It was perhaps somewhat prophetic that when young Joseph Akinsete entered grade school, he began going by his middle name, Ayo—the Yoruba word for “joy.” Years later, the general manager of the soon-to-open Dream Hollywood hotel emphasizes the joy he takes in his career, and the joy he tries to share with both his hotel teams and guests.
Akinsete’s interest in the hospitality industry was piqued by a professor at the University of South Carolina, who said that his personality would be a good fit for the hospitality industry. At her suggestion, after he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor of science in hospitality, he went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to get his master of science in hotel administration.
While still a student, Akinsete took a fortuitous vacation with a friend—Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps. After the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, Phelps and Akinsete went on vacation to Turks and Caicos and met Michael Achenbaum, co-owner and president of the Gansevoort Hotel Group, at the Gansevoort Turks and Caicos. Akinsete mentioned that he was planning a career in hospitality, and Achenbaum gave the student his business card. When Akinsete graduated from UNLV, Achenbaum connected Akinsete with Michael Lindenbaum, EVP of hotel development and operations at Dream Hotel Group, and Akinsete quickly found a job as an operating supplies and equipment manager at the Gansevoort Park Avenue in New York.
From the Gansevoort, Akinsete moved on to launch the Dream Downtown in New York and served as the hotel’s director of front office. The experience of opening a hotel provided a valuable education, he said, because the refurbished structure came with a list of challenges for the hotel team to overcome. “We had problems with noise complaints. We had issues with furniture that we had to change out—changing rooms and rooms of furniture while guests were staying there,” he said. “Buildings don’t work automatically. You wish it was like a Mercedes-Benz where you turn it on and go, but it’s like a teething baby. There are constant issues.”
But overcoming those challenges taught Akinsete a useful lesson: “While you’re dealing with the building—and this goes for a new building or a refurb—you have a staff of 100 to 200 people you have to guide through this maze of opening a hotel and keeping them calm,” he said. “If the leader starts to panic, that trickles down to the employees, and that cannot happen.” Having opened one hotel and preparing to open another, Akinsete now knows to prepare for problems in advance so that he can focus on the solution instead of the challenge. “There’s always a solution,” he said. “It’s about being calm and projecting that to the staff.”
Opening a hotel poses challenges for everyone involved, but Akinsete has learned how to run a property while it’s still in development. “As the GM, you are often the first hire and can be by yourself with no staff for some time, which can be odd as we are in the business of delivering an experience to guests, talking to many different people every day,” he said of preopening duties. “You are at a desk quite a bit in comparison to when you are operating a hotel. You have to be able to sell something to people without having the product—this goes for signing up new corporate accounts or hiring employees.”
To that end, he said, he makes it a point to talk with all of his contacts regularly and keep them in the loop. “I find that people are happy when they know what is going on, as this allows them to plan in their role accordingly,” he said. “Finding out what people do in their spare time also helps build rapport as I can check in on the things that matter to them outside of work.”
With extensive experience in opening hotels, Akinsete has come to appreciate the process. “I love being able to see something as a concept, then see it through to fruition,” he said. “It’s pretty rewarding to see renderings turn to a structure then for that structure to be occupied with happy people.”
Listen to what people are saying to you. Understand that the term GM stands for general manager and not master of the universe who knows everything. With that said, hire people that are experts in their field; this will allow you to build a team that can help you make sound decisions, allowing the hotel to be successful. Listen to all ideas, allowing logic and sense to play out. Leave the egos at home.
Challenge: Being told I was too young to be a general manager.
Success: I left that hotel and became a general manager somewhere else.
SECRETS TO SUCCESS
Work harder than everyone else: You are the guy who gets there first and leaves last. Even if you need to work a shift you don’t like, if you need to be a bellman for one day, just work harder than everyone else, and someone will notice.
Come to work with a positive outlook on life: It takes a certain type of character to want to serve other people. We are in the business of saying “Yes, madam; yes, sir.” We genuinely like it. It’s so much fun every day coming to work and having a staff that loves what they do and are able to make guests happy.
Care for the people you work with: I have my HR director send me everyone’s birthday so I can go and find them and say “Happy birthday.” It makes people want to work hard for me, because they know that I care about what is going on in their lives. I want to make sure they’re genuinely happy at work and in their personal lives.