In life, it is often said that it takes a village; and while individuals certainly can make a difference, it is often the collective that can affect the most significant and meaningful changes. The women who are the backbone of the RI HOSPITALITY ASSOCIATION (RIHA) embody and embrace this sentiment with conviction, dedication, and passion.
RIHA and the RI Hospitality Education Foundation (RIHEF) is led by President/ CEO Dale Venturini, who is supported by a team of five diverse women with varying backgrounds. Together, they represent more than 900 foodservice, hotel, vendor, and hospitality members in the state of Rhode Island and serve more than 4,000 businesses.
The Association has been the voice of the hospitality and foodservice industries in the state since 1963. RIHA’s mission to lead the state’s hospitality industry through advocacy, communication, and education was certainly tested in 2020 as COVID-19 ravaged every business across the globe. In RI, where the industry employs close to 87,000 residents and
is one of the largest economic drivers in the state, COVID’s impact was swift, hard-hitting, and profound – and goes far beyond what the statistics show. “There is almost no way to accurately calculate the loss; between jobs, lost sales, meals/ beverage, and lodging tax, and the loss to our supply chain,” says Dale. “Rhode Island’s restaurants and hotels contributed close to $300 million in sales taxes in 2019, putting the hospitality industry right behind the gaming industry, the state’s largest source of revenue.”
Dale understood that RIHA’s members and the entirety of the state’s industry were all working harder than ever before in a climate rife with health concerns, economic worries, and unprecedented operational restrictions. “There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is a capital ‘I’ in industry,” she says. The Association pivoted from a membership-based advocacy and lobbying organization to one that represented the entire industry in a time when it needed a strong voice and advocate more than ever.
The team at RIHA deeply understood what was at stake and worked tirelessly, seven days a week, for what often seemed like 24-hours a day, to make sure that the industry could remain open. Forming even tighter legislative relationships, Dale and VP of Advocacy and General Counsel Sarah Bratko burned the midnight oil on calls with state agencies, working hand-in-hand with the Governor’s office, RI Commerce, the Departments of Health, Labor and Business Regulation, and others, to provide expert insight into how best to protect the public while still allowing restaurants and hotels to operate in some capacity. Weighing in on everything from industry best practices
from a national perspective; to fighting for increased capacity limits; to offering beer, wine, and mixed drinks via curbside pickup and delivery; to how best to clean and sanitize; the RIHA team continued to fight on behalf of the industry and negotiate for the best possible outcome, an effort that had to continue through every shift in the state’s COVID landscape.
Behind the scenes, COO Heather Singleton was a calming voice and ensured that RIHA adapted to member needs, which included instituting the Hospitality Employee Relief Fund that allowed displaced hospitality workers to apply for grants, applying for critical grant funding for RIHA to continue operating, and adding additional training seminars that Laurie Camara, Manager of Hospitality Training & Education, ran both in-person and online at a record pace as operating rules and regulations constantly changed.
Funding sources became critical as RIHA suspended membership dues and opened its doors to the industry as a whole free of charge. Finance/Administrative Assistant Rebekka Hammond kicked into high- gear and kept all the paperwork together to ensure that RIHA was able to operate despite record-breaking revenue losses.
In November, as New England’s weather started to turn seasonably cold, emphasis was still being placed on outdoor dining as a safer dining alternative. RIHA swiftly turned its focus to creating #BYOBlanket, a campaign designed to assist the industry in this endeavor and a massive undertaking of collecting and distributing more than 12,000 blankets, thousands of hand warmers, and hundreds of propane- fueled outdoor heaters. VP of Membership and Marketing Monika Zuluaga returned from maternity leave in the middle of pandemic-chaos and quickly put her communications and organizational skills to use by communicating daily with the industry and managing a massive, multi- day distribution event in Providence. With help from RIHA Chairman Farouk Rajab, the Providence Marriott’s empty ballroom
found a new use as storage for towering, serpentine rows of blankets, heaters, and hand warmers to organize and distribute. Since then, the RIHA team has also distributed more than 3,000 warm fleece jackets to the staff of any Rhode Island restaurant that is still offering outdoor dining so that they may serve guests while also staying warm.
As we look forward to 2021, the team at RIHA is stronger and more cohesive than ever before. “We have literally gone through the most difficult period in any of our lives,” says Dale. “This past year required incredible self-sacrifice, resilience, and dedication for the greater good of our industry. I could not be prouder of my team – this group of women has really shown what they’re made of.
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