2022 Diversity in Business Awards: General Manager, Justin Williams at Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando
Justin Williams was chosen as a winner in the Outstanding Diversity Champion category in Orlando Business Journal’s 2022 Diversity in Business Awards. The honorees were featured in OBJ’s June 10, 2022, weekly edition.
Williams is general manager of the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando — part of the Kessler Collection — which he describes as a “visionary” hospitality brand that develops, owns and manages luxury boutique hotels, restaurants and retail. As general manager, Williams is responsible for total operations and 150 employees of the 4-star, 4-diamond Grand Bohemian hotel, restaurant, lounge, spa, Starbucks cafe and and meeting space at the downtown Orlando property, which currently is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Here’s more from Williams:
What is your company’s diversity, equity and inclusion mission? The Kessler Collection believes in equality, justice and putting people first. We believe each person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect for both our shared humanity and the distinct qualities that make us unique. It is from those unique qualities that we draw strength as a company and society.
Why was it important for you to take that mission a step further? Diversity at its core is the hospitality industry, extending its hand out to all, ensuring everyone feels welcome.
What was your first experience as a professional where you noticed an imbalance in diversity? I started my journey into hospitality in 1997. The first property I worked for in Atlanta was selected to host a general manager’s conference. I was excited to meet GMs from all over the country gathering in our hotel. As attendees arrived and GMs checked in, I was surprised that I saw no African Americans and a small percentage of women. This memory is one that has been cemented in my memory until this day.
How did it affect how you eventually crafted or led efforts for your own organization? The memories left by the lack of diversity in that room have fueled my entire career path. I knew it would be an uphill battle to defeat the barriers marginalized communities face. However, as one of the board members for the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association (CFHLA) and a general manager of the Kessler Collection, I knew I along with other like-minded individuals had a significant opportunity to change the industry’s landscape — a landscape that has disparity in leadership as it relates to woman and people of color. Through CFHLA, we created a diversity council with the sole focus to lead the charge of challenging and changing the culture by creating a pathway to hospitality leadership. The diversity council is helping shift our industry into one more inclusive by working with schools, politicians, a bias expert, community leaders, educators and our lodging allies. The council has collaborated to produce a slate of recommendations and deliverables being rolled out this year, including a toolkit to help GMs have conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion.
What was your top accomplishment in the last year to facilitate greater diversity, equity and inclusion? Being intentional in how I select organizations and businesses to work with, in hopes that I would show the value and beauty of diversity. Through my community philanthropy, I have been able to volunteer, collaborate and fundraise for Jones High School, the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, OnePulse Foundation, Parramore Kidz Zone and Man Up Mentoring. As general manager of the Grand Bohemian, I have increased diversity with our vendors to focus on WMBE [Women and Minority Business Enterprise] partnerships. This has garnered opportunities for these minority-owned businesses to widen their reach into the luxury hotel space, providing clear visibility for customers to see and experience.
What did it take to get that done? Intention paired with a relentless pursuit of excellence. An example of that is my meeting with Nicholas Abrahams [senior vice president of partnerships and regional investment for the] Orlando Economic Partnership. I told him I was intentionally looking for a local woman-owned coffee company for our catering coffee service, he recommended Eola Coffee. We brought them in for a tasting, the quality was amazing and a perfect partnership was formed. In addition, Grand Bohemian now offers Vita Lift energy drink, AC Art of Spice, Kyri’s Kookies and Black Bee Honey at our hotel. which are all owned and operated by Black men and women.
What impact has that had on your company? Kessler believes people want to be inspired. When you walk into our hotels and you see a landscape that is diverse, it gives you a since of belonging. What could be more inspiring than that?
What, if any, pushback did you get? The great thing about being a part of the City Beautiful is we also are a city that embraces beauty in every shade. My experience with the leaders in this community both public and private has been positive. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, as well as Orlando commissioners Regina Hill and Bakari Burns all have supported DEI, and have made several commitments to continue the work needed for consistent progress. The Greater Orlando Sports Commission, Visit Orlando and Downtown Orlando Partnership all have been great allies in DEI initiatives as well.
What is the greatest hurdle for DEI progress in Florida right now? The greatest hurdle is ignorance. Some people believe that diversity is one dimensional. The secret is there’s really no secret at all. DEI includes everyone. We must understand that it helps us all live, work and play in a cohesive way.
What does the Orlando area need to do to have a vibrant atmosphere for a thriving, diverse workforce across all sectors? Continue to seek out what is different. Walk into rooms that look nothing like what you are accustomed to and spark a conversation. As we all look to find talent, do so with intent. Seek diverse areas and communities not just for hourly employees but for leadership within your organizations. Engage and interact with our youth by reaching out to our grade schools and become an investor in their futures. Partner with historically black colleges and universities. We have first-class venues with diverse art and entertainment; give yourself permission to wander and discover the uniqueness all around you. You will be surprised how much we are the same.