BMIHMS Researcher Laura Leigh on entrepreneurial resilience in disaster management

Laura Leigh

Global climate change forecasts predict the increased frequency of natural disasters, and entrepreneurs are first movers in the post-disaster recovery process.

A spotlight on researcher, Laura Leigh

Our team of academics are not only passionate industry champions, but they also have a genuine heart to do good in the community. Laura Leigh, Learning Facilitator and researcher at Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School at Torrens University Australia (BMIHMS) is one such example. The devastating bushfires in 2020 sparked a passion in Laura to investigate strategies to support the resilience of small businesses in the face of natural disasters. Her research hopes to help small businesses build resilience in the face of adversity.

Find out more about her important research work in a special Q&A below.

What inspired you to research entrepreneurial resilience in context of disaster management? 

Global climate change forecasts predict the increased frequency and ferocity of natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, cyclones, and droughts. These events pose a real and constant threat of disaster for many regions worldwide and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Rural tourism destinations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters due to the exposure of location, lack of infrastructure and capacity at local level to manage the recovery. Apart from the risk of physical damage to the destination, there are accompanying economic and psychosocial risks. 

In 2019/2020 Australia experienced its costliest natural disaster in history. The Australian Black Summer Bushfires caused an estimated financial loss of more than AUD$100 billion, 34 lives were lost and over 1 billion animals perished. 

Entrepreneurs are important first movers in post-disaster environments and the recovery process. It is suggested that communities engaged in higher levels of entrepreneurial activity are better positioned to withstand the negative impacts of the disaster, and that recovery is accelerated compared to similarly affected regions. 

Entrepreneurs also play a key role in signaling to other community members that recovery is underway; these signals are important for overcoming the collective action challenges associated with disaster recovery. In this context, entrepreneurs are often observed as change agents, in helping to solve collective action problems associated with ‘returning and rebuilding’ communities. 

The advancement of economic prosperity depends significantly on the actions and success of small, entrepreneurial businesses; yet the literature on tourism, natural disasters and entrepreneurship is scarce. Upon reviewing the literature, it was apparent that established disaster management strategies alone are insufficient for advancing knowledge on how we plan, cope with, and recover from disaster events, and although entrepreneurs are key actors, they are a significantly under-researched cohort. 

Entrepreneurship literature on disaster management increasingly discusses the relevance of resilience as a concept that helps understand responses to disaster. Therefore, I am keen to explore future strategies based on developing resilience in individuals, organisations and communities to disasters. 

Resilience in this context is used to describe the subject’s ability to maintain or regain pre-disaster levels of performance and successfully adapt to disruptions, however resilience may also foster the ability to innovate, renew and rejuvenate; to ‘bounce forth’ rather than just ‘bounce back’ following disaster.  
While resilience in the disaster management literature focuses on community, organisational and destination resilience, little is known about micro-level resilience, in particular entrepreneurial resilience.

What is it about entrepreneurial resilience that fascinates you? 

 Resilient entrepreneurship needs to be better understood for two reasons: 

(1) Scholars use resilience synonymously with flexibility, high motivation, perseverance, and optimism to explain why some entrepreneurs and their businesses perform better than others. 
(2) It is suggested that entrepreneurial behaviours and distinct types of entrepreneurs such as social entrepreneurs can foster the ability of organisations and communities to adjust in the face of adversity.

Arguably, resilience in entrepreneurs leads to resilience in organisations, which contribute to destination resilience, recovery, competitiveness, and long-term sustainability in the face of disaster. 

What impact do you feel this research will have on the hospitality industry? Who do you see deriving value from your research? 

This research will provide an exploratory understanding of resilient entrepreneurship in small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) and identify factors that contribute to developing resilience for long-term sustainability. Findings of this research can be used to encourage local business leaders on paths to increase their resiliency and create educational opportunities to help small businesses in rural tourism destinations prepare better, and therefore increase their resiliency before disaster. 

Tell us a bit about your academic and professional background. 

I have 20 years international and Australian experience as a tourism and hospitality practitioner, administrator, and educator. I completed a Bachelor of Business in International Business (Honours) in 2007 while working in hospitality. This provided me with the foundations and theoretical knowledge for starting my own businesses in event management, retail, and hospitality consulting which I established shortly after graduating. 

Having been a business owner for six years, I have held the roles of Chief Executive Officer and General Manager; I have also been a Board Member for a Non-for-Profit organisation dedicated to supporting and acknowledging the achievements of entrepreneurs and small businesses. 

In 2012 I relocated to Australia which provided me the opportunity to work with market leaders, Hyatt Hotels Corporation and Crown Resorts. While working as Group Director of Sales I began planning for the birth of my daughter. This prompted me to invest in my own education again before planning for hers. I commenced an MBA at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh) in 2018 and shortly afterwards began to consider a career in academia. 

I was fortunate to join Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School at Torrens University as a Learning Facilitator, and I am now pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at Torrens University under the supervision of Associate Professor Rajka Presbury and Dr. Madalyn Scerri.

Why did you choose to pursue your PhD with BMIHMS at Torrens University Australia?  

Pursuing a PhD at BMIHMS through Torrens University allows me to challenge myself intellectually and learn more about conducting rigorous and scholarly research from highly experienced academics and practitioners related to my area of expertise. Finding a good fit with a PhD supervisor was key to my decision making, so I asked colleagues and other PhD students for their recommendations regarding PhD Supervisors. 

Associate Professor Rajka Presbury and Dr. Madalyn Scerri are highly respected researchers. Both are very experienced, have in-depth industry experience, and importantly to me, adopt a mentoring approach with their students.

I am also part of a research cluster within the Centre for Organisational Change and Agility which allows me to collaborate with and learn from my peers in a supportive research environment.

 Australia has seen many challenges in the last few years (natural disasters, COVID-19 etc), tell us a bit about where you see the future of the hospitality/hotel management industry going. 

The tourism and hospitality industry are particularly vulnerable to consecutive natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, and cyclones, and now rank amongst the worst impacted by COVID-19. Consecutive disasters can be defined as disastrous events that occur in succession in a single region, with the consequences of the events overlapping spatially before the region has recovered from a previous disaster. 

Experiences of consecutive disasters provide an opportunity to learn from past events, and to use this learning to better prepare for and develop resiliency to disasters. It can be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a consecutive disaster, credited to its predicted multiple waves of occurrence. As in the case of other disasters, the ability of hospitality organisations to overcome COVID-19 will depend on their levels of resilience. 

Hospitality organisations need to be more dynamic and resilient than ever before. Investing resources into increasing individual resiliency, operational agility, digitalisation, as well as understanding and responding to new customer behaviours will drive the industry forward. Hotels need to replace lost international and Meetings, Incentive, Conference and Event (MICE) business with domestic leisure travellers, and social distancing restrictions have motivated businesses to find new ways to conduct business without the crowds. Many hospitality venues have been forced to move from table service to take-away modes at a moment’s notice due to lockdowns. We are seeing QR code ordering and order ahead integrations responding to market preferences for ‘at home’ dining experiences. 

Establishing networks and commercial partnerships for technological integrations into existing systems will also be a critical move for many businesses in the industry. Developing resilience will help individuals and organisations to navigate and drive these changes pro-actively, to ‘bounce forward’ instead of simply adapting in order to survive. 

Outside of your research work, tell us about what you do at BMIHMS. Why do you love what you do? 

At BMIHMS I have had the pleasure of teaching post-graduate students in the subjects of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Incubation. I truly believe in the transformative power of education and hope to inspire students to become life-long learners, and the next generation of industry leaders.

What excites you about the hospitality/hotel management industry? 

I am a bit of an adventurer and explorer; I enjoy travelling and living the ex-patriate lifestyle. Pre-pandemic I took advantage of working in an industry where I could travel the world and progress in my career at the same time. For this reason, I consider myself a global citizen, having UK, EU and Australian passports helps but, in my opinion, there is no better industry to work in if you want to see the world. Our wings have been clipped since COVID-19 and so my journey of exploration continues through research instead.
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