When Yvette Thomas-Henry joined the hotel industry in college, working at hotels was not her long-term plan. But plans change, and Thomas-Henry has made a home for herself in the industry, achieving several firsts along the way. She currently serves at the GM of the Four Seasons Resort Nevis in the West Indies and as the regional VP for four properties in the Caribbean.
Born in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and raised in St. Croix, Thomas-Henry went to New York City to study speech language pathology at Pace University. While walking by Central Park one day, she learned of a career fair for the iconic Plaza Hotel and went in to interview, getting a job offer to work in the front office. “I chose the front office because I wanted to have a job that was flexible enough to work with my college schedule,” she recalled “I also wanted to be in the front office because that's where you would get to meet the famous people.”
She rose up through the ranks to assistant manager over the following five years, all while completing first her bachelor’s degree at Pace and then her master’s degree in administration for human services at Audrey Cohen College. With her MA in hand, she set off to work at the Loews Regency New York, working as senior front-office manager, assistant housekeeping manager and finally director of housekeeping.
She departed in 2000 to join the Waldorf-Astoria hotel as director of operations at the property’s Waldorf Towers boutique division. By now thoroughly enamored of the luxury hospitality sector, she began mapping out what other companies she wanted to work for in order to move up the ladder. “The Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons were on my list,” she said.
In 2007, Thomas-Henry left the Ritz-Carlton to become director of rooms at the Four Seasons, overseeing 325 employees (“mostly union,” she noted) and 27 managers in everything from housekeeping to the front desk to spa, laundry and valet, concierge, guest services, special services and guest relations. Her first two years there were among the best that the hotel had seen, she said. “Everything was going amazing.” And then the global financial crisis hit, and the hospitality industry reeled. “We actually saw significant impact in terms of occupancy,” Thomas-Henry recalled, noting that the property had to lay off some staff as belts got tighter. “What did not occur was a sense that we would have to reduce the level of service that we provided to the guests. It became even more important, quite honestly, to deliver an exceptional level of service so that they could see the difference between staying [with us and] anywhere else.” As one of the most expensive hotels in the city, the team had to create a value proposition for high-end guests to keep them coming back. “It became an enhanced focus for us to make sure every moment of the experience that we created was really well thought out and executed at a very high level,” she said.
After four years, Thomas-Henry moved to D.C. to take over the Four Seasons there as hotel manager, but returned to the New York property in 2013 to take over as hotel manager. “Six months after I got there, the regional vice president and general manager—who had been there for 10 years—moved on to Hong Kong and I was given the opportunity to run the hotel [as acting general manager]. We thought it would be for a couple of months,” she said. “It turned out that it was eight months.”
Those eight months were an “eye-opening” education for Thomas-Henry. “You're having direct interactions all day long with owners, with very demanding customers, with a team of over 600 employees, with the union in New York,” she said. “My day was never boring.” More importantly, the experience not only prepared her for the next step in her career, but gave her a chance to “elevate” the way she wanted to be seen as a leader and as a partner with her team.
Georgia on Her Mind
Thomas-Henry stepped back from the role in March 2015 after a permanent GM was found for the New York hotel, but she had a new determination to continue leading. By the following fall, she had a job offer to take over the Four Seasons Atlanta, and in October of that year she became the first African American woman to lead the hotel as general manager.
“I was extremely well prepared for that role given everything that I went through and the eight months as acting general manager,” Thomas-Henry said. “And I don't regret a moment of it. I mean, it was tough. It was challenging. It was demanding. It tasked me to approach things very differently. My negotiation skills were very much put under scrutiny—and actually honed very well. But everything that I learned then prepared me for the next step, and I couldn't see it then, but I certainly recognize how valuable it was after the fact.”
During her time at the hotel, Atlanta became a hotspot for the film industry, attracting not only actors but a broader range of professionals who wanted a luxury environment. “We renovated our hotel just in time to be able to capitalize on all of that new business that was coming in,” Thomas-Henry said. The brand helped bring in the target demographic, and the first-time GM was determined to see her team live up to every expectation. “Four of the most successful years in the history of the hotel took place during my tenure,” she said, “and I'm really extremely proud of that because we blew every benchmark that was ever set in place.” Over those years, Thomas-Henry and her team doubled the hotel’s profitability and its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization; and increased average daily rate by more than $100. “And those are margins that are really remarkable in a city like Atlanta,” she said. “We did everything that we needed to do—from taking care of the employees who then took care of our guests who then certainly took care of the product, which then translated to the success that we had financially.”
Coming Home Again
While continuing to oversee the Atlanta hotel, Thomas-Henry was promoted in 2018 to Four Seasons’ regional VP—again, the first African American woman to hold the title. As 2020 got underway, she took over the Four Seasons Nevis as the property emerged from its own renovation—the first Caribbean native to serve in the top position in Nevis or any other Four Seasons property in the Caribbean.
She hadn’t expected to return to the Caribbean, especially after more than 30 years away, but as a regional VP she wanted to see where she could bring the most value to a property. “Being the only regional [VP] that is of Caribbean descent and having this resort being at the stage where it's ready to relaunch itself and having been the regional vice president for the past year, it all fell into place,” she said.
In her ever-expanding role, Thomas-Henry hopes to create an environment in which all employees at the resort feel like they are the general managers of whatever role they're in. “And if I am doing my job right, that's exactly what I create,” she said. “The success that comes from that is demonstrated in the success that happened in Atlanta and the success that will happen in Nevis. So that's what I look forward to.”
“I think the biggest professional challenge has been sitting in rooms with individuals that were generally all male … And being a Black woman and having the courage to speak up, to speak out, to take positions that may not always have been the popular but be fearless about really sharing my perspective and not making an apology for being strong, being determined, being forceful, being ambitious—I think all those are things are embraced by men and not necessarily always by women, or certainly not women of color.”
“I have given myself permission to do those things and I've had great mentors around me who have been supportive in that. And I've also been in a company that clearly has rewarded that because I am now a regional [VP] with Four Seasons. But it took me a while to get there.”
“Make sure that you are changing the game. ... Take some risks, take some chances. Do things differently. Allow for the opportunity that someone else's idea is better than yours and give them the freedom and the opportunity to run with it and then give them the space to be supported and applauded for it. There is nothing like creating a space where employees feel empowered, where they feel supported, where they feel they have all the tools and all the support or resources around them to be their best, most creative selves.”
Three Secrets to Success
Listen: “Listen wholeheartedly and listen intentionally ... The employees know more about what's happening than I will ever know because they're in it day in and day out and they're face-forward with the guests all the time. So when they have something to share, that should absolutely be considered.”
Value your team: “We should celebrate our employees ... That value doesn't just show up when they're doing things right. Value means you are valued because you're a part of the team, and recognizing that is giving them the opportunity to be themselves and to feel comfortable in being who they are when they're on property.”
Understand guests’ needs: “If we're not staying attuned to what our customers need—whether it be a family standpoint, from a female standpoint, from a business traveler standpoint—if we're not listening to what their needs are, we're going to miss opportunities to change course, to be nimble, to adjust fluidly and to make sure they feel that they're still in the best possible hands.”