Most hoteliers learn at a range of properties before becoming a general manager. But Ralph Mahana, GM at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, has been employed by the hotel for his entire professional career, staying with the property that opened in the year he was born and where he felt a deep family connection.
Mahana was a student at New Orleans’ Tulane University in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and destroyed his family’s home. Wanting to help them rebuild, he knew he needed a job that would give him time to complete his studies. After trying some local restaurant work, at the suggestion of a friend he decided to look into hospitality—and knew exactly where he wanted to go. When young Ralph was growing up, the Mahana family had a standing reservation at the hotel’s Grill Room restaurant almost every Friday night. “I had grown up at the Windsor Court hotel,” he recalled. Working there, he figured, would not only celebrate the good memories from his childhood, but help make new ones.
When he applied at the hotel a few years after the hurricane, he was offered the chance to work in the restaurant or work nights as a bellman and front-desk agent. “I didn't want to get too attached to a tips position,” he said, and opted for the night shift. “I just fell in love with it right away. I wanted to start off in the front of house and I wanted to talk to people.” He also loved his hometown and was able to share that love with the guests as the city continued rebuilding. Those interests gave him a strong taste for hospitality and he decided to turn the night job into his career.
During those first years at the hotel, Mahana describes himself as being like a sponge. “I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could,” he said. “And I didn't really have a lot of patience than. I wanted to move up. I wanted to go from overnight front-desk agent to rooms director as quickly as possible.” After graduating from Tulane with a degree in finance (and serving the families of his fellow students who stayed at the hotel), he moved up to front-office manager, but after a year-in-a-half in that role, he “begged” management to move him into the housekeeping division. “I really wanted it to be well-rounded in the rooms division,” he said. He spent nearly two years as assistant executive director of housekeeping, which he calls the most gratifying job he has had in his time at the hotel.
Still seeking advancement, he joined the hotel’s restaurant team as food-and-beverage manager. “Who's going to give a guy who [has hardly] any restaurant experience a management position?” he asked “There was a four-year period where I really had the same level of job, and that really taught me patience because I was so motivated by what I was learning and what effect I had on teams and what effects they had on me. I credit those years with my ultimate success in this industry.”
Over the years, Mahana had several offers from other hotels, including the chance to jump straight to general manager. “I talked to ownership and I talked to my predecessor and I just still had so much to accomplish here,” he recalled. Those goals went beyond personal achievement to the overall success of the hotel where he had spent so many hours with his family. “I felt like I could have a really positive effect there,” he recalled. He turned down the job offers and stayed on, becoming director of rooms and then assistant general manager. “And then, four months later, my general manager said, ‘I'm moving on.” Mahana took over in mid-2018.
While rising through the ranks at one property over more than 10 years is not the normal path to the top, Mahana sees his progress as a journey toward his ultimate goal of leadership. “You have to think about what you want,” he said. “I had goals even before I had the positions [that would let me] attain those goals within the hotel. The overall success of the hotel became more important to me than my individual success—and I think that led to a lot of individual success.”
Ralph Mahana's Advice for GMs
Think about your overall goal, the overall picture of what you're trying to do outside of just individually. Because, really, we're all trying to win no matter what we do for a living. Good leaders make everyone around them better even if it's not within their department.
Challenge: In my first months, I wasn't necessarily ready for the response from the community and the response from the customers.
Success: You have to time-manage and [balance] personal life versus professional life, and a lot of those combine now. A lot of things I used to do socially are now professional as well.
Ralph Mahana's Secrets to Success:
Listen and learn: Obviously, you want to treat everybody fairly, but you can't necessarily take the same approach with every single person. Everybody's different. They react differently to things. So you really can't put yourself in their shoes. But what you can do is you can listen and you can learn.
Think of the bigger picture: Don't create an atmosphere where you have a bunch of people just making decisions based on what they think you want them to do. [They should] make decisions based on their individual belief of what is the best possible decision for the hotel ownership; customers, internal and external; and then the city that you're in.
Walk what you talk: You’ve got to be a problem-solver. Even if it’s something as simple as a hole in a uniform, if you say you're going to rectify this, you really have to do it in a timely fashion.
Windsor Court Hotel Stats
Opening Year: 1984 / Owner: Windsor Court LLC / Management: Aimbridge Hospitality / Guestrooms: 316