Developing Hospitality Skills: CEOs Who Started at the Bottom

February 10, 2020 •

4 min reading

Developing Hospitality Skills: CEOs Who Started at the Bottom

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It goes without saying that certain hospitality skills are must-haves in the pursuit of a successful career in the industry. Much heralded soft skills, such as time management, adaptability and teamwork, are developed during fledglings’ formative years and professional life beyond. In an increasingly digitalized work environment, an ever-evolving host of hard skills are also assets – take cloud computing or artificial intelligence, for example.

But there is another component, one that speaks to strength of character, to the willingness to put in both the hours and the hard graft, that kicks in when you assume your very first role: the value of starting at the bottom and working your way up.

The following hospitality heavyweights are flagship examples of the importance of staying power, gleaning insights, wisdom and appreciation from the interim tasks along the path to leadership.

Arne Sorenson

from motel night cleaner to President & CEO of Marriott International

Long before Arne Sorenson made history in 2012 as the first person to become Chief Executive Officer at Marriott without the family name, he worked the graveyard shift as assistant foreman of the night cleaning crew at a hotel in Minnesota. Working on this team of jumbled together individuals, each laboring through the night for their own reasons, taught Sorenson that “there is pride and dignity in every single job”, no matter how low-profile. This wisdom now feeds into his roles on various boards, including Microsoft’s Board of Directors since 2017.

Chris Nassetta

from maintenance worker to President & CEO of Hilton Worldwide

Christopher J. Nassetta, President & CEO of Hilton, took his first job in the hospitality industry at a Holiday Inn when he was 18 years old. His “entry-level position in the engineering department” – a somewhat glorified title – saw him see to tasks of the likes of plunging toilets. Via a seven-year stint as President & CEO of Host Hotels & Resorts Inc., he joined Hilton in 2007. He has also served as Chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council since April 2018.

Craig Reid

from busboy to President & CEO of Auberge Resorts Collection

In an impressive display of hospitality skills and perseverance, Craig Reid has gone from spilling a drink on a customer on his first day as a busboy at London’s Grosvenor Hotel at the tender age of 15 to acting as Auberge Resorts’ President & CEO from 2014 onwards. His path led, via a management traineeship with The Savoy Group, a degree in hotel administration from Westminster College, London, and a long career at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

David Kong

from dishwasher to President & CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts

Turn back the clock to 1970, and David Kong – now President & CEO at Best Western – was upping sticks: leaving his home country to pursue his studies at the University of Hawaii. Instilled with his parents’ work ethic and grit, and inspired by childhood memories of Sunday dinners at a Hong Kong hotel, he took a job as a dishwasher and busboy at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on the side. Having worked his way up to waiter, he later joined Omni Hotels’ food and beverage team. After a subsequent ten years at Hyatt, he joined Best Western in 2001, before being promoted to his current role in 2004.

Filip Boyen

from commis chef to CEO of Forbes Travel Guide

Filip Boyen first honed his hospitality skills as a commis chef aged 18. Over time, he worked his way up in the culinary world to roles in Michelin-star restaurants in Belgium, England and France, before transitioning to hotel management. Having acted as General Manager followed by COO at Belmond Hotels (Orient-Express Hotels at the time), he took the reigns as CEO of Small Luxury Hotels, overseeing a portfolio of over 520 independent hotels in 80 countries. Epitomizing the success of his career, “verifying luxury”, Boyen is now CEO of Forbes Travel Guide.

J. Allen Smith

from construction site helper to former President & CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

December 2018 may have seen J. Allen Smith, former President & CEO at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, take things down a notch in assuming a part-time role as Advisory Chairman at Latch, but the early days of his career remain an inspiration. A tale of back-breaking work for measly pay: Smith’s first job was that of brickmason’s helper at a construction site in Lexington, South Carolina, earning USD 1.85 an hour. After a cripplingly hot summer of mixing mortar and hauling bricks up scaffolding, he “graduated” to concrete finisher, forever appreciating the value of hard work.

No matter where you are on your journey into the professional world of hospitality: value education, understand the importance of lifelong learning and invest in building strong networking ties. Yes. But don’t forget that the key to progressing from cleaner to CEO may well lie in your ability to work hard, commit, persevere and allow your environment to shape your hospitality skills. For it is in this way that hospitality skills lead to leadership.



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