There are endless decisions to be made in the course of planning the first-ever iteration of a major event. But one of the most consequential choices that Randi Weinstein faced in the process of putting together Fab, a two-day conference for women in the hospitality industry, was whether to invite men to serve as presenters; attend certain sessions or participate in any other fashion.
Halving the number of potential panelists and registrants at the outset of a new conference isn’t necessarily the most prudent strategy. But Weinstein says the all-female environment was critical to the overwhelming success of Fab, which wrapped up last week.
“I know this would not have been as successful if it were a mixed workshop with men and women,” Weinstein says. “We created a safe haven for women and they ate it up.”
Social media posts from the 225 women who joined the conference underscored Weinstein’s interpretation. “Hearing industry tales from so many female perspectives was a gift,” Nashville freelance writer Heidi Lynn Carter wrote in an Instagram post from a session moderated by former Food & Wine editor Dana Cowen.
The panel was part of Fab’s 101 track, which covered big ideas and common challenges in the food-and-beverage business; a smaller 202 track was devoted to the nuts-and-bolts of entrepreneurship. According to Weinstein, women enrolled in the 101 program were “riveted the whole time,” with 202 attendees sporadically dropping by the more freewheeling sessions for inspiration.
Among the most highly-rated panels were those covering branding and dealing with the press.
But as Weinstein hoped when she restricted the conference to women, it was the relationships fostered outside of session rooms that attendees seemed to value most. “Relationships between attendees that just met for the first time got deep real fast,” she says. Many of those relationships were between attendees and presenters, encouraged through a series of hosted dinners around town.
“Their guard was down and (they) told stories that were relatable,” Weinstein reports, perhaps alluding to a tone that was set at the conference's start by keynote speaker Jen Hidinger of Atlanta's Staplehouse, who centered her remarks on her young husband's death and her coming to grips with the contours of widowhood.
Outside of the organized dinners, many attendees traded the chance to sample the breadth of Charleston’s culinary scene for a rare quiet night in a hotel room, a testament to how hard they typically work: Ginger Rogers’ adage about high heels apparently still holds true in the restaurant industry. But Weinstein says even the most accomplished presenters left Fab feeling “reinvigorated.”
Lauren Furey, a College of Charleston student who attended the conference on scholarship, says “Fab taught me many different things,” ranging from the importance of handwritten thank-you notes to the strength of a positive attitude. And she was struck by a lesson from Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch, whose toughness and willpower instantly endeared her to every audience member.
“Go big or go home,” Furey summarizes. “Be the hardest working. You have to trust your culture, mission and vision to do so” – which doesn’t sound too far removed from Weinstein’s approach to designing the conference.
Fab will reconvene next June.