Connie Wang leads one of the most iconic hotels in LA, the beloved Hotel Figueroa–fondly called The Fig–which has serious feminist cred. The hotel was the largest commercial building funded by women for women when it originally opened in 1926 by the YWCA as a safe haven for solo female travelers, who were prohibited from checking into most hotels without a male chaperone. For years, the space served as a meeting place for practically every woman's club in Los Angeles. and fully embraced its social conscience, holding press conferences and political rallies against sexism, racism, and other social issues to this very day.
The feminist baton has been eagerly received by Connie, who has embraced and enhanced The Fig's legacy–supporting female musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs–it has literally become LA's hive of feminine energy. The formula is working, the hotel was named Conde Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards winner, and Travel + Leisure 2020 World’s Best. We chatted with Connie about the career path that led her to success at The Fig, pioneering change in the pandemic, her thoughts on leadership, supporting other women, being a working mom, and why 'grit' is her most important characteristic.
How did you get interested in hospitality and what was your first job?
I worked throughout school in the service industry, and my first hotel job was at the front desk of a local inn. I was the only non-family member of the owner working at the hotel, and was pretty much adopted for two summers! I never thought this would lead me down the path of my eventual career, but I then went to study at the Cornell Hotel School, and began with Hyatt Hotels after graduating.
Do you think there is a hospitality “gene” or can it be learned?
I think hospitality is learned, but it can feel like a gene because it’s also deeply embedded at an early age – we often see it modeled first from our families, how guests are welcomed into our homes, how we treat one another, how to take care of someone we love.
You’ve worked in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and LA, mostly moving up the job ladder and around with Hyatt. How have you gotten different jobs through networking within your company or mentors?
I’ve been very fortunate to have found strong mentors and role models every step in my career, and this greatly helped expedite my learning and growth. Starting my career with Hyatt gave me the chance to experience many different luxury hotels. Rather than having to start from scratch and interviewing for every position, I was in a nurturing environment that allowed my work and reputation to speak for me. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized the importance of selling yourself and clearly communicating the value you bring to each organization and team.
What is the hardest thing about moving from city to city? Do you have any tips for coping?
I actually have enjoyed living in many different cities, and at some point, would love to live abroad for longer than a few months at a time. The hardest thing for my husband and me, is that now as parents, we want to give some stability to our daughter and allow her to build her own community and get a sense of her bearings.
You’ve also done a few openings, what do you like about opening new hotels? What is the most critical part of an opening?
I love the creation process, and there is nothing quite like the energy of a new hotel launch and opening, with all of the moving parts that can bring a team closer together. The most critical part of any opening is hiring and bringing on the A-Team with the right attitude and skillset, and developing a strong team culture from the get-go.
The ability to work well with others is paramount in the hotel biz, what are your tricks for engaging and motivating team members?
Hospitality is a truly fun and dynamic industry, but it can also be grueling on the front line. I don’t think you can recognize your team too much for the hard work they are putting in every day. Our team is the backbone of everything we do, and showing them support and rewarding good work is key. One thing I focus on specifically is truly investing in the growth of every team member, and having regular career conversations—and making sure that the path for positive career growth and skill development is crystal clear.
Have you ever had to work through a professional plateau? What did you do?
When I first became a mom, I had the opportunity to open a gorgeous luxury hotel, and it was the type of opportunity I would have jumped at before. I passed because it was not the right time in my life to commit to the demands, and after a few months, I decided to switch gears to consulting work that allowed more flexibility in my schedule. I was truly scared my career would be on hold, but I also wanted to spend more time with my family. Ultimately, consulting allowed me to broaden my network, enabled me to develop my pitching skills, and gave me the confidence to be even more creative. What I thought was going to be a professional plateau, turned out to be a career blessing in disguise.
Now you’re at the Hotel Figueroa, which was built by and for women in the 1920s, the hotel today embraces that feminine history and it seems to be working well. Congrats on being named Conde Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards winner, and Travel + Leisure 2020 ‘World’s Best’, why do you think the history of the hotel is so important to your brand story? Are most of the guests today female?
Thank you! Our team is so proud of the legacy of our hotel. We see ourselves simply as stewards, charged with the responsibility of carrying forth that legacy into present day. Our female founders were pioneers and trailblazers in creating a safe haven where solo women travelers were free to travel safely, do business, create art—essentially, live their lives uninhibited from some of the cultural norms in the 1920’s.
Our guests are an eclectic mix of all backgrounds, with many in creative industries. I think the message and mission of allowing people to reach their full potential resonates with both men and women, and our hotel guests are a reflection of that.
You also have programs working with local female artists, business owners, and entrepreneurs, is this part of the hotel branding story or something more personal to you?
In the past, I think women were given a bad rep for seeing one another as competition.
Personally, what I see is a world of women supporting and helping other women, boldly celebrating one another’s successes. I do not see that as marketing––it is simply what we do every day at Hotel Figueroa.
As a cultural oasis in downtown Los Angeles for nearly a century, Hotel Figueroa has played an ineradicable role in women’s history and continues to be a proud supporter of local female artists across L.A. and California. Strong, loud, and proud – we have supported female artists across all creative endeavors since our inception in 1926. Our current 2021 Featured Artist, Shyama Golden’s work embraces the need for healing at this present time and encourages Angelenos to heal from within, surrounded by these vibrant themes of nature and nurture within our hotel walls. We’re very excited and proud to also debut the hotel’s first-ever Featured Artist Suite this summer!
The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, yet you seem to have risen to them with several new initiatives. Which worked best and what are you keeping beyond the pandemic?
The hotel has always been a community pillar and beacon, and during the pandemic, we contributed by opening our doors to first responders, medical personnel, as well as local DTLA (Downtown LA) women-owned businesses that needed to pivot in order to thrive during such a challenging time.
When the pandemic first struck last Spring, we closed our indoor hotel gym, and teamed up with Pamela Johnson, the owner of The Bridge, Mind Body Movement, who relocated her Yoga & Pilates fitness classes from her closed indoor studio in DTLA to our open-air hotel terrace overlooking the pool deck and cactus grove. Pam was able to keep her students engaged and fit in an safe, outdoor, socially distanced environment, and we were able to offer a DTLA community partner an alternative venue in a pinch. This partnership continues to bloom and thrive beyond the pandemic, and Hotel Figueroa now offers daily in-person wellness classes that are complimentary to hotel guests, and an outdoor option for locals.
Last year, I also had the opportunity to meet Stephanie Castaneda, floral designer, and owner of Vases to Vases. For the month of February, she, together with another incredible woman-owned bake shop, Flouring LA, transformed our closed lobby bar into a gorgeous ‘Flower + Flour’ pop-up bar for Valentine’s Day to spread some cheer and community love, and also support and promote two local women-owned businesses. In a full circle moment, it was even more special seeing as Stephanie and her husband got married at Hotel Figueroa in 2018.
Last but not least, Shyama Golden is our Featured Artist of 2021, and this year, we are expanding our gallery space from the lobby-adjacent Artist Alley to our guestrooms --- one of our signature suites has been transformed through Shyama’s imagination into the first-ever ‘Featured Artist Suite’ – a truly immersive art experience featuring original artwork, prints, and stunning botanicals. Within the suite, Shyama explores themes of reconnecting with nature and desire for rejuvenation following the self-isolation and stresses of last year.
What has been the hardest thing for you personally this past year?
Not being able to see the people I love.
If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why?
Grit. I can push through any situation with hard work and creativity and see the other side. I see myself as the solution to the problem—as the saying goes, “there’s no mountain to conquer, only yourself.”