Not far from the Plaza Hotel, just across the street from Central Park, is a rarity in the New York City hospitality scene. The Sherry-Netherland is one of a few apartment hotels in Manhattan, meaning that tenants own their apartments or rooms and can put them into a “hotel pool” to be available for rent when not in use. And instead of a general manager, the hotel has an EVP and COO.
“Because it’s a co-op and it’s set up as a corporation, you need that type of setup for signatures,” said Michael Ullman, EVP and COO of the Sherry-Netherland. And the differences don’t stop there. Because each unit is individually owned, renovations and upgrades happen one at a time rather than all at once. “When apartments sell, I get involved in the board package that has to be put together, reviewing all of the details, reviewing the recommendation letters, those kinds of things,” Ullman said. “When it comes to construction, or if someone wants to do a renovation in a private apartment, there are procedures and processes that you don’t have in a regular hotel.”
This means that the Sherry-Netherland is constantly evolving, with both small and large projects taking place in rooms throughout the building. “I probably have five or six renovations going on right now,” Ullman said. But for the most part, these renovations are in private apartments that are not part of the hotel pool, so transient guests may not even be aware that they are going on.
A Life in the Business
Ullman grew up in the hospitality business. His parents, immigrants who fled persecution in Germany, opened guesthouses in upstate New York that grew into resorts. “I started off washing dishes and bussing tables,” Ullman said, noting the strong work ethic those early years gave him. “Holidays are the time that you work. Weekends are the time that you work. When everybody else is off, you’re working. That’s how you make a living in this business. It’s a 24/7 business and one that’s very demanding.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado, he went to Cornell University’s hospitality school to get his master’s degree. “It was a great place to meet a lot of people, learn a lot of things and create relationships,” he said of Cornell. “It gave me more tools to be analytical and critical. It broadened my horizons.”
After leaving Cornell, Ullman came to New York City and started working at the Waldorf-Astoria, getting a taste for the luxury segment, before moving to the West Coast to serve as GM at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California. “After that, I ended up getting together with some owners of the Auberge Collection and ran their operations for them,” he said. Ullman remained in California for most of the next 20 years as managing director for the Auberge Collection’s three hotels.
And now he’s back in the city where he started. “I really had no experience in co-ops, but I learned quickly,” he said. “For the first six months, I didn’t really know what they were talking about, but I figured it out.” Ullman praises the mix of residents and repeat transient guests for the hotel’s unique vibe, and singles out the hotel staff for taking the time to know both residents and guests by name. “That’s what sets us apart more than anything else,” he said, “that guest/staff interaction.”
Secrets to Success
Get to know your staff: You are really only as good as your weakest link, and your staff is key to everything. Letting them know how important they are, how good they are—and when they’re not, letting them know that, also, in a dignified way without demeaning or ridiculing them—is probably the key.
Work hard and work smart: Smart is probably better than hard. Really take the time to think something through and to discuss it. Find out what others are thinking about, what their opinion is of a situation. Like I say to the staff, “I don’t know all the answers. I’m happy if I know half. What do you think? You give me something that’s pretty reasonable, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, let’s figure out why it didn’t and try something else.”
Have a creative outlet: When I get frustrated, I draw. That’s my other side. I’m paying attention to stuff, but it helps me focus.
Advice: Really understand what luxury properties are all about. Understand what service is and what it should be. The luxury segment has changed drastically. There’s a lot more competition. I think a lot of people are trying to cut some corners and are not providing the services that they should at that level. There’s always a challenge between making a profit and providing all of the amenities that should be there.
Challenge: Staying current is the biggest challenge. Staying ahead of the curve with all that’s going on, all the changes that are happening—that’s very important.
Solution: You have to participate and be out there and see what’s going on and learn about it. Use meetings and social media to stay aware of the latest trends.