Tea Colaianni

We sit down withWiHTL’s Founder and Chair, Tea Colaianni, who shares the story of her career in hospitality so far. Detailing her key milestones, notably the birth of her very own diversity and inclusion platform, WiHTL, Tea reveals valuable insight into the hospitality sector, offering food for thought for all wet-led venues.  

Tea, please tell us the story of your career so far.

An early career as a lawyer, focussing on employment law within the EU, took me from my home country, Italy, to Brussels, where I worked for a multinational law firm. It was here that I specialised in employee relations, and developed an expertise on the topic of European Works Councils. It became clear to me that, rather than being an advisor, I preferred to have a more operational, people-facing role, and I made the leap to human resources. I first worked in telecommunications, and I then found my home in hospitality and leisure, working for Hilton and then as Chief People Officer at Merlin Entertainments. Nearly 8 years ago, I retired from corporate life and developed a non-executive portfolio. The idea for WiHTL – Diversity in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure – was then born and, alongside a number of NED roles within the retail and professional services industries, it remains the focus of my work. 

What do you love most about the UK’s hospitality sector?

There is a wonderful vibrancy to the hospitality industry which I think is hard to match. It is a 24/7 industry which never sleeps and, by its very nature, creates environments which are welcoming and fun. But, as with any business, it is the people who make it and, in the hospitality industry in particular, there is a richness and diversity of people who work across so many roles – whether back-of-house or front-of-house – which creates such an incredible energy. In the UK, we are lucky to have a broad, multicultural society which is reflected in the hospitality outlets we all love and enjoy. 

What, in your opinion, have been the key elements to your success?

It has not always been easy being the only woman in the boardroom and being from a different country than the majority of my colleagues, and there have been moments when I have had to double-down on my levels of tenacity and positive thinking. Because of my various professional experiences, I believe that I am able to bring a different angle and perspective to conversations. I have discovered that I am great at connecting people, and that could well be my superpower! I have met many leaders within the industry who have helped me incalculably in achieving the success that the WiHTL Collaboration Community has experienced. People will always need people, and there is huge strength in recognising that and being open to connecting with, and learning from, others.

What is an important lesson you have learnt within your career?

Firstly, the Covid pandemic a few years ago taught all of us about the innate human ability to adapt, to make the seemingly impossible possible. The spectacular reaction of the UK hospitality industry – arguably the hardest hit – was humbling and inspiring, and showed us all what can be achieved when we put our minds to it.  Secondly, that it really doesn’t take that much to make a huge difference to one person’s life. Hearing stories from our programme delegates about how we helped switch up their self-confidence levels enough for them to ask for a promotion, for example, makes me indescribably proud. Thirdly, I have learnt never to give up. When a door closes there is another one that opens. Keep persevering!

Please tell us a little more about WiHTL, what influenced you to launch this, and why was it so necessary for the industry.

WiHTL was born from an identified need to promote women and ethnic groups within the Hospitality, Travel and Leisure sector. It has now merged with its retail ‘sister’, Diversity in Retail, to become a purpose driven, engaging and impactful ‘Collaboration Community’, in which member organisations work together to amplify the individual work they are undertaking around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). The hospitality industry is relatively transient in terms of its human assets, which can disguise inequalities. Women and ethnic groups are often the mainstay of teams, but usually the ones who lose out for an array of reasons. The industry is also known for low margins, and is still recovering from the pandemic and, with multiple priorities, it is easy for diversity to fall behind other more pressing matters. I believe that working collaboratively can help organisations learn from each other and make the unachievable for one organisation possible for many. 

Why would you advise UK bars to get involved with the work that WiHTL does, and how can UK wet-led venues become more inclusive and each make positive steps toward creating a more equal and inclusive workplace?

Among the 110+ member organisations within our ‘Collaboration Community’, there are a number of bar and pub groups who regularly contribute to, and benefit from, our webinars, programmes, research and resources. This unique group of organisations shares learning and experience so that the wider community progresses its EDI activities more successfully. We help leaders grow their confidence to lead inclusively, and help future talent see a clear path to leadership roles within the industry. 

From a gender perspective, our research clearly shows that organisations need to put in place better mechanisms to support women to come back to the workplace and thrive. There are examples of companies that did that 15-20 years ago in the pubs sector, and today there is a cadre of women executives as a result of those programmes. More organisations should focus on targeted actions in support of specific underrepresented groups, as well as working towards building an inclusive culture that benefits all.

What does the 2024 inclusivity landscape look like for the bar industry; are there signs of improvement in regards to the issue of lack of diversity?

The pub and bar groups we work with are throwing their collective weight behind the diversity agenda, and we know from them the positive outcomes they are achieving. There is one unequivocal truth behind diversity and inclusion: if successfully implemented and embedded at every level of the business, it drives revenue and improves profitability.

Over the last couple of years, we have noticed a worrying reversal of the positive trends towards more diverse representation at the top of organisations we had witnessed previously: as a result, the gender pay gap has increased. This is the time to not slow down or abandon efforts towards a more inclusive industry, but rather to intensify our commitment. Joining the WiHTL Community is an effective way to benchmark where an organisation is on their diversity journey, learn from others and provide opportunities for cross-industry development and growth to talented individuals across the business. 


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