A Clear Vision: Crystal Vinisse Thomas, Vice President and Global Brand Leader, Hyatt
It comes as no surprise that her name is Crystal, given her clear vision of both her own career aspirations and the brands she’s helped create. Her entree into hospitality was as a ‘pool girl’ at the legendary Breakers resort in Palm Beach. She then attended the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration, where she was a star on the varsity track team and in the gospel choir. After graduating, Crystal began her career with Starwood working on the trendy W brand and moving to Europe. When Starwood merged with Marriott, Crystal took a year to travel the world, reflect on her goals and passions, then decided to shift to the music industry taking a position in LA with Beats by Dre @ Apple, Inc., overseeing the NBA partnership and all things sports. Until Hyatt lured her back to hospitality with the opportunity to create a new brand. We chatted with Crystal about her career, her experience as one of a few Black executives in hospitality, the inside scoop on the creation of the new Caption brand, which just launched last week, and her passion for driving innovation and crafting memorable guest and consumer experiences.
What was your first job in hospitality?
I started off on-property in a variety of roles—from valet and bell person to front desk and sales, before moving onto the branding side of the business. But my very first hospitality job (outside of the Statler Hotel at Cornell) was a recreational specialist, or as I like to call it, a “glorified pool girl” at The Breakers in Palm Beach.
Wow, The Breakers is a beautiful place! After Cornell, you began your career with Starwood and ended up running the W brand, tell me a bit about how you worked your way up the ladder in branding?
I started my career with Starwood in sales but took a different approach than my colleagues at the time, focusing my pitches more on the story of the hotel and its positioning than the more transactional selling points. I’m a natural storyteller, and once I realized I could parlay that alongside my sales experience into a career, that led me to my first brand role as a coordinator for W Hotels and Le Meridien. Here, I learned how important it is to shape the hotel experience through the lens of a guest’s journey—crafting moments and experiences in a way that truly resonates—while laddering up to a brand promise and positioning.
Back then, I was living in NYC as part of the global brand team (at Starwood), and although I was traveling the world for work, I struggled with the idea that I was in a "global” role without having lived outside of the US. I’ll never forget the day I sat between two of our regional leads (the heads of APAC and EAME) during dinner and brazenly let them know of my desire to move across the world and work for either of them. Soon after, I was tapped to head up the brand in EAME, transferring to our office in Brussels, which was my last post before I moved to Los Angeles to work for Beats by Dre.
That is an interesting transition from hotels to work for Dre and Beats, how did that come about?
While I was living in Brussels, the acquisition between Marriott and Starwood had begun. I was already thinking about moving away from Brussels and potentially out of hospitality, so I took a year off to travel and throughout that time, I started a journaling exercise that created a framework for what I might want to do next. I had three columns, and the first column was “what are you passionate about?” I had jotted down music, tech, sports, and the intersection of fashion and design. The second was “where do you want to live?” I wanted to move back to New York City, I was open to Los Angeles, and if I were to live in Europe again, maybe London. The last column was “what are some aspirational companies that inspire you?” For me, it was Nike, Apple, Beats by Dre, SoHo House, and a few more. The great thing about writing things down is it crystallizes it for you, and the more you talk about what you want out loud, it crystallizes for others, too. So, when the role of working for Beats by Dre, as a senior brand lead in sports presented itself, it checked all of the boxes for me.
Was it your passion for hospitality that brought you back to hospitality and Hyatt?
When I was first approached by Hyatt for this role, I was excited about the opportunity to put my fingerprint on a new brand. As a storyteller and brand person, the idea that I could make an imprint on a new brand based on my vision was super compelling to me. I’ll never forget my conversation with Hyatt’s Chief Commercial Officer Mark Vondrasek, a fantastic leader I already knew from my past life, where he asked “how often will you get the opportunity to be part of something like this?” Couldn’t argue with that. On top of that, knowing that Thompson Hotels is part of the Hyatt portfolio, I was very excited as the brand aligns well with my personal passions. Those two elements together, coupled with Hyatt’s reputation of having a strong company culture of care and innovation, brought me back. Can’t knock the opportunity to travel the world, again, either...
What skills do you think were most essential to your rise?
Knowing my worth, always raising my hand for the right opportunity, and being consistent. I grew up with a single mother, and my mom would always say that as a Black woman “you‘ve got to work twice as hard, to get half as far.” To me, that meant that I not only had to be super intentional about what I wanted (not to mention the effort that goes with that) but also very clear about my value and what I bring to the table.
To that end, I've never been afraid to speak up and always try to be a sponge and surround myself with people who inspire me and make me better. I’ve also always prided myself on showing up consistently and fully. Whether I'm at work, at home, or amongst friends, most will attest that there’s not a lot of variability in the way I show up. Excuse the use of the third person, but the Crystal in this room is the same Crystal in every room, and I think that garnered a lot of trust over the years. I know I appreciate that in people, and I hope that people appreciate that in me.
Did you have mentors? How did they help you?
Oh, yes; I’ve had professional mentors and sponsors all my life. Growing up (during my “I want to be a lawyer” phase), it was a pair of law partners, Gary and Bruce, who ultimately advised me that I had ”too much personality” to be a lawyer (no shade to the lawyers out there), ultimately leading to the shift in my career aspirations. Once I got into the corporate world, I’d say Eva Ziegler (former Global Brand Leader for W & Le Meridian) and Phil McAveety (former CMO of Starwood) played integral roles in guiding and shaping who I’ve become as a creative and a leader, often including me in conversations and putting me up for tasks that I thought were beyond my level early in my career. And through my relationship with Phil, I connected with the wise and wonderful Tona Broussard, who has become the Oprah of my life, always pushing me to recognize my magic and to keep shining my light no matter how dark the room might get.
I am incredibly grateful that although I encountered each on different parts of my journey, they were each able to champion me in their own way and saw something in me sometimes even beyond what I saw in myself. As confident as you may be (and as I am, believe me), imposter syndrome is so real. I think being able to have a safe space to express whatever challenges and insecurities you have is key to both your growth and maintaining humility. Today, beyond my mentors, I’m blessed to have an amazing village of friends, who are executives and mentors in their own right, who pour into me on the daily through our group chats and regular connects. That village is what continues to sustain me now.
One thing we’ve heard at hertelier, is women are good at finding mentors but less so at getting sponsors. What advice do you have for young women?
The first thing is knowing the difference. Your mentor is typically someone who knows you well, is personally interested in seeing and being part of your growth, and finds some purpose and meaning in being able to give back with both their time and counsel. Your sponsor is someone you may not have a close relationship with but will advocate for you in rooms you’re not in and is invested in helping you achieve your already defined career aspirations. We talk about cross-functional collaboration all the time, and often the sponsors I’ve had haven’t necessarily been in my direct line of work, but rather someone in a completely different role, who could connect me to people—more specifically, leaders––I wouldn’t typically have a line of sight to or interaction with.
“Will you be my mentor?” is such a loaded question and comes with a commitment on both sides. If you‘re asking the wrong person, you might be in for a disappointing response. Being a mentor requires a significant investment of time, and a sponsor, less so—so you want to be sure you‘ve done your due diligence before making the approach and be very clear about what you’re expecting from the other person.
I grew up with a single mother, and my mom would always say that as a Black woman “you‘ve got to work twice as hard, to get half as far.”
According to the Castell Project, Black executives represented 2.0 percent of hospitality industry executives at the director through CEO level on company websites at the end of 2021. With even fewer Black women in upper management, what has been your experience?
As you can imagine, I am super passionate about this topic, and this data aligns with my experience. For most of my career, I‘ve been ‘the only’ or one of a few who look like me in the room and even more so now as an executive. Unfortunately, when many think of roles and opportunities within hospitality, it’s often limited to service roles—this is especially true for people of color. This has lit a fire under me to educate budding leaders both in and outside of our industry that you can aspire to any role in hospitality, across several disciplines beyond the hotel itself. But knowledge is power.
At the start of my career, I didn’t realize that brand management was a “thing” in hospitality until I shared my passion for storytelling with one of the corporate recruiters, who then helped me pivot in that direction. Now that I’m here, I’m passionate about giving that same energy to others by being visible and sharing my experience, so that they know they can be here, too. I’ve had several opportunities to connect with future leaders through Hyatt’s partnerships with the Chicago Urban League and the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality (of which I was a member as an undergrad), and various programs through Cornell’s diversity alumni network.
Can you talk about Hyatt’s DE&I efforts you are proud of?
Absolutely – I love the work that we’re doing in this area. Hyatt’s purpose, which is to care for people so they can be their best, is exemplified in our major DE&I initiative called Change Starts Here, which launched in June 2020. Change Starts Here is our commitment to advance DE&I across our business in three key categories: who we employ, develop and advance; who we support; and who we buy and partner with. I’m particularly proud of the headway we’re making on who we do business with, especially as we diversify our supplier base. In 2021, Hyatt identified 220 new Black suppliers and achieved nearly $4 million in Black supplier spending.
In early May, we announced the launch of Hyatt’s newest brand, Caption by Hyatt, which is very much rooted in celebrating diversity and inclusion. Our first global location is expected to open its doors this summer in Memphis. Each Caption by Hyatt hotel will work with local purveyors and suppliers, making every effort to support local and minority-owned businesses whenever possible. Whether that’s sourcing knives from an independent neighborhood bladesmith or collaborating with a beloved generations-old coffee company down the block, the Caption by Hyatt ethos is that “the people make the place.” This means offering a place that is welcoming to travelers from all walks of life as much as it is to welcome in and embrace the diversity of its local community.
What can the hotel industry do to be more inclusive?
Provide support that extends beyond just donating or “giving back.” Try to create real equity. Educate and train staff on DE&I. And make sure it isn’t just people of color who are expected to raise their hands and speak up about making these changes. You also must hold yourself accountable for increasing inclusivity––it's one thing to speak a DE&I commitment out loud, but the follow through is critical. That’s why Hyatt has committed to publicly disclosing its diversity data every year in our annual DE&I report, which was first released last year. By acknowledging our numbers publicly, we can work together to bring about significant change.
Closing the equity gap can often appear to be the most challenging. One effort I’m proud of at Hyatt is RiseHy, a global program we launched in 2018 designed to pair the hospitality industry’s career opportunities with young people who need them. As part of the initiative, Hyatt hotels around the world are committed to hiring 10,000 Opportunity Youth – people ages 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working and come from challenging socio-economic circumstances – by 2025. Through this initiative, we are using the power of technology, including virtual reality, to scale career opportunities and bring awareness to hospitality careers. RiseHY aims to set candidates up for success from the start and expand training programs as a path for not just employment but advancement within the hospitality industry.
Shifting gears to your big news, Hyatt launched the Caption brand last week! What is your favorite part of creating a new brand?
For any brand person (and I‘m a purist), being able to have an imprint on an industry that drives your passion is the goal. With Caption by Hyatt, for example, I’m so proud to have my fingerprint on a brand that represents what I stand for and will help shift hospitality toward a culture that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Love the local ethos Hyatt is putting into its branding, we recently wrote about the Revival Baltimore, how do you see this playing out in Caption by Hyatt in Memphis?
There are a lot of parallels between the two properties. With Caption by Hyatt Beale Street Memphis, specifically, we want to make sure we are involving the community point of view and always considering how our brand participates in an exchange with the community, which Revival Baltimore does so well (shout out to its GM Donte Johnson!). With Caption by Hyatt Beale Street Memphis, we’re putting our money where our mouth is when we say “the people make the place,” so that means the hotel and the community should serve each other. We will be partnering with local craft brewers and activating a steady stream of programming that will take place in Talk Shop, the lively central hub of the hotel, with an open invitation to the community.
Speaking of Talk Shop, the hotel’s all-day restaurant concept, is that to make the communal spaces a big draw for the local community?
The concept of Talk Shop is a space for local neighbors and travelers to gather and is intended to be the social hub of any Caption by Hyatt hotel. We wanted to create an all-day space that offers guests the flexibility and space to work, play, dine, and everything that happens in between. Ultimately, we hope locals will see Talk Shop as their local hangout. Our Talk Shop signage is at the pedestrian level so that we can capture local walk-by traffic, in addition to our overnight guests. The menu will feature locally-inspired all-day fare and regional favorites with locally sourced ingredients and will offer a really fun, upbeat, community-driven vibe. An example of how localization can enhance the concept is with Caption by Hyatt Beale Street Memphis, which expands Talk Shop to include a beer garden. While this might not make sense in every market, it was a no-brainer for Memphis.
Including Caption by Hyatt, you manage six brands for Hyatt. Is it like having children––how do you give each the attention they need, and which is your favorite?
It really is like having different children - each is at a different stage of their life and development, they each have different personalities, and they play in different playgrounds. For me, it’s never about who is the favorite, but rather recognizing what each needs in each moment and then catering to that need in a way that helps them thrive and grow.
For example, we’ve been very intentional about the growth of the Thompson Hotels brand over the last several years and its place on Hyatt’s brand roadmap. Our current focus is on introducing new Thompson Hotels properties in strong leisure markets: the Thompson Hotels brand will re-enter Europe with Thompson Madrid later this year and make its debut in Asia Pacific with the opening of Thompson Shanghai expected in 2023.
In thinking about our brands, I also think about our guests and even my own behavior as a traveler. When we travel, we have different needs. And while we might have a strong affinity for one hotel brand, when our needs change, so do our brand preferences.
I understand that all the senior brand leaders at Hyatt are women, why do you think that is? And how do you work as a group? Are you competitive with each other?
We get the work done! The two women I work alongside - Emily Wright and Katie Johnson, VPs and Global Brand Leaders - are so inspiring, and we’re each incredibly strong, in our own ways. We don’t compete with each other; we complement each other. We’re three brand leaders but three very different brand leaders because of the nature of our portfolios. Emily and Katie are two of the most fun and brilliant women I’ve ever worked with, and we joke that we are physical manifestations of each of our portfolios.
There’s no leader like a woman leader. The way we lead with empathy, and the ability to see through the cracks to build community across various functions is admirable and needed in this world.
There’s no leader like a woman leader. The way we lead with empathy, and the ability to see through the cracks to build community across various functions is admirable and needed in this world.
Speaking of being competitive, you were a varsity track athlete at Cornell. What was your event?
Yes, I was! I threw the discus and a little bit of shot put, during my time there.
Has your sports training helped you in your career?
Growing up, I was the captain of the track and basketball teams. And many would be surprised to know that I also dabbled in badminton and was on the bowling team, so there’s a natural competitive spirit that exists within me. When you translate the athlete mentality into a work setting, it results in getting the work done with a bit of urgency. Athletes are generally competitive, and we have a drive that’s a bit different, more of a “why not?” attitude than asking “why?” I think it made me a natural cheerleader, too, because what often gets me most excited is making others hyped and excited about the work we’re doing.
What is your workout routine now?
I have a Peloton at home now, which I’m sure I’ll use at some point 😂 I prefer the gym and a high-impact regimen that resembles my college workouts.