Spearheading one of the most anticipated hotel openings of 2021, General Manager Abby Murtagh is busy. Not only is the country, and the world, still dealing with the pandemic, the property she is charged with bringing to market, the iconic 707-room Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, is finishing up the final stages of a $100 million renovation sympathetic to its historic ‘Jewel of the Desert’ Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design, that includes everything from a new spa and revamped pool areas, to a lobby bar and signature restaurant.
To say expectations are high, would be putting it mildly. How did she get chosen for one of the most coveted GM jobs in the country, during one of the most challenging times for the travel industry? Here is Herstory.
Abby chats with us about her career path, which led her across nine different states, the lessons she’s learned along the way, her work ethic, how she leads with humility and humour, and juggles it all with being a wife and mother.
What drew you to the hotel business?
Early on, I was drawn to the creativity and energy of food and beverage. At 14, I started my own catering business, at 15 I got my first job at our local high-end tavern, The Altland House in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania which is one of the oldest restaurants in the country. I started on Mother’s Day--worked like crazy busing tables that Sunday--and didn’t get a single tip because technically I was in training! I got a check two weeks later for 15 dollars for that shift, but I was hooked. The excitement, the buzz, the energy, not the money, sucked me in. I went to Cornell, where I learned the many facets of the hotel business, but my favorite was senior year when I took only food and beverage courses. The curriculum included trips to New York City to critique restaurants, which I loved, ironic because later on critiques became the bane of my existence while working in New York City. I went through two New York Times reviews!
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
Actually, I took a Meyers-Briggs test and I am 51 percent extrovert / 49 introvert. Which means, I love being around people but really value my down time. I think both personalities can thrive in hotels.
Are you hospitable? Do you have the ‘hospitality’ gene?
Yes. It is a blessing and a curse. I am very intuitive about people and their moods, I can walk into a restaurant and feel if the staff are having a good or bad day. This is a great skill, sometimes I wish I could turn it off, but it helps me tune in to creating a great culture for our team and our guests.
The ability to work well with others is paramount in the hotel biz, what are your tricks for engaging and motivating team members?
Best motivating tool is asking questions. I honed this technique from a book by Marilee Adams, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, which teaches the importance of getting buy-in from colleagues through questioning. As a leader, people always ask me what I think and I turn it back to them and say what do YOU think? People are more invested in the outcome of a problem when they are working hard to find a solution. When things go wrong, which they do, instead of placing blame, I like asking: What can we learn? How can we create something better? This helps get the best possible result for next time.
The fear of failure can sometimes keep people from even trying. Think back to a time (or two) when you feel you really failed in something. How did you move on? What lessons did you learn?
The biggest failure I can recall was when I was working at the New York Palace and our new, expensive restaurant with a celeb chef got a horribly bad New York Times review. In short order, the restaurant was closed, and I had to tell 65 people they lost their jobs. I spent a lot of time deflecting and blaming everyone around me. I realized in looking back, the person in the center of the failure was me. I learned a lot from the experience in hindsight. When I went to the Waldorf Astoria and opened another high end, concept driven restaurant three years later I was ready and knew exactly how to prepare. We did internal restaurant reviews over and over, so by the time someone from the New York Times arrived we were ready, and got two stars, despite a compressed time frame.
Along with that, have you ever been so afraid of success that you didn’t go for it? What happened?
When the opportunity comes I always say, “YES” and try my best. Someone once told me if your dreams don't scare you then they are not big enough!
Have you ever had a big win, promotion, or success that ultimately didn’t lead where you expected? Why not and what lessons did you learn?
Going to Salt Lake City was a big gamble-- took the job without going to the hotel or meeting the team! I had no idea how I would fit in with the culture. Tasked with improving service levels and performance, we started fun, environmental initiatives-- beehives on the rooftop and adding an herb garden--using these as sales hooks to convert 27% more leads, which ended up getting me recognized in Hilton’s President for a Day program in 2019.
All was going so well, then the pandemic hit, and it was hard to keep spirits up with group bookings cancelling, check-in happening behind barriers, and restaurants and bars closed. Harder still, was being an emotional support for our team members who were also dealing with sick and, in some cases, dying relatives. The silver lining of COVID, was we became open about mental health. Personally, I was seeing a therapist to deal with my own stress and I was open with the team about this which helped, talking with them about how to deal with the worries and uncertainty.
In terms of operations, with most of the staff on furlough, I had to dive in, literally helping with all the jobs from housekeeping to engineering, and find a way to do it with fun and purpose. Had I not pivoted, I don’t think I would have gotten this job to re-launch the Arizona Biltmore. Bottom line: I never expected cleaning toilets would lead to my dream job as General Manager of a luxury resort!
Can you think of a time (or two) when you’ve had to handle a tricky customer situation? What did you do? Any “rules” you live by to deal with customers?
These happen all the time! The approach is key, and mine is always, how do we make this a win - win? How can we make the customer happy? How do we keep everyone’s emotions under control? So much of hospitality is understanding humans and human nature. Usually when someone complains, there’s a bigger issue. In Hawaii, many guests came on points with big expectations for their vacation, so keeping your cool is essential.
This has been a crazy tough year, have you cried in the office since the pandemic? Or any other moments in your career? Was it awkward? How did you handle it?
Yes, I have cried in my past. One time, when I was younger, my GM got really angry with me. He wanted a certain table for a VIP and I had misunderstood, there were already customers seated there. He chewed me out publicly. I didn’t cry then but I went into a broom closet, cried and composed myself. This year, I have cried many tiny tears when I learn of tough situations people are in and I am powerless to help. 2020 has brought many more conversations about mental health, and this is a good thing to come out of the pandemic.
Often to move up in the hotel business, it means moving around. Has this been the case for you? How have you coped with relocation?
I’ve lived and worked in nine different states, five of these moves since I’ve had kids. As a wife and Mom, I cope by having very open conversations with my family. We used to have a theory not to tell the kids because we thought it would stress them. What I’ve learned is, if you're excited, then the rest of the family will be excited. Secrets are not good. Also, once you move, you have to understand that there is going to be a time when it’s uncomfortable, you don’t know people, don’t have relationships. It takes about a year to get a good comfort level. In the beginning, you need to make the effort to fill in the gaps, plan to talk to old friends on the weekends, etc until you can make friends in the new location.
Have you ever had to work through a professional plateau?
I was really worried when I took the job in Salt Lake that people would forget about me, it’s very far from Hilton corporate offices! This motivated me to take a chance on the Hilton challenge “If you could be President for the Day,” which I won with 5 others and it brought me to corporate for time with the top executives. Other ways to bust a plateau: get involved in the chamber or other organizations, and volunteer for projects. I've really found it fulfilling to get involved in the Castell Project, where I've been having conversations with women in college about careers in hospitality. Always go all in on whatever you do, challenge yourself to keep learning and growing.
The hospitality business is known for long hours, the need to work holidays and weekends. How have you managed to balance a personal life with work?
Always a struggle. Make sure that you have the conversations before you miss something, and if you don’t have a partner in the biz, make sure they understand that this is what the job takes. There always is time, you can celebrate holidays or even birthdays on other days. We have come up with our own family traditions. We do ‘White Elephant’ gifts (like a Secret Santa with trading involved) but not on Christmas day, we do it whenever we can and still make it special.
How did you deal with being pregnant at work? Did it impact your career?
Big question. When I had my son, I was traveling about 75 percent of the time and it was really hard. I asked to travel less. Months later, my job was eliminated. I always wondered if it was because I was not able to work the same schedule. So I took a year off and had another child. Then I had the call about running f&b at the Hilton in Hawaii and the GM didn't know I had kids. I told her and she was totally cool with it. At that moment, my husband and I sat down and made a big decision, we put my career ahead of his. So we went to Hawaii with my job first and his second. When we moved to NY, we decided he would stay at home.
If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why?
Humility paired with confidence, I know you said one, but these two are more powerful together. Not for women to kowtow--be humble but strong. Be able to clean a toilet with housekeeping and also know you can be the GM of a luxury hotel.