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Female hotel executives talk strategy
June 7 2013

Female executives from different segments of the hospitality industry shared their strategies for survival and success.

  • “It’s hard to look people in the eye and tell them we need to downsize,” said Brooke Denihan Barrett of Denihan Hospitality Group.
  • Commune Hotels’ Nikki Leondakis started as a management trainee at the Nashville Marriott in Tennessee.
  • Social media is a tool to assist hotel companies in everything from marketing to employee engagement.
By Ed Watkins
HNN contributor

NEW YORK—Five women executives in the hotel industry discussed strategy in a variety of areas during a panel discussion Monday at the New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference this week.

The executives agreed that dealing with professional adversity, especially in personnel matters, is daunting and instructional. Brooke Denihan Barrett, co-CEO of Denihan Hospitality Group, and Nikki Leondakis, CEO of Commune Hotels & Resorts, said terminating employees is one of the most difficult parts of their jobs.

“Right after 9/11 we had to do some major layoffs, and since I have a family-owned and -operated business, it’s hard to look people in the eye and tell them we need to downsize,” said Barrett. “It’s particularly hard because you know these people; they’ve worked for you and depend on you for their livelihoods and you now have to tell them for the good of the business we need to make this decision.”

Leondakis agreed her worst days as an executive are when she needs to eliminate jobs. She said communication and transparency are keys to making the process a little easier.

“In addition to being compassionate and supportive, it’s important to rally the troops and bring them together and communicate as much as possible and be as transparent as possible so people understand what is happening,” Leondakis said. “Even if you can’t predict what’s next, you need to share all the information and knowledge you have about what might happen next to help people fill in the blanks so they don’t fill in the worst blanks they possibly could with their imaginations.”

Barrett and Leondakis have had long careers in the hospitality industry, but they approached the business from different paths. Leondakis landed a management trainee job at the Nashville Marriott in Nashville, Tennessee, after college. From there she primarily worked on the food-and-beverage side of the business, a career path she stayed on for 19 years before moving into hotel management.

“There were two sides to how I learned the hotel business,” said Barrett, whose first job in the company was as a bookkeeper, which she said taught her the accounting and financial elements of the business.

“From there I moved into the front office and reservations and hotel management,” she said “This taught me there is a people side of the business, not only the customers who you check-in and serve but also the people you need to lead and manage.”

Effective use of social media
The executives agreed on the power and value of social media, but each of their companies uses the tool in different ways. Dominique Colliat, senior VP of operations at Sofitel Americas for Accor, said her brand employs social media for marketing and promotions.

“Social media is part of our life and our way of doing business,” Colliat said. “The challenge is we need to be very fast. It’s important to have our team ready to react and respond.”

Leondakis said Commune Hotels uses social media for recruiting and employee engagement, in addition to brand positioning and other marketing functions. She hosts quarterly Twitter chats in which for 45 minutes to an hour employees can talk to her and ask any questions about the company and its policies.

Denihan Hospitality is celebrating its 50th year in business, and Barrett said the company is using social media to commemorate the milestone through blogging and postings on Instagram, Facebook and other sites.

Challenges ahead
The role of technology in the hospitality business is a concern of several of the panelists. Kristin Campbell, executive VP and general counsel of Hilton Worldwide, said she is concerned about the potential for technology to eliminate some business travel.

“Of course, the flip side is that people have been worrying about this for 10 years, and even with the state of the economy and the (rising) cost of travel, technology hasn’t really (had an effect),” she said. “But over time as communications technology evolves people may not travel for business as much and it will have an impact on us.”

For Leondakis, the danger of technology lies more on its effect on the basics of hospitality.

“The ease of use of technology is good, but not as much if at the end of the day we interact just with those machines and technology,” Leondakis said. “It’s more efficient for us and the guest but where does it leave us with hospitality and emotional connections and relationships and the feeling that you’ve been pampered or taken care of or cared for at a hotel? Our employees’ ability to do that is severely limited by a consumer’s choice to be efficient.”

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