When Steven Szenasi was named GM of the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in Tucson, Ariz., in May, the appointment was the latest step in his journey in the luxury hospitality sector, most of of which has been with Marriott International's Ritz-Carlton brand.
Szenasi grew up in Hungary and spent six years after high school working on the Peter Deilmann luxury river cruise line along the Danube. The experience not only gave him a taste for luxury hospitality but a strong taste for travel—the job only lasted for eight months out of the year, allowing workers four months to see the rest of the world. “It gave me the opportunity to understand different cultures,” Szenasi said of those years, starting when he was 18. Many of the guests were German or American, and he became fluent not only in those two languages as well as his native Hungarian during his time on the ship, but in the cultures of both countries—a valuable asset for anyone in hospitality.
When he was ready to move on from the cruise line, Szenasi got a student visa to study for his pilot's license in Naples, Fla., but those plans were scuttled after 9/11 when his visa was revoked. He finally made it to Naples in 2003 with, as he tells it, two suitcases and $2,000 to his name. He stayed with relatives and got a job waiting tables, sometimes three shifts in a row, at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club while he put himself through Edison State College. After two years at the hotel, his boss, catering manager Michelle Strain, left to take on the same role at the city’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and soon invited Szenasi to join her.
Finding a Home
At the time, Szenasi wasn’t familiar with the brand. “In Europe, we barely had any Ritz-Carlton hotels,” he recalled. Even after two years in Naples, he had never stepped through the door of the Ritz-Carlton in the city, but within six months of starting his job there as meetings and special events manager, he knew the brand was a good fit for him.
The brand, he said, was very similar to that of the cruise line in terms of the sense of luxury and refinement. He “fell in love” with the company and has remained there for 14 years, rising through the ranks at properties in Naples, Colorado, Hungary and California. “I never imagined doing anything other than [working with] Ritz-Carlton,” Szenasi said. While he isn’t inherently opposed to working with any of Marriott International’s other 29 brands, he is more interested in maintaining the Ritz-Carlton culture of “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” and he knows it’s hard to find people who embrace that value. “It’s my job and my destiny to carry that forward,” he said.
Szenasi’s first role at Ritz-Carlton prepared him for a range of other positions in other hotels, he said. “Being in meetings and special events teaches you about the overall operations of a hotel,” he said. The position not only requires knowing every capability and limitation of the hotel, he said, but also requires that managers understand contract terms and legalities. “It gave me a phenomenal way of getting to know what Ritz-Carlton is as well as how we operate,” he said. Working in that capacity as well as in catering sales, he learned about a wide range of departments within hotels, but particularly appreciated learning about revenue management, which he believes prepared him to lead a hotel. “It’s such a great tool in any general manager’s toolbox to have that business acumen and understanding of our business,” he said, adding that managers coming from other departments might take longer to develop the understanding of the broader business. “Meetings and special events, sales and marketing and revenue management ... set me up for great success of becoming a leader.”
After spending more than five years at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif., two years ago Szenasi was invited to apply for a position as director of operations at the company’s Dove Mountain property outside of Tucson. Szenasi wrote a page-long email detailing all the reasons why he didn’t want the job, but after visiting the hotel he was hooked and had an offer letter from GM Liam Doyle within eight hours of first setting foot on the grounds. Soon after, Doyle was promoted to area GM for the region, overseeing four properties across California and Arizona while officially remaining GM at Dove Mountain. This gave Szenasi a chance to step outside the traditional boundaries placed on his position and take a more active role in running the hotel while Doyle was overlooking other properties. “I had the full freedom to do that,” he recalled.
In May, Doyle was promoted to area VP, and Szenasi stepped up to his first GM role just as his 40th birthday approached. “It’s a big year for me,” he said of the dual milestones. His experience during the previous two years as director of operations—and his lifetime of experience at the company—had prepared him for the responsibilities of the job, and for more years with Ritz-Carlton. “I've been pretty lucky to get this opportunity,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work and sweat and tears and good and bad and ups and downs, but it shaped me into the person I am today.”
Advice to GMs: “Anything is possible. It all depends on how much effort and time we put into our jobs and the results are up to us. There’s no limit, and I'm a perfect example, making a career in a foreign country ... If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Challenge: Learning the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. was difficult for Szenasi. “It’s a different culture and I had to learn every element, every aspect: What are the do's, what are the don’ts, what are the things you can say, what are the things you don’t say.”
Success: “I burned myself a few times, [and] I’m still learning it after so many years, since I didn’t grow up in the U.S. It’s a great challenge—and a fun one as well because it opens your eyes to see things differently. It keeps me going every day and it keeps me challenged.”
Three Tips for Success:
Never compromise. “Specifically in luxury, there’s always a way to do it, so for us to compromise and do anything less than perfection—or at least strive for anything less than perfection—will not result in anything less than mediocrity. Stay focused. Never give up. Find a way to get it done.”
When you make a sandwich, make it the best sandwich possible. “When you do something, make sure that you make the most out of it and you put every effort into making it the best, no matter what it is. Luxury is very unique from that standpoint, and you can lose market share very quickly if you don’t stay on top of your things and you don’t stay ahead of the competition.”
Be fair to your ladies and gentlemen. “Lead by example but don’t be afraid of accountability. A lot of leaders, especially new leaders, have a fear of conflict or accountability. Understand how much it hurts the business if you don’t face those conflicts and if you don’t drive accountability. It makes your business a lot more successful if you do so.”