In a way, Mairead Hennessy, GM of the Estancia La Jolla in San Diego, was born to hospitality leadership. Hennessy’s family was in the restaurant business, and she grew up in a hospitality environment in the Philadelphia area. “It seemed like an obvious choice for me to go into hospitality,” she said.
Taking advantage of her East Coast location, Hennessy attended Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and foodservice management. “Johnson & Wales was, at the time, a relative newcomer to the hospitality market,” Hennessy said. Still, she said, the university had already developed a very strong culinary program as well as a foodservice and hospitality-management program. As she studied business at night, she worked at the university by day as a teaching assistant. Thanks to her childhood in the restaurant industry, Hennessy already had “practical applications” that she could apply to her new lessons, and developed a new set of skills that offered additional opportunities.
While studying at Johnson & Wales, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts recruited Hennessy to join the team. “I was really interested in Hyatt because of their strong food-and-beverage chops, and I was really enamored by the hotel side of the business,” she said. Eager to be part of a hotel company with a strong F&B program, Hennessy joined the Hyatt team and remained with the company for 22 years. “I moved up the ranks from assistant F&B [manager] to F&B director through several different hotels as a senior director of food and beverage,” she said. Over the course of those decades, she worked at Hyatt hotels all over the country, from New Orleans and Greenville, S.C., to San Diego and Cherry Hill, N.J., where she worked for five years. “[I had] a lot of different experiences and [picked up] a lot of different flavors across the country,” she said.
As a grand finale to her 22 years with Hyatt, Hennessy was tapped to lead the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh as a first-time general manager. “I moved from a 1,600-room hotel to a 336-room hotel,” she said. The timing made the transition even more jarring: Within a year of her arrival at the hotel, the Great Recession began, and she had to keep the hotel profitable in a down economy. “Group business had fallen apart,” she recalled. To keep the hotel operating, she had to lay off some team members. “I was very prepared for [that] based on my experience, but still, they're hard decisions to make,” she said.
After the recession, Hennessy moved west to spend six years as a district manager for Aramark Parks & Destinations, overseeing the entire Northern California district to manage the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco and Hearst Castle (a unit of California State Parks) in San Simeon. “It was a totally different experience, working for California State Parks and an organization as large as Aramark,” she said.
The six years she spent with Aramark offered a different kind of education, and prepared her to take over the Estancia La Jolla as part of the Pacific Hospitality Group team. “One of the advantages of this company, in my opinion, is that it's an investment company,” she said of Pacific. “They’re investors that are invested in the success of the properties. It's a smaller environment and I really value that. There's something powerful about being able to talk to the president of a company on a daily basis.”
April will mark Hennessy’s one-year anniversary at Estancia La Jolla, and she is still learning from her new crew at the hotel. “It's interesting to get to know a new team and find out what makes them tick and whose strengths and weaknesses are where—really focusing more on the strengths,” she said. With guests, a learning curve also applies. “It's really about understanding where the customers come from: What's important to them, and how do we meet their needs?” The best way to do that, she said, is simple collaboration, a lesson she learned early on, back in her family’s restaurant days. “You've got to be able to communicate effectively with a number of managers at different levels in their career,” she said of leading a hospitality team. “If you can apply that early in your career, I think you can be successful.”
Mairead Hennessy's Advice for GMs
Get out of your own way as a leader. You're not the most important person in the room. Getting your team engaged is really the most important thing that can happen when you're a leader of an organization.
Three Rules for Success
Collaborate: We're really still a low-tech, high-touch business. For us to be successful, we’ve really got to be able to bring people together and drive common understanding.
Simplify: You really want transparency. You want to be able to help people understand why they do what they do, and you want to be able to talk through that with your team. Take all the mystery out of it.
Trust and verify: As you work in larger organizations, the farther up you get in the organization, the less tactical you become, so you have less firsthand knowledge of what's happening. So you've really got to walk around. You've got to talk to people. You've got to make sure that things are moving in the direction that you want them to be. So to a large degree it's management by walking around.
The downturn in 2008–2010 was probably the biggest challenge of my career.
Solution: Overcoming it was really about understanding the business and making hard decisions based on what you know is good for the business. If group business falls off, you've got to react to that. What you're purchasing has to react to that. You still have to become a profitable business within your organization.