Steve Cowan grew up in the hotel industry and vowed a career in hotels wasn’t for him—until he ended up working at a hotel out of necessity and found he loved it.
SAN DIEGO—Once upon a time, working at a hotel was the last thing Steve Cowan wanted to do.
Cowan had something of a family legacy in hotels. His family owned some in his home state of Maine, and he actually lived at a hotel growing up. So when he left for college, he had already decided that a career in hotels just wasn’t for him.
Now the GM at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, his perspective on the industry has certainly changed.
A start in the hotel industry
Cowan began working at a hotel shortly after graduating with a business degree from the University of Maine at a newly built hotel in North Conway, New Hampshire, where a friend ask him to help out with ramping up the property.
“He knew I didn’t have anything going on,” he said. “And it was in a ski town, and I love to ski. … I said I’d do it for a short period. That was in 1989.”
Cowan said he stuck around, moving from positions in food and beverage and the front office, because he found the work came easy to him, and the more time and energy he sunk into the work, the more he felt the passion for being a hotelier grow.
He earned his first position as a GM in 1994 at a Comfort Inn property in Augusta, Maine. Following a stint as GM of an Embassy Suites in Portland, Maine, Cowan made a big jump to work for Hilton at a DoubleTree property in Atlanta.
Cowan has stuck with Hilton since then, managing some of the company’s marquee properties, including the Washington Hilton for a time, and more recently, both the Parc 55 and the Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel simultaneously.
Ultimately, he made the jump to the Hilton San Diego Bayfront in early 2018, drawn in both by the property and the market.
“Working in San Diego has always been a desire of mine,” he said. “I love the location and the team. And customers clearly want to be here, so it’s easy to do business.”
A focus on development
Cowan said when he looks back on his career, he can’t deny that he’s benefited from mentorship and professional development on behalf of his seniors at Hilton, who he deemed “great stewards” of his career.
So he looks every day to repay that favor and provide his employees the chance to better themselves professionally.
“We’re always talking about how to help grow our team and how to move people from hourly positions to leadership,” he said. “It’s about how do we take those junior leaders to the next level to become department heads or part of the executive committee. For me, it’s really about that. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave.”
He said he also works with San Diego State University’s hospitality program.
“I find it very rewarding,” he said. The university “reached out and asked to do some work with them because they were doing simulations and wanted hotel executives to observe and provide feedback. I’d say that’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.”
At the same time, he doesn’t view himself as a micromanager.
“I think my (management) style is about finding the best talent, providing them with the resources, supplies, training or whatever else it is they need to do the job, then get out of the way,” Cowan said. “I like to hire subject-matter experts and let them excel.”
He describes the team at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront as “fairly new,” and the hotel itself is only roughly a decade old, which gives management the chance to be “innovative and creative.” He said the general culture of San Diego also permeates the property, which overlooks the San Diego Convention Center—host to the famous San Diego Comic Con International.
“There’s just a laid-back lifestyle,” he said. “The work still gets done, but (that lifestyle) permeates the entire team here. It’s a fun place to work.”
Editor’s note: Hilton paid for airfare, accommodations and meals during a recent stay at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Hilton had no influence on the coverage provided.