Hotelier Spotlight: The Madison Hotel's Hazel Hagans

Hazel Hagans worked her way up to the top position at The Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., over the course of many years and many jobs in many hotels, each one preparing her for higher levels of leadership. 

“It wasn't the career that I really picked up for myself,” Hagans said. “But it's something that really grew on me.” She graduated from Spelman College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and plans to become a dermatologist, but the Great Recession made finding gainful employment challenging. While working retail in a mall, she noticed a recruitment center for the W Atlanta Buckhead (now the Hotel Colee) and began talking with both the human resources manager and the director of HR. She applied to work at the front desk but was offered a position as a private branch exchange operator. “The HR manager at the time said that he loved my speaking voice and he thought it would be a better fit for me,” she recalled. 

Hagans did not think of hospitality as a long-term career goal but within six months she was promoted to guest service supervisor and found that she liked being part of a hotel team. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst the associates,” she said. “Everyone was very gung-ho and it's a big collaboration.” She also built a good relationship with the hotel’s leadership team, and today credits their mentorship for her career growth. “I was trusted, even though I did not have a leadership role,” she said. “I was given a lot of leadership responsibility. And I think that my mentors and my managers at the time saw potential in me and allowed me to cross train, allowed me to assist in various departments, allowed me to work overtime when needed. That's really what helped me shape my skills.” 

She continued rising through the ranks at the hotel, leaving in 2013 as director of housekeeping. She moved up to New York City to work at the W in Times Square, learning about a different guest demographic than the property in Atlanta attracted (“They want what they want when they want it and you have to be a quick thinker,” she said). A year later, she was ready to try a different role with a different company. 

After spending five years with the brand, Hagans believes the W culture strongly shaped her own leadership style. “They're very accepting of trends,” she said, noting that they welcomed team members with tattoos or a distinctive sense of style. “We're in 2023, now. Maybe we need to relook at these policies and say, ‘Is this really where we are in this day and age?’ A lot of people have tattoos and as long as it's not offensive, what’s the problem with allowing your associates to express who they are in their individuality?”

Branching Out

Hazel Hagans
Hazel Hagans (The Madison)

In 2015, Onal Kucuk—who had been director of operations at W Atlanta Buckhead while Hagans was there—was GM at Hotel Lincoln, a Joie de Vivre Hotel in Chicago, and invited Hagans to join him as director of operations at the property. While she had enjoyed her time at W hotels, Hagans knew she was ready for the next step in her career. “You have to branch out and move around and try different brands and try different markets so you can become a more well-rounded hospitality leader,” she said. “So that is exactly what I did.” With a year of operations experience under her belt, she joined HEI Hotels & Resorts in 2016 as director of operations at Le Méridien Dallas, The Stoneleigh. “I already knew what to do in that role,” she said. “My goal there was to perfect it.” 

The position was even more meaningful since her GM at the property was a woman. “It was really ideal for me to have female leaders in those key positions because it really showed that it was achievable for me as well.” HEI, she added, considers a role like director of operations to be a gateway position into becoming a general manager, and provided Hagans with “the right tools” for continued career success. Hagans is a member of HEI’s Women in Leadership Council, which promotes gender equality in hospitality leadership roles, and she acknowledges the role the Council played in her path to becoming a GM. The Council mentored its members with a goal of having women at the GM position at 20 percent of its hotels by 2020. “We have surpassed that goal, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Hagans said. 

Hagans has remained with HEI since, joining Le Méridien Arlington, Va., in mid-2019 as a first-time general manager. “It was slightly terrifying but rewarding at the same time,” she said. “The amount of meetings … that a general manager has to experience versus a director of operations is probably tripled, and really, I had to strategize myself a little bit better to be able to check off all the boxes that a general manager should complete in a day.” But less than a year later, she was faced with a decidedly different challenge when the pandemic hit and travel came to a near halt. “It was heartbreaking,” Hagans said. “We had about 70-plus associates. I had to lay off 60 people.” Looking back, she added, she sometimes wonders how the hotel made it through the crisis. “The only answer that can really give you is I made it through because of my team. They were always encouraging. They showed up and they always put their best foot forward.” The team and the manager motivated each other, she recalled, and when Hagans moved over to The Madison, she was able to double the property’s team, calling back all of the associates who were laid off. 

She joined The Madison right as Crescent Real Estate acquired the property for $61.2 million in April 2022, deflagging it from Hilton and bringing it under the Marriott umbrella. The hotel is currently undergoing a renovation and will become a Le Méridien when complete—Hagans’ third under the brand. “I love the Le Méridien brand and I think it's the right fit for this property,” she said. “I came over here to help transition our new acquisition as a management company, to to implement the HEI culture and to to implement new standard operating procedures and to build a team. And that's one of my passions. I love building teams. It's one of the things that keeps me going in this industry. I love helping associates grow and I feel that because I had such good mentors—and I have such great mentors still, you know—I need to pass it on and also develop my associates so they can also achieve new heights.” 

Hazel Hagens’...


The labor crisis has hit hospitality hard, but as a leader, Hagans has found hiring for leadership roles to be more challenging than hiring for an associate position. 


“For interviewing, I always tell candidates it's not just about, ‘Are you the right fit for this role?’, but [also] ‘Is this hotel and this role the right fit for you?’ … I want to ensure that I afford that to all of my candidates, that you get to know our team, you get to know our property and building.”  


“Always trust your instincts. … Sometimes you have to challenge [the way things have been done] and say, ‘Why is that? Why do I have to complete it this way? Why can’t I look for different solutions or different ways of doing things?’ And I feel in my heart that that's how I succeed at this role.” 

Secrets to Success

Lead by Example: “You should never expect your associates to follow your lead if you're not following the procedures and the practices that you expect from them.” 

Trust, but Verify: “Once they fulfill their duties, have a follow-up session. … Just just circle back with them and have a follow up meeting to see, ‘How did the task go? How did you feel? Is there something I can do to help you?’” 

Create a Culture of Positivity: “You have to be the light and you have to be the one to ensure that your team is in good spirits.” 

The Madison Hotel

Opening year: 1963 | Rooms: 356 | Owner: Crescent Real Estate | Operator: HEI Hotels & Resorts