Michael Tall, president and chief operating officer of Charlestowne Hotels, never really intended to make hospitality his career—although it was a presence in his life long before he graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and joined the company he has called home for the past 13 years.
Tall started working in resorts and hotels as a teenager, cleaning clay tennis courts at a hotel in Hilton Head, S.C., before school in the morning. Short stints working in hotel coffee shops kept him involved in the industry, and by the time he had earned his bachelor of science degree in marketing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, he was ready to take a position as director of sales at the Homewood Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif. “I don’t want to say that kind of substantiated my career in hospitality, but it certainly gave me that resort experience at the management level at a very young age,” he said.
His interest piqued, Tall attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and earned his master’s degree in hotel management—but still spent a year as a sales manager for Xerox before getting back into the hospitality industry. “Everybody says, ‘Once you come in, you never want to leave,’” he said. “It takes a 24-hour schedule to be able to work in it, but some people just relish the pain.”
Tall spent several years at RockResorts (a subsidiary of Vail Resorts) as a corporate analyst and as the director of revenue for the former Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage (Calif). While living in Southern California, he visited family in Charleston, S.C., and met Everett Smith, who had founded Charlestowne in the 1980s. “Everett and I had an interesting conversation and the rest is history, I guess,” Tall said. “He created something for me that I thought was an opportunity that I didn’t have in my other position. He offered me the opportunity to take a group of hotels and get them to perform at a level that they had never been performing at.” In 2004, Tall joined Charlestowne, reporting directly to Smith.
“It was really the empowerment,” Tall said of his early years with the company and what attracted him to working for Smith. “It wasn’t financial, it wasn’t a way of living, or any management responsibility, per se. It was just that he trusted me with the properties to do what it was that I thought was best to maximize the profitability. He trusted me with that at a very young age and I did it. I have worked extremely hard to do it. Without—maybe—intentionally doing that, he created a level of self-worth in me and a sense of confidence that I didn’t have previously.
“I knew that I was talented with certain things and knew that I could make an impact on a hotel or a business, but that was proof that all the things that I thought were necessary to drive profitability of an asset came to be,” he said. “That felt great and that just earned me more responsibility from him. It was insight on his behalf to trust me to do what it is that I did best, and I did. He recognized that and rewarded me for that.”
Tall and Smith became partners in the company in 2008, and have remained in their positions ever since. Since he joined the company, Tall said, Charlestowne has doubled in size. “That’s not only assets or properties, that’s the people,” he said. Tall said the company primarily grew by word of mouth. “The power of someone beating the drum on your behalf is much stronger than us putting an ad in a magazine saying, ‘We’re great managers.’”
Many of the company’s earliest properties were owned by families or high-net-worth individuals, and Tall remembers the early connections that the Charlestowne team forged with those owners. “We truly changed people’s lives,” he said. “That sounds like hyperbole, but we came into situations where owners were going bankrupt or the asset had not been performing and they were having to put money into that asset that would otherwise go toward putting their kid in college. We came into some of these properties and changed the owners’ lives because we were able to generate profitability for the hotels. They could flip the hotel, they could sell it and get out of being upside-down or we created a cash flow for them that they could better their lives financially. When you do that for someone, they will tell everyone how great you are without you even asking them to do so. That’s how we grew.”
This accomplishment is especially meaningful for Tall. “To take a company that was, for all intents and purposes, a local company to where it has national and international recognition—it’s remarkable,” he said. “There are tons of management and company stories and case studies about how that’s done and it’s great to read about them, but to actually experience it—it is something else. There’s a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment that comes with that.
“It’s like golf: You never perfect it and you can never stop practicing or working on it because at any given day you could lose it all and so you have to continue to push forward and to try to get better. That rabbit that never stops running around that track that you’re chasing. It’s inspirational, but it’s also meaningful for a bit of a purpose.”