DEI Advisors Podcast

Phil Hugh, Head of Lodging Development, Lifestyle and Luxury Brands, Sonesta Hotels & Resorts, Interviewed by Rachel Hunphrey

December 07, 2023 David Kong
DEI Advisors Podcast
Phil Hugh, Head of Lodging Development, Lifestyle and Luxury Brands, Sonesta Hotels & Resorts, Interviewed by Rachel Hunphrey
Show Notes Transcript

Phil shares how he adapts to corporate transitions and the new teams which form from those transitions, including how he develops and leads his own teams. He discusses managing business travel, including self care and connectivity with his team. Phil talks about how the relationships he has made throughout his hospitality career, from night auditor to CDO and each role in between, have impacted his career journey.

Rachel Humphrey:

I am Rachel Humphrey with DEI Advisors. We are a non profit organization dedicated to empowering personal success in the hospitality industry, and I am delighted to have with me today, well known industry powerhouse, Phil Hugh. Phil, welcome to the

Phil Hugh:

show. Thanks for having me, Rachel. I'm happy to be here, but we're

Rachel Humphrey:

gonna jump right in. One of the most exciting things to me about the hospitality industry is that there is no clear path to leadership. You don't have to follow one road map. And in fact, each of us can carve out our own way. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to leadership and maybe some of the pivotal moments along that

Phil Hugh:

path? Sure. I think it's a question when asked, you want to go back to birth. And say, wow, I was born into a family and a group of great leaders that, that trained me, but that really wasn't it. Leadership came with meeting people throughout my life and building really solid relationships with them and gaining from each conversation and building that throughout my career. I hear on every CEO panel that I think every CEO out there started as a dishwasher, except for David Kong. And he started as a busboy. Me, I started as a night auditor, and that's only because I needed a job. I was. Bouncing at nightclubs. I was doing door to door bill collecting and my mom's friend said, you have a background in finance. Why don't you do the night audit? And the next thing I'm in the hospitality space. And without a couple, a few years of leaving, it's been all hotels, my entire career and loved it. How I get into leadership was six months after being the night auditor, the owner walked in and said, I need a. Trainee for our GMs and you're the first. So I moved to Cleveland and became the assistant GM of a full service hotel. And three months after that, he pulled the GM, moved him to Phoenix and made me GM at 22 years of age. So it was by fire. I lived on the property. I didn't know what I didn't know about restaurants and nightclubs and. Delivering cradles to rooms at three in the morning and all of the fun that comes along with being a GM, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I was learning on the go. My mom was phenomenal. She'd be sending Zig Ziglar tapes and Brian Tracy and the Nightingale press and go, listen to this stuff that'll help you. And it probably drove me into being more on the development side of this business than on the pure operation side. I bounced around from the director of sales of Sheraton Suites after that, to the the five star Nemec Holden Woodlands Resort for a short period of time. But lo and behold, the place that really changed me was the Crown Plaza Resort, Crystal Sands, and Hilton Head. And probably as we talk today, we'll mention a lot of names because, that's what this industry is all about. And it's those people that touch you along the way. Make you stronger and help you grow. And that hotel, there was GM was Jack Miller and the director of marketing was Pam Gilbert, and she said, you're either going to last 90 days. Or be one of my better ones. Might've been one of her better ones cause I lasted more than 90 days, but I, they certainly took the time to break me down and teach me what I didn't know and made you dig deep into who you were as a person and learn about how you had, it's about taking care of other people and bringing them along with you to be successful. They had created as a group, some basic beliefs, teamwork works, there's value in differences, expect to succeed and I can go on and on. There's 10 of them to these, to this day, I still quote them on a daily basis. You'll hear me talk about them and they just rattle off. That hotel had not only Pam and Jack who, are just getting ready to retire. Pamela just retired from the four seasons. And Jack is still the regional GM out there in, in Scottsdale and I still reach out to them for guidance and advice, but that's where I met Eric Jacobs, who CDO of Marriott for different brands. The names go on and on from that hotel. Gina Speck, who is, was the was the controller on property at the time. And where did she end up? The the CFO of IHG. So the name, it's just really, it was a crazy hotel, but we learned a lot. And I go back to that as being the turning point in my career that, I walked out of there a leader understanding that it wasn't about me. Yeah. And if I could bring people along with me, then I'll have a stronger organization and the companies that empower me to lead for them will be stronger because of it.

Rachel Humphrey:

You mentioned a couple of incredible themes in there. First of all, how fortunate to be around such an impactful team that to this day, you still can remember and implement all of those lessons that you learned along the way. 1 of the things I think about when I think about you is that you've taken some incredible risks to make decisions for your career that may be. Lateral moves. They could be even a step. Some might perceive it as backwards to try to push yourself to learn new things, to expose yourself to new things. How do you tackle risks? How do you assess them and decide which ones are right for you, for your family, for your career, and which ones maybe you want to pass on?

Phil Hugh:

Good question. I would tell you that I love risk. I love being disruptive and the bigger the challenge, the more excited I am about it. If you're looking for someone to come in and keep its status quo, I'm just not that guy. I think we can always improve on the process, no matter how great it is. And can we ask the questions, uh, that are hard and make those hard decisions to grow the organization. I've always been around growth. So how do you move the organization forward? And that's, that's a collaborative effort of people that decide the path and where we need to be in three, five, 10 years. Now let's look at the effects downstream so that we can get to those goals. Career wise just happens, right? 2003, I probably had 1 of the jobs that people say, why would you ever leave? I was senior VP of all new construction for send in. I was hired in by 1 of the great mentors. John Osborne was with HFS at the time. Send that happened as you, as if anybody remembers back, send that crashed very quickly. And it was a build back and the company was on fire. And I elected due to my father's passing to do what drove me. And that was to go out and start my own company. And, there's a risk there. We were talking earlier offline about the cost of starting an association. The cost of starting your own company. I should have asked more questions before I did and along the way. Those risks, come with great reward. They can come with great pain and agony. But as I got older and, learn from my greatest risk was, the greatest hurdle I had to overcome was probably 2008, where, I had several 100 people in my company the crash occurred. We weren't structured right financially to survive the. The huge downturn. So we had to shut it down. It forced me to lay off all of the employees and bankrupt myself and go start over. bUt learning that and being broken down that way, you either can elect to say he's me, or just go back at it. And I'll never forget. I'm driving across the alligator alley and the phone rings and it's John Osborne on behalf of Richard Smith, who was the chairman of Realogy at the time. And he said, look, they want you in New York. They need a new EVP, a global development and Richard remembers you from working together. 10 years ago. Don't go screw it up. I I went up and next thing, I've got 120 person team that I need to move to the next level. And it's because of those relationships you build earlier and it's because of the, those the times you're knocked down that you get back up. You're a stronger person and a stronger leader. But I think after that Rachel is really. Who are the people that are running the organizations? What are the people like that are there and how can I help them? And the greatest one, and the one I had the most fun with was when Doreen Lalani called me and said. We got to do something with Red Roof and that was great fun. We really were able to turn that around. We, I think the tagline was genuine relationships. So we really tried to grow the organization around that. And that's probably where you and I first really met and got to know each other as professionals and friends. Throughout the years and that was going great. It was really going well. And all of a sudden Jim Alderman calls. What a great guy. I met him when he was a GM or a regional manager at Bristol. And I was slinging holiday and express franchises in Texas. And we became friends, but never worked together. And Jim said, Hey, I need a chief development officer. I go, Jim, I'm going to make a change. And I don't have operations anymore, but I want to work with you. And I think there's some really neat things we could do over there. The neat thing was sell it to choice, that was, that worked out well too. That worked out, but we had some, that was the, you can, we can dig into COVID, but I think everyone's tired of talking about it. That, that whole experience there was just horrible with the people and the layoffs and how you were affecting families forever. But, and we learned from that. Hopefully we don't have to live through that again. That was just some great challenges getting understanding the Chinese, understanding the U. S. government and how we move an organization forward that benefits, keeps everyone happy. And then then here we go, we end up with back with the people I worked with in 1998, Keith Pearson, Brian Quinn, who I've known forever and respect greatly asked me to come head up the luxury and lifestyle side of things and. I love the Synesta story. I I don't want to make this a commercial, but if you don't know it, you should go find out what happened back in 2011 or 10 and 2020 and see why this company is being talked about right now. So it was it's been a fun run, Rachel, and I'm not done yet. I

Rachel Humphrey:

have no doubt about that. That's so many interesting. Concepts in there again, the importance of that relationship building and people remembering you and wanting to work with them. There's 2 parts of that, though, that I want to follow up on that. 1 of them is why I asked you to be on the show. 1 of the reasons that I've selected you is I hadn't really known very much this term followership as far as employees go until relatively recently, but you are known. for building a great team, developing talent. And when you have new opportunities, people want to go with you if the opportunity is both available and right for them. What are some of the secrets for how you set about identifying talent, developing talent to the extent that you know that there is a core group of people that want to be with you wherever you go.

Phil Hugh:

You know what? That's you found the secret sauce. I heard somebody say yesterday we can't join the organization because we don't want you to learn our secret sauce. But my secret sauce is it's me learning how to be more patient and listening more. But I've got phenomenal people that I've been able to work with, and they want to keep doing it. And they're the best and you learn from watching them from afar when they're, they know you're not looking you give them the chance to succeed and when they're knocked down, you pick them back up a lot of the sales side of it. You sometimes you got to break them down. But then you better build them back up with the same conversation, or you're going to have a challenge. And those people that like that relationship where I don't think I've ever been, Matt Hostetler is going to probably disagree with this because I've known for 47, 48 years I don't think I've ever been mad for more than 4 seconds or angry for a short period of time, because it's let's get her over. Let's go fix the problem where no one died. No one got hurt. So let's go, let's work together as a team to fix the problem and go be successful. But I think that people follow the most is because I let them do their jobs. I'm not micromanaging them. I'm not following up on the basics. I'm creating an environment where you can succeed. Create, I try to create an environment where you feel wanted and needed, and it's okay to fail and it's okay to be disruptive and come up with crazy ideas because maybe that's the crazy idea that made things different, move the needle to getting driving more business to the hotels are selling another franchise or, what I'm selling another, adding another team on the real estate side and I think because the environment and the culture is so tight. They want to stay there and they join. I, I, at Synesta I wasn't. Brian and Keith were here and they brought me along and I looked to my left and right and, 10, probably 7, 8 people from Raddison or Red Roof are standing around me. So it was great. I got to join this team, right? That it was already here. But I think those people are have given me a, a great honor and saying, hey, can I come over there? And literally the day a guy that sold for me, sold on the ERA team back in 2010 emailed and said, okay, I'm done with real estate. Can I get on your team on the hotel side? And I'm like, you said, do you remember me? I'm like, of course, I remember you're the top guy. You're in Ohio. I love you, man. We don't have an opening, but you're on the list.

Rachel Humphrey:

And that's exactly what I'm talking about. This desire for people to figure out what you're doing and if there is a fit for them there. And I will tell you, I interviewed Matt for DEI advisors and he spoke nothing but highlights about you. Nothing on. On anger or anything else, but he

Phil Hugh:

has pictures of me and I have pictures of him. So we've got this kind of thing. We got to both behave.

Rachel Humphrey:

Phil, one of the things with going to new companies, whether it is voluntarily or through an acquisition where companies, nowadays there's so much consolidation. It can be very disruptive in managing that transition, adapting to new teams, especially maybe where. You chose a company and then the acquisition, the consolidation merger happens, and it might not have been your choice. Do you have any advice you would give to people who find themselves in that same situation and having to adapt to maybe a different environment, but for essentially the same company or maybe even the same management

Phil Hugh:

team? I think, I obviously I've been through it a few times and, you have to do your research on the company that's being acquired. And I'm sorry, who's acquiring you? I should say. I've never really been a lot on the acquisition side of in the inquiry. I think it's your research on the culture. And how's it match with the 1 that you're in? Are you happy with the 1 you're in? I think it's interviewing the people that are there and seeing what they love about it. What's great about it. And then also asking the questions of, where can they improve? And are you going to be able to go in and have a positive effect on that organization? To further your career personally, wherever you want to go, whether that be, a leader driving a team forward and finance operations development, or is it I just want to be an individual contributor and help the overall organization succeed by doing my job. But I think it's really got to slow down. Don't move quick and really look at what the who the people are and what they've done in the past because, as past performance is going to be. Is reflective of future, so well, and

Rachel Humphrey:

that, yeah, that ties to your early theme of doing a lot of listening, maybe sometimes more than talking. So going into the new environment and really listening. To what everybody around you is trying to say what, go ahead.

Phil Hugh:

Not going to say, that's, if you look at skill sets from birth, I needed to shut up, listen, and, be more patient. I'll never forget. I was sitting in a, I was, I think I was just appointed the national VP at Realogy. The first time I was there, not the second time, and I was in the room and you've got the senior VP and the EVP and. The customer answers the question. It's my nature to take control of the room and answer the question. I learned very quickly that maybe I should have listened, be a little more patient and also. No, your audiences, the guy at the top was like, why are you speaking in the room? I'll nudge you when I need your help, but I got this and I think that's a good lesson for everyone on the, your skill sets and what can you approve? Know what you need to get better at and to really look yourself in the mirror. And then also that story always wait, who did I think I was? I got 2 guys have been doing this for. a lot longer than I am. B because of my nature, I w That's just who I am. But it wasn't appreciated, but we're

Rachel Humphrey:

all evolving. So there you go. Lesson learned and implement that into leadership.

Phil Hugh:

I was 28, so I had a lot to learn.

Rachel Humphrey:

PHil, when we talk a lot about the hospitality industry and many, including you have very demand. business travel schedules. Can you share a little bit about some of your strategies for managing the business travel, whether it is on the wellness side, whether it's how do you handle management and supervision of the team if you're not present in the same location? What are some of the challenges, obstacles, strategies for managing business travel

Phil Hugh:

for you? It is a demanding job. I, I look at the travel schedule, just go back to your travel schedule, Idahoa, and it's impossible to manage. I can tell you the first, let's take the first 15 versus the last 15. I stayed out late, I didn't work out, um, didn't care about my family, didn't care about what things were going on. It was work, and your body suffers from it. So I've, I'll tell you, I lost a hundred pounds. I probably lost 400 pounds over the years doing this job. This week alone, I've had three dinners out till 10 30, 11 o'clock at night. My bedtime's nine. Everyone knows that. And three flights this week. Get back, come here, try to figure out a place in this little cottage we're in to, to talk to you. And still manage the team. So one, I, one now I get up extremely early and the first hour and a half is mine, whether it's swimming, walking, going to the gym and trying to keep the waistline down. That's the goal. The second major goal is to not have dinners till 1030, 11 o'clock at night, which. This week wasn't that so I'm, I go, I went back to my, I have it on my notes to talk to the team today. Guys, we can't do that. You're going to kill me. I'm not going to be of any good use to you. And then the 3rd, when you're managing a team I preach it every day. I wake him up and I put him to bed. And what I mean by that is it's not micromanaging, but every morning I talk to my guys, whoever's on the team. Guys, I say, Hey, how can I help you today? What do you need? What do you have on your radar? What rocks do you have in your way that I can move? And then throughout the day, because they're active conversations just happen. Now it's text, LinkedIn, video, phone and email and teams. So you got all those channels working all day, but I always try to make sure at the end of the day, whether it's a quick text. I prefer a phone call is just to put them to bed and what I mean by that is, okay, how to go, what didn't we accomplish and what do you have tomorrow that we're going to talk about or think about tonight, what I can do tomorrow to help you because my job as a leader is to help to move the hurdles that get in the way of completing the particular task in operations, it was, it changed every minute, right? In development it's what, what's going to make this deal move forward. What do the. Okay. What does the client need answered, how fast can we do it, and how can we get the appropriate paperwork or information to them so they can make an educated decision. I'm a facilitator. I'm one that, we're here to create this fun, exciting place to work that you can learn, hopefully build wealth and have a really a great career that you can look back on. But if I'm not engaged with them and when I had leaders under leaders, if they weren't doing it the same way, what happens, Rachel, is the entire culture breaks down and things start to blow up. You really have to stay up on it, but I, it's always I always, I think whenever I interview someone, I go, look, you're going to hear when I wake you up and put you to bed. That doesn't what it says. But let me explain what that means. And if you don't like being hugged, and if you don't like me asking about your family. And really caring what's going on, then you might not like working here. If you want to be left alone in the corner to do your job, you might not be real happy. So let's talk about how we can create a position for you that works.

Rachel Humphrey:

tHat's such a great point about communication and connectivity. Not only the many new ways that can happen as yours and my careers have progressed, but really making sure that whether you are present in person with people or not, that you're still. present and available for them. So I really appreciate your sharing that. That's great advice. You talked earlier about listening, developing a skill of listening and maybe reading the room a little bit differently. As your leadership has grown through the hospitality industry, have you come across? Other skills, maybe that you're like, you know what? I see either other leaders with this and it's very effective and it's something I need to develop or something that you've just come across that someone's assigned to and you're like, wow, I have zero idea how to do this, but I'm going to need to learn it to be effective. And if so, how have you developed or mastered those new skills?

Phil Hugh:

You know what you have to sharpen the saw every day, right? And it's those skill sets that you don't know that you're not using that have gotten weak. And when you see someone doing it better, you're like, wow, how do I improve or how can you call what I'll do is I like to call people that I consider, either my mentor or my coach and say, how'd that come off like this doing this is great. Hopefully I can share some ideas and some thoughts that people can take back and. And use, or they can reach out to me and ask for help. But I want to send this to every one of the people that I know going, okay, how to come off, what I do, how can I be better and what did I miss? So this for me is a training exercise. When you see someone really building a great relationship with someone and talking to them and digging into what's important to them sometimes you forget to so why'd you buy the hotel? How'd you get into the hotel business? And what do you want to do with this? What's your vision for it? Sometimes we forget to ask those questions and I had a really great dinner last night with a group in Houston. And he sat back for 30 seconds and says, no one's ever asked me why I'm buying that. I want to know why you bought all four of them. And he had a phenomenal answer and it was really family based, Matt Hostetler, and frankly, Tim Muir is probably one of the best at, just slowing down and really caring about the person they're with. And removing all the distractions. And I talked to Tim quite frequently and I, when I hang up, I'm always like, man, I gotta be better. Even just wearing the tie he wears every day, back to that,

Rachel Humphrey:

Tim is definitely a great leader in the industry. You need to get him on the show. For sure.

Phil Hugh:

We got a list for you. I

Rachel Humphrey:

love that. We are going to run short on time. You and I know we could speak to each other all day, but, it's interesting because when you talk about developing new skills, and you mentioned your own continuous growth, that's 1 of the things. That I really like. And one of the reasons that I love the next question about what advice would you give to your younger self is because it is a work where all works in progress and reflection is part of that. What have I learned? How do I incorporate it? What should I not do anymore? Perhaps to be more effective as you sit here today. What do you tell 22 year old night auditor, Phil, about either something you wish you had known then or how things play out?

Phil Hugh:

It's probably the answer about health. Hey, buddy, slow down, pay more attention to detail, listen, focus more on your family and let them know how much you care about them. And that family can be, your wife and kids, but also that the family of people that got you there. I always remember Eric Jacobs ended up his son's name's Taylor or Joshua. Sorry, Taylor. Sorry Joshua, Hugh Jacobs. And that was a huge honor, but our career paths went different. And I went my route on the Senden religion path. And he went through Hilton and Marriott and has done phenomenal, but I never stayed close enough to those children. And I wish someone back then when I said, you're going to meet people along the way that, having the personal life with them and the things you're going to miss when you're older, you're really going to look back and go, damn, I should have done a better job at that and bid more there than just a text or a quick call on a birthday but showing up. And Eric and I are still dear friends and talk a lot not near enough. And my recommendation would be there's those people and things that happen that you should stay close to and try to recognize that. And then Brian Quinto love this, stop and slow down and go see the corn palace and ball of yarn. And, carhenge. They're all in my 1st sales territory in Nebraska and the Dakotas. And Brian had that territory after I did. I think he says the same thing, man. The day I pulled over and looked at carhenge. I was like, I'm in a rush, but wow, maybe stop by and go see Mount Rushmore and, pull over and spend a couple hours at the Grand Canyon. And I will tell you the 1st. 20 years that wasn't happening for me. That didn't get the deal done. But yeah, I'd love for somebody to tell me all that. 22 to 30 some years ago.

Rachel Humphrey:

Not only are both of those things great pieces of advice, both on staying connected with the people whose paths we cross, but also taking time to celebrate life or enjoy life in other ways. But certainly never too late to learn them. So today, Phil knows both of those things and hopefully has implemented that for sure. As we wrap up today, Phil talking a little bit about the motto of DEI advisors to empower personal success. Is there any final thought you have, any last piece of advice you want to share with our listeners?

Phil Hugh:

It's going to go back to how we started this and those basic beliefs, I'll tell you, teamwork works, there's value in difference, love what you do and do it with passion, follow the golden rule, and be focused, follow up like a maniac, and be disciplined in meeting your goals. I think that's what I'd like to leave you with.

Rachel Humphrey:

thAt is a great place to wrap up. On behalf of my myself, my own personal career journey, our friendship on behalf of the hospitality industry. Thank you so much for all you do to lead all of us. For your impactful engagement in the industry. I will tell our listeners, if you have enjoyed this interview, I hope you'll head over to DEI advisors. org where you can hear from just recently, 150 guest advisors who have shared their incredible leadership journeys and the insights they've learned along the way. You can also stream us from any of your favorite streaming channels, but Phil, thank you so much for joining us and for supporting DEI advisors. Thank you. I

Phil Hugh:

appreciate it. Have a great holiday season. Thanks

Rachel Humphrey:

Phil. You too.