Who Are “We”? What am “I”? Why does that matter?
By Joe Baker
Unlike any other time in “our” history, unity became a fundamental concept in terms of thinking and acting that determined how well “we” navigated through a global pandemic. Who am “I” referring to? Those of “us” who work across the span of one of the largest industries in this country. But I can’t even state a name that does justice to the nuances across our field or that resonates with you, the readers of this piece. Are we Tourism? Are we Travel? Or are we Travel and Tourism? And what about Hotels and Airlines and Restaurants? Are they included under our umbrella? And what exactly are we calling our umbrella?
Prior to the beginning of 2020 this may have just been an academic debate or a discussion around the water coolers we used to drink from in our offices. What a novel concept. But now we find ourselves collectively overcoming some of the most significant adversity our industry has ever faced as we transition from surviving during the pandemic into living through the endemic, with unwavering hopes of thriving. Our identity started to matter even more during one of the most difficult times in our history. Why? Because competition gave way to collaboration. Antagonism gave way to communication. How did this happen? Why did it matter then and why does it matter even more now?
We are an industry in the throes of change. Many of our experts predicted disruption would come at the hand of technology. But few predicted it would come at the hand of biology. Nevertheless, we are now well and truly living and working in an era of disruption and constant change. So what did we do as the world changed before our very eyes? We did what pros always do. We adapted. We made do. And we kept going. But there was a defining hallmark of how our industry made it through the pandemic. And this is not to minimize the destruction COVID-19 had on our workforce or our businesses. Believe me when I say if anyone has empathy for what you experienced, it’s this author, one who took the time to learn more about emotional intelligence and change leadership in the middle of the pandemic to add as much value to others as possible. But what was the defining hallmark that carried us through? Leadership, embodied through unity.
Let’s dig deeper into what unity looked like over the last couple of years and how leadership was manifested. To me, where it started to take root was in our associations, non-profits and advocacy bodies as we rallied to access governmental supports for our businesses and workforce. There were specific national organizations and specific leaders who deserve to be credited with this momentary triumph before we pick up and carry on. Because celebrating leadership deserves as much space in our lives as criticizing it. And because leadership starts with individuals and spreads to teams and organizations and culture.
There were stand out organizations including Association of Canadian Travel Agencies headed by Wendy Paradis, Tourism Industry Association of Canada headed by Beth Potter, Tourism HR Canada headed by Philip Mondor, Hotel Association of Canada headed by Susie Grynol, Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada headed by Keith Henry and Destination Canada headed by Marsha Walden. Notice anything specific about this group? I do. And I am not afraid to name it. Many of the leaders in these vital organizations are women, leading in critical roles during such a pivotal time. This collection of national leaders, and many more, did something we may have never done before. They created collaboration and unity. Have we achieved our diversity, equity and inclusion aspirations? Of course not. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. But I think its ok to celebrate the wins along the way and acknowledge leadership when we experience it. After all, if we are working towards a better future, we will surely need to rely on our leaders again and again. This is less about attaining our goals and much more about who we become along the way.
And there were many other leaders at provincial, municipal and hyper-local levels. They stepped forward and they stepped up. They created unity through leadership. And they started arguably the hardest part of creating momentum. They got us moving. Canadian leadership guru and author Robin Sharma famously says, “Remember that the space shuttle uses more fuel during its first three minutes after liftoff than during its entire voyage around the earth.” Now what are we going to do with this momentum?
Initiatives such as the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses and the Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable demonstrated that when we come together, when we speak from our values, when we work collaboratively, we can achieve great things. Our governments listened and responded to the best of their abilities. Was it enough? It’s never enough. Was it perfect for all stakeholders? It wasn’t. But it led to accessing funding sources that helped us as much as possible when we needed it most. And optimistically it will help us get back to work and back to business for the nearly 2 million Canadians who work across the tourism, travel, accommodation, food and beverage, transportation, recreation and entertainment industry. But wait. Let’s back up. Do you see my point? What do we even call ourselves? What is our industry? And why does that matter?
I am going to suggest it matters mostly for one reason right now. It matters because we have a workforce calamity on our hands. And our industry is one that is uniquely centred around people. Many report on the labour shortage. But it is so much more than just a labour supply vs demand issue. It is as complex and nuanced as our industry. You see, our workforce calamity is actually an identity crisis. And one we need to overcome with leadership and unity.
So where do we go from here? We should look to other sectors who have had success representing diverse sectors across broad industries. Engineers, accountants, medical professionals, clean energy, STEM, STEAM, the trades. Many have active career recruitment campaigns in our secondary school system. Many support post-secondary scholarships for underrepresented populations. Many support work-integrated learning experiences. Many represent themselves on an international stage as a great industry to work in. Canada has set new immigration targets well beyond any we have seen in our history. And within those targets are high numbers of international students. People who leave their homes, pay handsomely to study in our post-secondary system with the hope of launching their careers in one of our great industries. And there are many people who call Canada home who now have the luxury of choosing from a variety of fields for their careers. And who are welcomed with open arms by industries. Especially those who have figured out that anyone with experience in our fields adds great value to theirs.
Maybe I will leave with this. When was the last time you thought about the value proposition of working in our industry? What would you tell a family member considering a career with us? How about a post-secondary student trying to select their program of study? Answer those questions for yourself and use your epiphanies for your recruitment plans. And take a moment to reflect on just how important our collective identity is as an industry. And one more question. What do you say when people ask, “What do you do for a living?”
Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality, and education sectors. he is a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people through transformational strategy, coaching, training and talent.