When Dinelia Smiles was appointed director of security for Palmer House, a Hilton hotel in Chicago, she became the first woman to hold the position in the hotel’s 151-year history. The role is not only the culmination of years of hard work, but a return home for the Chicago native who visited the historic property in her youth and found her place in the city’s Hilton hotels.
Smiles started in hospitality when she was 16 years old, working part time in the front office of the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Suites. Even then, she knew she wanted a career in law enforcement, and attended the University of Illinois Chicago to study political science and psychology. After graduation, she spent some time working in a psychiatric hospital for children, but found the responsibilities of the role were not a good fit for her. Instead, she enlisted in the U.S. Army and participated in three 18-month tours of both Iraq and Afghanistan over the following years.
Secure in Security
When she came back from her military service, Smiles opted to return to hospitality, joining the team at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport. But while she had worked in a hotel front office as a teenager and still enjoyed the industry, the front desk was no longer a good fit for her. “It takes a really positive person to work [in the] customer service industry, specifically, at the front office,” she said. “It was hard to, all of a sudden, stop being a soldier and be a front-office agent that is welcoming all the time.” At the same time, she noticed that many people working in the hotel’s security department were veterans like herself or former police officers. “My personality matched with their personality and I was just, like, ‘Okay, this is a place for me,’” she recalled. “Everything just kind of clicked.”
As part of the security team, Smiles found her military training in de-escalation was a valuable asset, particularly when she faced high-stress situations. “You have to figure out which way to calm the situation using the tools available to you,” she said. “Using the proper verbiage and the proper tone and just being nonaggressive—which is a lot of verbal and physical cues—helps deescalate the situation. You make something that was bad to not so bad.”
Smiles started off as a safety coordinator at the airport hotel and worked her way up, which proved to be a challenge in its own right. When she first started in the department, a manager told her security would not be a good fit for a woman seeking career advancement. “There weren’t a lot of women in the security field—at least at the hotels that I know of,” she said. “I guess I’m stubborn. I made it my goal that I was going to get promoted and keep moving—just because he told me I couldn’t.”
In 2009, she joined the Drake Hotel, part of Hilton’s portfolio, as assistant director of security. At the hotel, she handled everything from routine OSHA compliance and CPR training to guest altercations and key management. One day, Smiles heard a man calling for help outside of the hotel and realized that his wife was in labor—in a car parked by the entrance. “I grabbed a tablecloth from the restaurant next door and came up to the car,” she recalls. The baby was born right in her arms, and she got to tell the new parents, “It’s a girl.” Even with all her military training, Smiles still looks back on that experience as “probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Smiles joined Palmer House in 2017, returning to a hotel with which she was already well familiar. “I remember going there as a child with my parents and walking up the stairs that lead into the lobby of the Palmer House and looking at the fresco on the ceiling,” she said. “I thought that the Palmer House was a castle … so when the opportunity [arose] to work there, I had to jump on it.”
After spending her entire hospitality career with Hilton—“a great company to work for”—and specializing in security, Smiles has found she enjoys the impromptu nature of the job. “Every day is an unknown,” she said. “I never know what’s going to happen; I just know that I need to react accordingly. And it kind of keeps you on your toes when you don’t know what’s coming. So just having that little variety in each day keeps me motivated to continue and never get bored at my job.”
Advice: “Nothing’s handed to us. You have to show that you want to learn and that you’re willing to put in the work and get your hands dirty at times.”
Challenge: Smiles has sought ways to adjust Hilton’s standard security protocols for the different properties for which she’s worked. Success: “In every property, I’ve tried to improve the technology that we use—improving the camera system and modifying what we do depending on our resources and how we could manage them across the board.”
Secrets to Success
- Effective Communication: “[People] might ask you a question but not really communicate what their need is. So when you’re providing customer service, you should try to break down what the need is and not just answer the question.”
- Follow Through: “Anytime we tell someone that we’re going to do something, we don’t just relay it to someone else and hope it gets done.”
- Have Fun: “If you’re having fun, you could come up with some really creative ways to help people and to assist them into accomplishing what they need.”