Communication skills tip the scales for first-time GM

Kenya Bannister
The Courtyard by Marriott Long Beach (Calif.)

The appointment of Kenya Bannister as GM of the Courtyard Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this year was especially meaningful: Bannister was the first employee on the hotel’s opening team in March 2013 as the property’s director of sales. Now, as a first-time GM, Bannister oversees a team of 51 employees.

Her path to leadership started as a student at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, where she studied communications with a goal of becoming a TV producer. “I always wanted to be behind the scenes, making things happen,” she said of her education. As a student, she started working in hotels and never stopped. “I went from one hotel to the next to the next while I was in school, and then stopped looking toward the communications degree.”

Once she was in the hospitality industry, Bannister found that her training in communications worked well for leading teams. With Tom Beedon—now the GM of the Residence Inn by Marriott LAX/Century Boulevard—as a mentor, she learned to effectively communicate with both team members and hotel guests. “One of the biggest things he taught me was patience,” she said. “You have to be patient and allow the process to work and be able to work with different personality types and different people at different levels. That was one of the best things that Tom was able to teach me.”

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Bannister’s first hotel job was at the front desk at the Courtyard by Marriott Century City/Beverly Hills. The position gave her a chance to see how all of the different teams in the hotel work together behind the scenes to make everything work. “I was at the front desk, but I was helping out in sales and I was helping out in housekeeping,” she said. “It's great when you can be hands-on and learn other facets of the job without actually being assigned to them.”

With that training under her belt, she followed the property’s GM Daniel Fevre to a larger Courtyard hotel in Marina Del Rey. “It operated almost as a full-service hotel,” Bannister said, “so I got to expand my hotel knowledge. There was a full food-and-beverage team and I got to understand banquets and the full-service restaurant.”

Kenya Bannister

At this Courtyard, Bannister covered for the property’s director of sales who was out on an extended healthcare leave, and assumed the role full-time by the time she left. She then spent several years as director of sales at several Marriott and Hilton properties before taking over as the director of sales & marketing at the boutique Belamar Hotel in Manhattan Beach. “It wasn't a branded hotel, so there was a lot of individuality,” she recalled of the experience. “You have to make the phone ring. There were no 800-calls coming into the Belamar, so you really have to have a very strong outgoing sales team. You have to work together to come up with crazy ideas.”   

All of this experience lead to Bannister becoming the first director of sales for the Courtyard Marriott Long Beach Airport before it opened as part of a partnership between Nexus Companies and Evolution Hospitality. (Kokua Hospitality assumed management of the hotel—and hired Bannister—in 2015.) Opening the hotel, she said, was a decidedly different experience from joining an established property. “You get to visualize things as they’re put things into place and work with the local communities and get everybody excited about the new hotel that's coming into the market,” she said of the experience. “There's this sense of teamwork that you don't get in other ways. It was really nice to work with the team, and everybody took this vested ownership in the hotel.”

Opening the hotel also gave her the experience she needed to become a general manager. “It gave me the opportunity as well as the courage to help and to reach out,” she said. “I have a passion for this hotel. I feel like it's mine, and I say that all the time, because like I said, I was the first employee here, and it feels like it's all of ours.”

Kenya Bannister's Advice

"Just take the leap—but make sure you're with the right company and people that support you."

Challenge: Opening this hotel was a big challenge for me because at that time I was new to Evolution Hospitality and I was new to opening a hotel, so it was like a double whammy.

Success: I was able to overcome it by coming to work every single day and being willing to listen and to learn, being open to everything and not necessarily knowing everything. I was willing to ask the right questions and to put the hard work in.

Kenya Bannister's Secrets to Success

Be a straight shooter: Be open and honest with people. Tell them what you expect and make sure that they know exactly where they stand.

Be humble: There's no job in this hotel that I won't do. There’s nothing that I would ask any employee to do in the hotel that I wouldn't do. We walk the hotel together, we pick up trash together, we clean toilets together—we do that because this is not my hotel, it’s not theirs, it’s all of ours.

Be approachable: My employees come in here day and night. All of my employees know that they can come in here—whether they speak English or not; they know I'll get a translator. But everybody is accessible to me and I'm approachable for them.