Just as the COVID-19 pandemic picked up steam in the U.S., Sonesta International Hotels Corp. appointed Adreene Allen as dual general manager of the Sonesta ES Suites Atlanta Perimeter Center East and the Sonesta ES Suites Atlanta Perimeter Center North in Georgia. After 30 years in the industry, Allen found herself working not just in a new position but for a new company in the worst downturn the industry had ever faced.
But Allen has learned a lot during her decades in the industry, and her experience gave her a strong starting point for a new position.
Allen was drawn to the hospitality industry after initially planning to be a certified public accountant. “I was in school and needed a job,” she recalled. “I saw an ad in the local paper and saw ‘auditor' on the list of positions. I applied and got that job and that was my entrance to hospitality—via night audit.” This was before auditing was handled on a computer, Allen said, “so it was a very manual process where you were intimate with all of the details.” She took a break from her studies and focused on her career and caring for her family.
While auditing for the 309-room Hilton Ontario California, she found a lot to enjoy in hospitality—the variety, the different adventures every day, the wide range of people she got to meet and work with every day, the flexibility and the exposure to different aspects of the business all within one hotel. “My family all had jobs where they served others,” she recalled. “This felt like it was in my DNA.”
Over the ensuing years, Allen worked in a range of roles in several hotels, including human resources manager at the Anaheim Plaza Resort in California and sales manager at the Hilton Ontario before returning to operations for the rest of her career. “I am a forever learner,” she said. “In each role I’ve learned so much.” By working in a range of roles, she came to understand how important each position in a hotel is, and that helped her avoid the conflicts that can sometimes spring up between departments: “[It] made me more aware of the full picture.” As she took on more responsibilities, including becoming the district manager for the greater Nashville area for Extended Stay America, she learned to make her decisions from an entrepreneurial mindset—”as if I’m the owner of the property I’m managing,” she said.
She also discovered she had a talent for both leadership and solving problems. While she was working in Atlanta, the local government wanted to increase the bed tax for the region. “GMs created a council to fight the effort,” she recalled. “While the tax increase went through, they had to create a [convention and visitors bureau] and I initially had a seat on the board of directors and ultimately took a role with the organization bringing in tourism, groups and conventions.”
As she rose up through the ranks, she held onto the goal of completing her formal education. In 2013, she graduated from Georgia's Shorter University, earning her bachelor's degree in business administration with a focus in finance.
In late 2019, Brad Rachwal, regional director of operations at Sonesta Hotels, reached out to Allen via LinkedIn to see if she would be a good fit for the company. “He had such positive energy around this company that he worked for,” she recalled. Allen’s interest was piqued and she applied to take over the two Georgia hotels, taking over in March—just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel and crippled the hospitality industry.
Starting a new job with a new company during a decidedly unusual time made Allen’s transition unique. “I am a ‘glass is always full’ person,” she said. “One of the benefits for me was starting as the process and changes were being implemented. It became all I knew. I could see the teams and their strengths through fresh eyes.”
A company’s values become apparent in a crisis, and as Allen adjusted to her new role, she found what she calls “a culture of caring” at her new company. “Throughout the process of hiring and during the COVID and civil unrest this spring, I heard from senior leadership several times offering support and resources,” she said. “It wasn’t scripted or [from] my direct manager—it was members of the team making sure I was okay and had what I needed, even if it was just to listen.”
During the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn, Sonesta gave a gift to every employee to recognize them and the additional effort they were making, Allen said. “[They mean] it when they ask about how to make the experience better," she said. "They take the time to listen and then take action based on that new information.”
While she’s never been a dual GM before, Allen feels the role was made for her. “I’d overseen up to nine properties previously and was looking to keep that multiple role,” she said. Whether a GM oversees one hotel or 10, she added, the skill set remains the same: “organizational skills, connection with your team (there really is no I in team) and confidence that they will help bring your vision to life.”
“I knew I wanted to lead [a] hotel and be a GM, but there weren’t many women in leadership roles in the industry ... I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
“I did a lot less talking and more listening to absorb information and knowledge. I also pursued my education, various certifications and attended self-improvement and empowerment sessions. My big takeaway was understanding that timing is key. Traditionally, this has always been a bit more male-dominated leadership industry, with just small pockets of historically more ‘female’ roles in human resources or housekeeping management. I think I’ve really pushed those boundaries during my tenure—ensuring I’m always the best candidate for each role as I grew in my own career.”
Advice for future GMs
“Be your authentic self. Work with honesty and integrity, set clear expectations, be the example, treat everyone within the organization with the same respect.”
Secrets to Success
Be humble: “Listen and take an active interest in your team. Be willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty if necessary. Do not ever forget the path you took to get where you are.”
Inspire your team: “Develop your team to be the best they can be individually and collectively. Set expectations and create a culture with your team so even when you are not physically present, the operation performs the same.”
Trust your team: “You do not have to be the expert in every area, but become a resource for your team and trust them to get the job done.”