A Hotel GM’s Hospitality Career Advice
Conrad New York’s General Manager talks world travel, lateral moves and long-term goals.
Marlene Poynder shared her unique career path to world travel and sales success at the December iteration of Meet the Culinary Entrepreneurs. The seasoned hotel GM didn’t move from her hometown of Perth, Australia, until the age of 30 and managed to become one of the first female general managers for both Hyatt and Hilton.
Hospitality & Hotel Management students gleaned these insightful tips for success from Marlene's life story of leaving school at age 16, advancing at a bank in Australia and eventually working in hotels and tourism in China, Hong Kong, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.
On not having a college degree:
It didn’t hit me until my mid-20s that I felt inadequate because I didn’t have enough education. I was training all of these graduates in roles because I had the experience from working for so long, and then they were getting these great management roles with lots more money than me. If only I had that piece of paper, I could’ve done it. I tried to go on and finish my education but by the age of 20, I was already managing other people and traveling extensively so I never found the time. It came back to bite me later. Fortunately, I’ve always had advocates in my roles and people that have supported me because they looked at my skill set rather than a piece of paper.
We hire people everyday in our operation who have gone back to school and don’t have a degree. Do not give up applying to jobs at individual hotels. It’s a really good time in New York to be knocking on as many doors as you can because it’s hard to find passionate people that really want it. We can teach people anything as long as they have a certain level of acumen, but you have to be passionate about what you do.
On getting hired in hospitality:
In an interview, really make an effort to present yourself well. There’s nothing worse than people coming in for an interview who haven’t really thought about what they’re going to wear. Make an effort, dress for the job you’re interviewing for and always have questions.
On lateral moves:
I’ve worked for four companies in 40 years. I chose companies that had a lot of different layers so I could transfer a lot. Making a lot of sideways moves worked for me in larger corporations. I like to have the choice of working across different sectors.
I was always the one that said, “Yes, I’ll take that job,” in any company I’ve worked for. I wasn’t making more money and my title was the same, I just wanted to keep learning to fill my bank of skills. When I go for new roles, I always think, is this role going to help me with the next role?
Most of my career I’ve been a salesperson. Sales jobs teach you a lot about everything in life. I was paid poorly until my mid-30s when I started to get into roles where my abilities were recognized.
On getting promoted in a hotel:
The industry’s very different than it was 30 years ago. In some ways I think it’s better because 30 years ago, somebody from sales and marketing would never have been a general manager because you had to be ex-F&B or ex-rooms to run a hotel. Because hotels these days are typically owned by hedge funds and institutions, you really have to have commercial acumen to know how to pull in the revenue and make it profitable.
Revenue management is huge. It’s important whether you’re in food and beverage, front of house, back of house, or front office. I think everyone needs to be able to understand revenue management to be able to add value and make a profit.
We always try to transfer people around even if it means a sideways move. Once we get people to a certain level in Hilton, and it was the same in Hyatt when I was on the leadership team, we try and give people a stint or a crossover in sales and marketing or business development. Even if you’re a director of operations, we need to place people for six to 12 months in a business development role so that they understand it, particularly if they come up purely through operations. Now you’ll see more directors of finance and directors of revenue making it to general manager roles.
On making mistakes:
When I was young and trying to get ahead, I made a couple mistakes. I was lucky that when I made the first mistake, I transferred within the same company. When a job is not what you love and it’s not your passion, it comes across in your work.
The second time, I went to work as a consultant for a very successful family company and a very good friend said, “I want you to bring your management style and customer service skills to our company.” What I didn’t realize was that it was a family empire, and he didn’t really want to change. As an outsider, my hands were tied and I learned a lot, but I’m never doing that again. I really wasn’t happy because in consultancy, you work on your own a lot. I certainly know that I need to have people around me and work in teams.
I suppose I’ll always wonder, where could I have gotten, how much further could I have gone with a degree? But then, I wouldn’t have all those years of experience because I worked so hard to make up for it. It was when I worked corporate sales for Hyatt in Hong Kong that I really discovered my own self-worth. I left the company when they overlooked me for a regional marketing role because I didn’t have a marketing degree. Years later, they called me with the same job opening or a position as the head of sales of Asia Pacific based in Hong Kong. I would report to the person who wouldn’t give me the previous marketing role. We ended up being a great team even though I was forced upon him.
When I was working in that role, hotels were just bleeding money due to SARS because we were running at two to three percent occupancy instead of 80 percent. Some general managers that had worked new careers in Asia were not accustomed to cutting payroll, unlike me. I’d worked in Australia and the U.S. and knew how to cut costs because our payroll was so high comparatively. It was not easy for them to cut costs and make a business more viable, so even as head of sales, I was sent in to help. That’s when I realized I had the skillset to be a general manager and I’m lucky that Hyatt provided me the opportunity in 2006.
On gender in the workplace:
One reason I prefer to work for large organizations: I’ve done some wonderful training courses both internally and externally. With Hilton, we had a leadership course for women at Darden School of Business in Virginia. I was fortunate enough to do a course there for a week and it was incredible. I was with women from the Marines, the Army, intelligence community, and a few of us came from corporations. There were 28 of us, and we all had the same issues and problems. The ladies in the room, even to this day, never sell ourselves enough. We always think we have to have 97 percent of what it takes to do a particular job before we put our hand up to say, “I can do it.” As a woman, remember: put yourself forward.
I was the first female general manager for Park Hyatt in Asia Pacific and one of the first for Hilton in Asia. It was very different being a woman in general management roles in Asia Pacific, but I’m pleased to say that in the last five to six years it’s totally different, and at Hilton it’s amazing to be a female executive. That was probably the toughest thing in the early part of my career: apart from not having an education, was sometimes being the only woman in the room as a manager. I’m glad to say that things are changing now and I spend a lot of my time coaching and mentoring young women to help them get over that hurdle.
On the hospitality industry:
What excites me most is the bulk of the people that we employ in this industry are people who work hard to make a living that’s at the lower end of the spectrum whether it’s in the service industry, in a hotel or a tourism organization. Tourism has pulled so many countries out of poverty. It’s a really noble industry that gets forgotten by governments. I’ve lobbied governments to recognize that we’re a large employer, and we help many more people than most other industries. I’m so proud when I look at our team members that have worked on hourly wages and put their kids through college, and they’re so loyal, and they love what they do. That’s why I come to work. It’s a great industry.
Money’s not everything in life. My husband says, what a rich life we’ve had because of who we meet and how we live.
On setting goals:
I have learned over the years to set goals for myself. You need to set personal goals, but you need to be flexible with those goals when opportunities arise. I used to set goals for five years and I have a great mentor who’s 80-years-old and he sets 30-year goals. If you set short-term goals all the time, you won’t keep your mind open to things that come up along the way to get to that 30-year goal. And those are lofty goals; they have to be really big, audacious goals. If I stop dreaming and stop going for these lofty goals, I won’t get to where I want to be. I think if you don’t have a goal, you won’t make the decisions that you have to make.
I work on goals a lot with my executive team. The first thing I do when I walk into a new hotel is have a brainstorm and set a three-year plan. I remember when we did it in November 2017 at Conrad, I said let’s set a goal of increasing $5 million in Banquet revenue in three years without adding any people. They looked at me like I was crazy. And a year later, we’re halfway to that goal. We only have five big goals in three years ⎯ they’re pretty big, but we don’t do anything that doesn’t tie back to those five goals.