In just 11 years, Donte Johnson has been the general manager of six hotels along the East Coast—but his journey to being an in-demand leader (and GM of Baltimore's Hotel Revival) was nearly over before it began.
After Johnson graduated from Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, N.J., with his bachelor’s degree in communications, he planned on going into journalism in the New York area, but soon decided to return home to Washington, D.C., to be closer to his family. He moved in with an aunt who worked in a hotel, and after he faced difficulty breaking into journalism, she encouraged him to consider hospitality as a career path instead.
This, however, was easier said than done. “After a couple of interviews, I started to feel like hospitality wasn't going to be the thing for me, either,” he said, recalling one interview in particular in which the hiring manager came out of her office, saw Johnson in the lobby, turned around and went back in again. He was then informed that the interview would be rescheduled. “I only later learned from a friend who worked there that she wouldn't interview me because I had long hair,” he said. “Having waist-length locs at that time was a nonstarter for males looking to crack into the hospitality industry.”
Unwilling to cut his hair, he continued seeking out opportunities until he heard of a hotel company that was looking to expand and needed new talent. He set up an interview with a representative from Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which was developing what would become the Kimpton Topaz Hotel in late 2001. Initially, he was offered a position as a bellman, but convinced the hiring team that he would be better behind the front desk. He got the job, and as the company grew—“Kimpton opened a hotel essentially every six months in D.C. for the next few years”—he gained experience in other hotels. Johnson helped open the city’s first Monaco in 2002 as a concierge and assisting the sales and reservations teams, and then moved on to the Hotel Rouge as a shift supervisor, where he was hired by Nick Gregory—today SVP of hotel operations for Kimpton, but then a first-time GM.
“At my first interview with Nick, I told him that I was there to learn,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Listen, I've only been in this industry for a couple of years. I recognize there’s so much that I don't know, but I'll work, I'll work until I drop, as long as I feel like I'm learning.” Gregory recognized the enthusiasm and within a month, offered Johnson the chance to take over as front-office manager for the property. During his tenure, he learned more about the business side of hospitality and developed a taste for it. He was promoted to revenue manager for six of Kimpton’s hotels in the area, but Barry Pollard—then the regional VP of operations—pointed out that if Johnson was to become a GM, he would need to go back to the operations side of the business. Three months after that conversation, Johnson returned to the Monaco as director of guest services, and then moved on to the Helix as the assistant general manager. When the GM of the Topaz moved, Johnson returned to the first hotel he had worked in, but now as a first-time general manager.
Several of Johnson's former coworkers at the Topaz were still there when he returned. “There could be no more supportive an environment for a first-time GM who's kind of learning his way than to be surrounded by people who've been there for you since day one,” he said. After spending seven years working in several regional Kimpton properties, he was ready to settle down for a while and stayed at the Topaz for more than four years.
By early 2013, he was ready to see how other companies operated their hotels, and spent a year as GM of the Capitol Hill Hotel for Hersha Hospitality Management. “Hersha was incredibly shrewd with the way that they manage scale and the way that they run businesses, particularly with [profit and loss] and driving expense and profitability,” he said.
But a Friday evening phone call from Nick Gregory brought him back to Kimpton, and he was soon GM at the Kimpton Surfcomber in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood—“probably the place where you're going to have about as much fun as you're legally allowed to have in this industry,” he quipped. Running a property in Miami, he quickly learned, is “180 degrees” from running one in D.C.: While a good hotel in the nation’s capital can do well as long as it adjusts for congressional schedules and conventions, he said, a good hotel in Miami can struggle if it doesn’t market effectively to its target demographic. “The better you are at marketing, the better you are at driving traction and eyeballs to your hotel,” he said. Doing business in D.C., he said, is a matter of “what you take and what you don't take,” while Miami is “a story of what you go out and get.”
After Johnson had spent nearly two years in Miami, LaSalle Hotel Properties—the company that owned many of the Kimpton hotels in which he had worked across D.C.—was looking to rebrand and reposition the Helix into a hotel that would compete with the city’s luxury properties. They wanted Johnson, who had already been assistant GM at the hotel, to oversee the change. “It was an exciting excuse to come back home,” he said. In 2016, Johnson came back to D.C. to manage the property, which was rebranded as the Mason & Rook. “LaSalle and Kimpton made a substantial investment and took a lot of risks and banked on the neighborhood rallying around the hotel and on the market responding in a positive way,” he recalled. “And both of those things happened, and I was the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time.”
Johnson got the hotel on “sure footing” from “both a commercial and operational perspective”—but after two years, he was ready for something new. Now with 10 years of experience as a general manager under his belt, headhunters were circling to attract him to oversee other hotels (a far cry from the days when hiring managers would not grant an interview), and he had a choice of opportunities. He signed on with hospitality owner and operator Lore Group to run the Riggs Washington, D.C. hotel in the city’s Penn Quarter, but after half a year was overseeing the group’s business in the entire D.C. area as the company gained ground. “As a GM, you work with asset managers quite closely all the time,” he said of his time in that position. “It just gives you a different perspective to sit on the other side of the table, and I think you have a better understanding of the dynamic and a broader perspective when you've sat in both seats.”
In mid-2019, Mark Jennings—a former colleague from Kimpton who was now SVP of field operations at Hyatt Hotels Corp.’s lifestyle division—invited Johnson to consider shifting from D.C. to nearby Baltimore. The Hotel Revival, the city’s first Joie de Vivre property, needed a new GM, and Johnson felt an immediate connection to the space. He stepped into the role in June—his sixth hotel as a GM, and a distinct change from D.C. or Florida. “I'm in an environment that is very boutique and lifestyle, however it's fueled by a massive machine that's been in the industry before I was born,” he said. “There's a lot of it that feels very familiar and a lot of that feels very new—which, to me, has been challenging in the best possible way.”
After more than 11 years leading hotels from D.C. to Miami and back again, Johnson has a solid work philosophy in place. “There's no substitute for surrounding yourself with great people,” he said. “If you come into the building every day and you aren’t inspired by the people you work with, then there's something profoundly wrong about that and something's got to change.” This, he added, could either mean changing what already exists or creating something new from scratch. “If you've got a vision and you've not been able to articulate that in a way that people buy into it and are on board, then that's the first thing that needs to be corrected before anything great is going to happen.”
“The ever-present challenge that I've had has always been adjusting and knowing what to adjust and what not to adjust as I go from situation to situation.”
“Every single time that I do it, I get an opportunity to come in and add value in spots while also learning and growing in other spots, which, if we go back to day one for me in this industry, has always been the only thing that matters.”
“Light the industry on fire,” Johnson advised the next generation of hoteliers. “Hospitality, for a very long time, was a customer-service factory where everyone looked the same [and] everyone said the same things. Everyone behaved in the same way.” That early canceled interview, he said, could have driven him out of the industry entirely. “I can't imagine how many countless other times that's happened to other people who could have been the next big thing in hospitality but never got that opportunity.”
Three Tips for Success
Be tenacious. “There are going to be days that suck and there's no getting around that. But right on the other side of that is an industry that's unlike any other in that you can impact the lives of so many people in such a positive way.”
Be responsible: “We all have a responsibility to the industry to leave it better than we found it. I think we also have a responsibility to the communities where we operate to have a positive impact.”
Be yourself: “People in the industry should be true to themselves and bring every bit of character and personality and individuality that they have to the industry because I believe the industry needs it and the world needs it and would benefit a great deal from having ... a safe context to interact with people who might look or speak differently than them.”
Owner: NuovoRE | Operator: Hyatt Hotels Corp. | Opening year: 2018 | Rooms: 107