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Women hoteliers talk about the business, professional journey

Hotels and AccommodationsHotel and Accommodation IndustryPersonal ServiceLabor DayRhea Perlman

Tourism is big business in South Florida, generating nearly $15 billion in combined economic impact in Broward and Palm Beach counties in 2012, and employing more than 180,000 locals.

Many of the nearly 18 million tourists that visited the two-county region last year stayed in one of its hundreds of hotels, resorts and inns.

Hotels are often where lasting impressions of the destination are formed, so ensuring that guests' expectations are met and exceeded is a top priority for lodging managers. Take for example, Kimberly Wilson. She conducts weekly room inspections helping housekeepers create the "perfect room." Marylouise Fitzgibbon, a mother of two sets of twins, has successfully opened a hotel; Cathy Balestriere has nurtured a once nearly vacant small hotel in Delray Beach into a popular destination and Cheri Rutledge nearly 35 years in hospitality began when she was 16.

On this Labor Day, here's a look at four South Florida female general managers as they offer insights into their professional journeys.

KIMBERLY WILSON

Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, Fort Lauderdale

650 rooms; 700 employees

Wilson, 50, is nearing two years as general manager of Marriott Harbor Beach and before coming to Fort Lauderdale spent a decade running several Marriott properties in Miami including the Miami Airport Marriott, a three-property, 828-room campus with $31 million in sales. Some of her proudest accomplishments as general manager include exceeding operational goals at every property she's managed, Wilson said. For the Hollywood resident, a typical work day runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and starts off with a property walk that includes greeting employees and getting "them charged up to take care of the guests." Wilson rewards housekeepers with a $100 bonus if they present her with the perfect room.

Q: What are some key skills or traits required of a hotel general manager?

Integrity and leading by example. Having an open-door policy and knowing how to strike balance. The way to maintain balance is to build a strong team around you and let them do their job. Be able to develop and mentor employees. Participate and be visible in your community.

Q: Is it challenging to find the right people to work in customer service?

Yes at times. We take care of people all day everyday and so you need to love doing that and some of them don't quite understand that. In interviews I ask: Do you want a career in taking care of people, because that's what hospitality is? Customer expectations are high today, and it's a competitive industry so you have to take care of all your customers, especially loyalty members. At the hotel we spend a lot of time talking about providing value because no matter what guests are paying, they want to feel that they're getting their money's worth.

Q: What legacy would you want to leave behind?

That I provided opportunities to people, that in some cases they might not have had.

Q: Any advice for women in the business aspiring to be general managers?

Work hard and achieve the results and be knowledgeable in at least two industry disciplines (sales, operations for example)

MARYLOUISE FITZGIBBON

W Fort Lauderdale

517 rooms, 300 plus employees

At 32, she had the distinction of being the youngest general manager for a W hotel at the time, and in 2008 Fitzgibbon spearheaded the successful opening of W Atlanta – Buckhead, from concept to completion. The Florida native has 21 years of experience with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. Fitzgibbon's first hotel job was as a front desk agent as a teenager. In college she pursued a hospitality management degree and then later earned an MBA. For the mom of 8-year-old twin boys and 2-year-old boy/girl twins, striking a balance between work and home is important. "I'm also very organized," Fitzgibbon said. "When you have four kids and you're running a hotel, nothing can be left to chance. For example every lunch is done the night before and every outfit is laid out. I get up really early between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to get the kids ready for school and try to get to work by 7:30 a.m."

Q: How would you describe your job?

I'm the lead strategist, and I'm here to drive results. It's really the filter by which I structure my day, my priorities and decide which meetings I attend. Running a hotel is like being a mayor of a small city, where there all these departments that are in need of my time and attention but I can't devote all my time to anyone, but still need to know enough about what's happening in each area to be dangerous… to be able to know where I can drive results.

Q: What are some fundamental skills or traits of a hotel general manager?

Being highly organized; servant leadership and being strategic are just a few.

Q: What advice would you give young women in the industry who want your job?

Excel at everything you do. There are no shortcuts. In my case I literally just worked my way up by doing every job I could get my hands on because I wanted to make sure that when I became a general manager I had the knowledge. I never wanted to sit with an employee and be discussing a job that I either didn't know how to do, or just didn't know what they're talking about.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave behind?

That I created a culture of excellence in any hotel I've been in.

CATHY BALESTRIERE

Crane's BeachHouse Hotel & Tiki Bar, Delray Beach

27 rooms; 22 employees

New Jersey native Balestriere fell in love with Crane's BeachHouse Hotel & Tiki Bar on her first visit. She was immediately struck by the potential of the 27-room hidden treasure in Delray Beach and was surprised that only two rooms were occupied that weekend.

Determined to change that, she contacted the hotel's owner Michael Crane and convinced him she had the skills to turn things around. Ten years later, she's still there and under her leadership, Crane's BeachHouse has achieved and maintained a 72 percent annual occupancy over the period.

Prior to coming to Delray, Balestriere, 41, worked as director of sales for a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, and previously owned and operated a travel agency and professional travel school in New Jersey, which had annual sales of $5 million. When the travel industry took a hit following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, she sold the business and moved to Florida in 2002.

Q: How would you describe your general manager journey?

It's been challenging. I had to be innovative and creative because we had no brand recognition or corporate resources to rely on. We had to know our abilities and recognize the challenges we were working with.

Q: What are some skills or traits necessary to be a hotel general manager?

Being a motivated self starter and team player; being flexible and versatile and maintaining a sense of humor under pressure. You also have to thrive in a deadline type environment.

Q: How do you strike the balance between work and home life?

It helps that I love to come to work every day but even on stressful days, I'm careful not to take work issues home.

Q: Did you have any mentors?

Yes, although I'm the kind of person to jump and do things on my own. Michael Crane gave me tremendous support and helped me to grow into the role of general manager. Another, former Delray mayor Jeff Perlman encouraged me to get involved in the community, which helped develop my leadership skills.

CHERI RUTLEDGE

West Palm Beach Marriott

352 rooms; 160 plus employees

Rutledge, 56, started in the hospitality business at 16 as a salad person in the kitchen of a country club, then moved into the restaurant and ended up studying hospitality management at Florida International University. Rutledge, who lives in Lake Worth, spent 15 years in Tampa as general manager for two hotels and has worked for Marriott for more than three decades. She sums up the experience like this: "It's been fun. It's great to be able to stay with the same company and be able to grow and get new jobs."

Q: What's it like to be a hotel general manager?

You make it what you want it to be and everyday is different, which is wonderful because you're never bored. Still there are tons of challenges. You're here to take care of the guest and the customer and so they bring their own set of expectations and you're here to meet them so that can present challenges and same with the associates. They have concerns …things going in their lives that you deal with too, so every day there's a different set of challenges.

Q: Name some key skills a general manager should have?

Good listening, communication and delegation skills are important.

Q: In the 24-7 hotel industry business, how do strike the balance between work and home life?

For me I have to schedule personal time, for example exercise, otherwise it gets swept away in the business.

Q: What will your legacy be?

Building great teams and then delivering great service is what I hope it would be.

asatchell@tribune.com, 954-356-4209 or Twitter@TheSatchreport.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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