Hawaii native takes circuitous route to GM

Ohana Waikiki Malia by Outrigger
Sheryl Tsugawa assumed leadership of the Ohana Waikiki Malia by Outrigger in May. Photo credit: Outrigger Hospitality Group

Sheryl Tsugawa, who was born and raised in Hawaii, grew up familiar with the Outrigger Hotels and Resorts brand, but her journey to the leadership of the Ohana Waikiki Malia by Outrigger was anything but straightforward. In fact, while many leaders in corporate brand offices came to their positions after working in individual hotels, Tsugawa took the opposite track. 

Roundabout Route

Tsugawa moved to Atlanta in 1997 to help her mother in the family’s dry cleaning business, where one of the regulars was Paul Snyder, at the time the VP of operations (branding and business development) at IHG. After she earned bachelor's degrees in both psychology and sociology from Georgia State University with the goal of a career in social work, Snyder encouraged Tsugawa to consider hospitality instead. “He thought that this would be a good opportunity to learn something that could bring me back home ultimately,” she recalled. As such, Tsugawa started her hospitality career in IHG’s Atlanta corporate offices, working alongside Cindy Murphy, then VP for Hotel Indigo operations in North America; Amy Ruth, then senior director of continuous improvement, and Rachel Pletz, then director of development marketing, learning the business from the office side rather than the hotel side.

Rising through the ranks during her three years at the corporate office, Tsugawa learned about the development sales, marketing and hotel operations sides of the business. She was appointed associate manager for development marketing during that time, but she wasn’t satisfied in the office setting. “For me, I always felt like in order to really understand hotels, I really needed to be in the operations side of it,” she said. Eager to return home to Hawaii, she joined IHG Army Hotels, the company's collection of private-sector hotels located on Army installations and joint bases throughout the U.S., as operations manager for the division’s properties on Oahu’s Fort Shafter in early 2010. 

But after less than a year at the fort, Tsugawa moved to a different IHG-branded property—the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort, owned and managed by Honolulu-based Outrigger Hospitality Group. Her role as sales and marketing manager served as a bridge between the two companies, and she has remained with Outrigger ever since. Within six months of joining the team, she was appointed director of sales for the property, a position she held for the next three years.

In 2014, she moved to the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort as assistant general manager. “I just felt like it would be an opportunity for me to stretch,” she said of the transition. She stayed at the property for two and a half years, and then moved to the Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk, another Outrigger-managed hotel, in the same position. 

Sheryl Tsugawa
Sheryl Tsugawa. Photo credit: Outrigger

Finally, last spring, Outrigger was seeking a general manager for the company’s Ohana Waikiki Malia. Tsugawa was ready for the next step and applied for the position. “After being an assistant general manager for almost seven years, I was wanting to do something more,” she recalled. “I wanted to have a hotel [where] I could be able to make a difference and really take whatever I've learned and ... apply it to something, where I could put my mark on it but also help to bring it to another level as well.” She got the job and has been leading the hotel since May. 


“Every day is a challenge,” Tsugawa said of her role after seven months on the job. “I think that's the beauty of the hospitality industry: Either you love it or you don't. It could either overwhelm you or it can inspire you.” Tsugawa has chosen inspiration, and is particularly excited to see her work paying off quickly. “Every Thursday we all walk the property together and we focus on a certain part of the property and we continue to [work on] it until everything in that section is as perfect as we want it to be ... Being each other's eyes and ears is really inspiring to me because I feel like this is our hotel. We should be proud of it.” 

Her wide range of positions over the years helped prepare her for the role. For example, she said, understanding the sales and marketing side of hospitality means understanding what drives business—“the revenue, the relationships and the partnerships, especially with Hawaii, which is such a small world.” The operations side, meanwhile, is all about people—“the teams and being able to not just support them, but also know that we are in a business of taking care of people, understanding our guests, understanding what their needs are—because it's changing so quickly—and being able to flex to that.” 

The biggest lesson Tsugawa has learned in her career has been to build a team and to surrounded herself with dedicated people. “We all have a passion to take care of our hotel, to take care of the guests that are our responsibility when they come here, but also to take care of each other. I always tell my team, ‘Guests will come and go and it’s our job to make sure that they're taken care of, but we have to have to live with each other every day, so we need to take care of each other, too.’” 


Sheryl Tsugawa's...

Advice for GMs: “We're really in a position of privilege. We've been given a great opportunity to lead and to inspire. … We're in the hospitality industry, which is about taking care of people. And with that in mind, when we can really make a difference in people's lives, that's something to be very proud of and very responsible for.”

Challenge: As a first-time GM, Tsugawa has been learning how to balance guest expectations with the expectations of the hotel’s owners and to keep everything in perspective. 

Success: “Ultimately, we are in a business and so different stakeholders have different needs. [You have] to be able to understand that. ... Look at it through the eyes of others and through different perspectives and just try to be more open-minded and understanding. That's been a big learning lesson for me: not trying to fix everything, not trying to do everything—because you can't, especially in the hotel world where it's nonstop. But you're going to have to be able to trust and build really great teams and be surrounded by a lot of smart people.” 

Secrets to Success

Take chances. “This is not an easy business, so you have to have a passion for it, but also take chances and say yes. [There are] going to be a lot of opportunities that come up and sometimes just saying yes opens up so [many] other opportunities ... If you don't take risks, then you really don't know what could really happen.”  

Surround yourself with good people. “A great team will really make everything so much more meaningful ... We all have experiences, so even though you don't go through it yourself, they'll be able to share theirs. And just having that type of guidance or learning has really helped me.” 

Don't be afraid to fail. “You learn so much more by failing than always doing everything perfectly. There is no such thing [as doing everything perfectly] ... We're making so many different decisions and sometimes it's not the right one, but at least you learn and you understand and you grow. So that's what I always say to myself. I told my team that we trust each other, and with that we can do a lot, but failure will only make us better.” 

Ohana Waikiki Malia by Outrigger
Owner: Lucky Hotels | Management Company: Outrigger | Opening Year: 1979 |  327 rooms