knippenberg: Events like FHS amplify women’s voices, facilitate dialogue, and connect emerging talent with industry leaders. By showcasing women’s expertise and fostering collaboration, these events empower women to excel and drive diversity and empowerment in the industry.
Norah Al Tamimi:Events like FHS serve as a platform to not only highlight the industry initiatives but also to drive women’s empowerment in the hospitality industry showcasing the achievements of female leaders. With female speakers and subjects relevant to aspiring female executives, FHS is playing an important role in defining the narrative and developing diversity in the business.

Maryam AlQahtani: Events like FHS provide a platform for women in hospitality to step onto a global stage and share their experiences and ambitions. I believe this encourages and inspires other women to pursue careers in hospitality thereby improving diversity throughout the sector.

Shaikha Al Nowais: Big industry events such as the Future Hospitality Summit offer the ideal platform for female employees to connect with experienced professionals and aspiring women in the field. Panel discussions, workshops and keynote speeches focused on gender equality and inclusion offer potential strategies for fostering diversity in the workplace as well as the opportunity to learn from female leaders and their contributions. Ultimately, such events help ignite important conversations and initiatives that drive the hospitality industry toward greater gender parity and empowerment.


For more information about the 2024 editions of the Future Hospitality Summit, please visit