Loyalty spurs Hilton GM's journey from line level to management

Kenja McLeod is GM of the Hampton Inn & Suites Tucson Marana in Arizona. Photo credit: Prism Hotels & Resorts(Photo credit: Prism Hospitality)

While hotel companies worry about maintaining brand loyalty among guests, Kenja McLeod, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites Tucson Marana in Arizona, has showed fierce loyalty to Hilton, remaining with one company for more than 20 years as she worked her way up the ranks. Last year, McLeod was recognized as one of Hotel Management’s Top GMs to Watch—a testament to her dedication and determination. 

McLeod’s hospitality career began during her senior year in high school in 1998 when she joined her aunt as an employee of a Hampton Inn at Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. “I got the job as a front-desk agent and I drove the shuttle,” she recalled. “Especially at the tender age of 17, it was a good start to a profession that I ended up just sticking with over the years.”

After high school, McLeod decided to move to Atlanta, taking a job at a Hilton Garden Inn in nearby Alpharetta, Ga. “I started at the front desk and then front-desk supervisor and just kind of moved up from there,” she said. She eventually took a job as an assistant front-office manager at the Embassy Suites Galleria in Atlanta, and from there to a different Embassy Suites back in Alpharetta as the front-office director. 

Front Desk to Management

Since she had started out as a line-level team member, McLeod already had a good understanding of what her team needed from management and was ready to move up to the next level. “I had done it for so long at the front desk and working with customers,” she said. “So it was a good transition. And I was lucky enough to have some really, really good managers that really helped me and helped propel me forward and give me an opportunity.”

By 2010, McLeod was working at the Hilton Atlanta as the front-office manager. “And that's where I really, really learned a lot of competent leadership skills,” she said. With 1,200 rooms, the hotel had a large staff, and managing multiple groups and individuals honed McLeod’s organizational skills. “It was definitely a learning experience,” she said. After about a year, she relocated back to Seattle to work as an assistant general manager at an Embassy Suites, but moved to Tucson, Ariz., to get married in 2013. Seeking another job, she applied to manage the Hampton Inn Tucson-Airport hotel, and was soon a first-time general manager. Given her experience with the company, McLeod assumes her resume appealed to owner Raymond Johnston because McLeod knew Hilton’s systems and had proven her skills over the previous 15 years, making for a fairly easy transition.  

“It was all growth,” she said of her trajectory up the ladder. “Whether it be good or bad, it was all growth and I think you just take everything with you and you learn and you apply what you learn and make yourself better. And that's what I've been doing.” 

After more than five years at the airport hotel, McLeod was ready for a new challenge. “I figured opening a hotel would be that challenge that I was looking for,” she said. A new Hampton was getting ready to open in the Tucson suburb of Marana, and McLeod was tapped by management company Prism Hotels & Resorts to oversee the process and become the brand-new property’s first GM. “The challenge is you're starting from the ground up,” she said. “You have to create everything. And if you create it and it doesn't work, you’ve got to fix it and you can't blame anybody but yourself. So that was definitely a learning experience.” The hotel officially opened in December 2018, and won a Ramp Up award from Hilton for its first year in business. 

After 22 years working in Hilton hotels, McLeod has no plans to find another company. “We have got a lot of different types of hotels, so you can get lots of different [kinds of] experience,” she said. “I love Hilton and I'll continue to stay loyal, even through what we're going through right now.” 

Kenja McLeod's...

Advice:

“Consistency is the key to breaking through any challenge that you have in this industry, whether it be trying to get your team on board or trying to change the culture of your team or learning a new process. You have to do it every day.”

Challenge

“The current pandemic and the effect COVID-19 has had on our hotel and industry as a whole is the most challenging situation I have experienced in my career. Losing the majority of our workforce and business all within what felt like a blink of an eye has been unprecedented.”

Solution

“In the midst of this challenge I have embraced the following mindset: I will focus on what I can control ... Information is paramount during this time and changing at a rapid pace, therefore [I am] working to ensure our team has the most accurate information—whether it be the latest [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines or role-playing-enhanced check-in standards with the front desk. I believe this gives our team a sense of  comfort knowing they are well-informed and equipped to perform under these unique circumstances. This down period is a prime opportunity to ... enhance our processes, hotel operations and cross-train team members. We want to come out of this situation better than before and in order to do so, we are taking a hard look at our operations and how we can be more proficient, profitable and skilled when business levels return. Lastly, its important that I maintain a positive attitude and take time for myself so I can be the best GM for my team during this time. As GMs we become accustomed to giving so much that we often leave little for ourselves and our families. I do not believe this is helpful, especially at this time. I am intentionally focusing on my family and its been a great comfort knowing Prism Hotels & Resorts supports our work-life balance and that value has not changed throughout this crisis.

Secrets to Success:

Lead by Example: “The team needs to see that their general manager is willing to do everything that they're asking them to do. They need to see that I'm willing to jump in and do laundry. I'm willing to jump in at the desk and help serve breakfast ... It's hard to create a culture if you're not living it and if you're not there with them.”

Make Mistakes: “[Be] okay with getting it wrong and making changes and getting it right. I don't think anyone's perfect. Be able to recognize when things go wrong and recognize when there's an opportunity to make a change.”

Hire Your Replacement: “I like to have the best people around me. I don't like to be the only one that knows [things] and has ideas ... I like to ensure that I have strong people around me. So don't be afraid to hire people who may have more experience than you. They could prove to be really valuable for you.”

Hampton Inn & Suites Tucson (Ariz.) Marana

Owner: HSL Hotel Opportunity | Management: Prism Hotels & Resorts | Opened: 2018 | Rooms: 101