We know her as the Century Plaza Hotel & Spa’s CEO, and founder of The Pacific Autism Family Network, but Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia was very nearly famous for something completely different. “When I was 16 I was a national competitor for ice-skating,” she says. “I was training all the time and only going to school half time, and eventually I had to decide whether I wanted to be an Olympian or go to university and follow the hotelier path. I just sat there and thought, ‘What are the odds that I’d make it to the Olympics?’ and what would that career look like. And I chose the hotel.”
More than three decades on, there are thousands of people who are grateful that Wendy chose to follow her dad into the family business (he founded the hotel in 1971). She’s influenced the lives of the staff she and husband Sergio Cocchia employ for the hotel and their other businesses, Absolute Spa and Soluzione Spa Products. And she’s also an inspiration for other women in business. She’s the youngest female chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and the first female trustee of the Vancouver Police Federation.
Wendy has also had a huge impact through her philanthropic work. She’s long been involved in groups like Variety The Children’s Charity. Almost 10 years ago, she and Sergio established The Pacific Autism Family Network (PAFN), which aims to share knowledge and be a resource for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families. It was an obvious cause for them to get involved with, since their son has ASD.
In 2016, the Network opened GoodLife Fitness Autism Family Hub in Richmond. The 60,000-square-foot space has everything from a resource centre to a LifeLabs phlebotomy clinic. For the latter, “it’s issues like flexible appointment times, understanding that one individual might like to be touched and squeezed and another might not, and decreasing anxiety by using visual depictions of what to expect,” says Wendy. Because not everyone can get to Richmond, the centre is a training model for LifeLabs—all its centres in B.C. and Ontario now implement the Serving Customers with Autism program. Another recent programme is changemakers, a partnership with BC Lions that makes going to football games more comfortable for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. And in February 2018, PAFN launches the Pacifc Autism/First Responder’s Interactive BC Wide Symposium, in which police, fire, paramedics and 911 dispatchers come together with families to learn from each other.
Wendy says that the key to her success is the people she surrounds herself with, in particular, her husband. They measure success not with dollars and cents, but the lives they change, whether that’s by employing more people in their businesses, or through their charity work. She says: “There’s a family with three young toddlers, one of whom is profoundly affected by autism. They said they never could have dreamed they’d be able to take the family to a football game before Changemakers. Now they’ve bought season tickets. That’s success.”