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Meet Dorothy Jennings: The Powerhouse Behind NYU's Renowned Hospitality Conference

Women are the backbone of the hospitality industry, often working behind the scenes, rarely sharing their stories. hertelier has to turned to Dr. Lalia Rach, Executive Managing Director, Strategic Advisory Services, a division of ALHI, and the former Dean of what is now the Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality at NYU School of Professional Studies, to remedy this. Each article will acknowledge their accomplishments, persistence, and dedication reflecting the success of their careers.  Their stories must be realized and honored.  Each woman has built a career of success and meaning, each continues to make their mark.  This is the first in this new series. 


dorothy jennings with jonathan tisch loews hotels
Dorothy Jennings with Jonathan Tisch

The Birth of the NYU Hospitality Conference


In June 1978 the first-ever conference to focus on investment and development in the hotel industry was held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.  The brainchild of Stephen W. Brener, a consultant and broker in hotel real estate the conference was owned by the Real Estate Institute at New York University (NYU).  A native Manhattanite, Brener knew the industry having worked for Harry Helmsley (SVP for Helmsley-Spear) before starting Stephen W. Brener Associates. 


From the beginning, he attracted prominent hoteliers and investors to discuss the ins and outs of major deals in general sessions, ensured that those who developed new and different methods for the valuation of proposed developments and for measuring the market strength of both competition and demand were featured, and created a lavish Sunday evening reception that to this day serves as ‘the’ networking event in the industry to see and be seen.  To assist him in this endeavor was his long-time co-worker, Dorothy Jennings, whose primary position was vice president in the brokerage division at Brener Associates with the added responsibility of serving as delegate representative to the Hotel Brokers Association of America.  


From its first year when 200 industry leaders attended from across the nation to 2024 with more than 2,000 professionals from more than 40 states and countries combined the conference has evolved.  Considered the premier event of its kind, the conference is known for breaking news, bringing together a global audience, featuring a who’s who of the financial and hospitality industry, and sparking numerous imitators in the U.S. and every continent but Antarctica.  Three Manhattan hotels have been home to the conference – the Roosevelt (1978 to 1982), the Waldorf-Astoria (1983 to 2009), and the Marriott Marquis (2002 to present).  


Dorothy Jennings: The Backbone of the NYU Conference


Now in its 46th year, the only constant is Dorothy who serves as conference coordinator.  She has worked with two conference chairs, six NYU deans, hundreds of patrons and sponsors, nearly every hotel CEO and President, major Wall Street bankers and analysts, and more.  She is, for many, the conference, and her influence extends into every aspect of the event.  Her Rolodex, second to none, is a clear demonstration of the role she plays in the long-term success of the conference, and of the trust she engenders with the conference chair and NYU.  


Her style likely stems from her days as a female broker (one of the first in the industry) in a male-dominated field that is intensely competitive and unforgiving.  As a broker at Helmsley Spears, working for Steve Brener, well-known for not suffering fools, she developed a thick skin and demonstrated a willingness to speak directly no matter who was on the receiving end.  Her reputation for fairness and toughness precedes her whether onboarding a new committee member or speaker or saying no to an inflated ego.   Her tenacity serves her well as conference coordinator, carrying her past any criticism when someone does not appreciate a decision made by the committee while her strong desire to be fair has led her to champion change over the status quo.  


I first met Dorothy at the 1995 NYU conference.  I attended as a university guest before I started in July as the first dean of the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.  Multiple changes were in the works as Jonathan Tisch, CEO of Loews Hotels began his tenure as conference chair that year.  In the following year ,1996, the conference would move from its long-time NYU home, the Real Estate Institute, to the newly established Tisch Center.  Little did I realize at the time Dorothy was to become one of the most important people in my professional life.  I was an unknown, she knew everybody, I was new to NYC, and she was NYC through and through.  From the start she welcomed me and whenever I got over my head, she would throw me a lifeline.  Our styles were often in contrast – she was an insider, and I assumed my position as dean granted me license that made up for being an outsider; she was trusted, and my assertive and direct nature proved off-putting at times – but she helped me learn the ropes, she supported my efforts to insert the University more prominently in the conference and her sensible advice became invaluable to me.  


Dorothy has deflected any effort to put her in the spotlight as she never wanted to be on stage during the conference, preferring the behind-the-scenes action.  This is her choice and is characteristic of her personality – she does what she is good at, having little interest in other roles.  It is likely why both conference chairs trust(ed) her ability to manage the details with little oversight.  Her mission is to ensure the conference's prominence, assist the chair by managing details, and run interference when needed.  


Evolution of a Premier Hospitality Event


The NYU conference is a two- and half-day whirlwind of information, and lavish receptions, that involve the foremost leaders of the hotel and financial community.  It is where deals are made, plans are revealed, and futures are determined.  Dorothy works for 362 days on thousands of details to ensure all goes as planned while fulfilling her primary duties which for many years was at HVS as EVP responsible for operations, secretary to the board of directors, and righthand to the CEO.  

Dorothy Jennings NYU
Dorothy does lots of meeting and greeting at the NYU Conference

Both chairs (Steve for the first sixteen years and Jon for the last thirty years) have left their mark on the conference – Brener secured its premier position and established many mainstay general sessions.  Tisch expanded the conversation bringing the importance of tourism and hospitality to national and global economic development to the forefront.  Each year his opening remarks present a particular course of action (e.g., the need for national tourism policy, increased lobbying efforts by all hotel leaders, and the vital role of a modern transportation infrastructure) underscoring the importance of the industry to national and global economic well-being.  He added interviews of leading financial professionals in his “Beyond the Board Room” segment to the general session and increased the number of diverse, female and international speakers.  Jon’s capacity to secure high-profile luncheon speakers from politics, entertainment, and media adds to the conference’s only in New York City reality.  As a hotel developer, investor, and operator he has brought a remarkably expansive vision to the role of chair thereby cementing the continued success of the conference.  


Both Steve and Jon insisted on maintaining standards for moderators and panelists.  Dorothy has always been responsible for ensuring preparation occurs before panels take the stage and those who do not prep may not be given a second chance.  She brings a personal touch, balancing a no-nonsense approach with genuine concern recognizing content is fundamental to the success of the entire conference year after year.   Relentless at working behind the scenes, she provides guidance and advice to the planning committee, general session speakers, and the conference chair.  


The conference begins on the first Sunday in June and ends on Tuesday.  During the event, you will find Dorothy carrying a thick portfolio filled with contact information for every general session participant, break-out moderators and planning committee members, notes about dietary preferences, any information the conference chair might need, and endless reminders based on experience.  The portfolio represents a year’s worth of committee meetings, phone calls, emails, verbal agreements, and ideas from a patron or sponsor.  She emulates Ginger Rogers, an actress and dancer who often danced with renowned dancer Fred Astaire.  When asked about performing with him, she replied,  “I did everything he did but backward and in heels!” encapsulating the effortless skill she brought to her craft.  Similarly, Dorothy makes her job look effortless, disguising the work necessary to consistently do the job to meet the expectations of the University, the chair, and herself.  


Dorothy with Nick Graf Associate Dean Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality and Gilda Perez-Alvarado, Accor
Dorothy with Nick Graf Associate Dean Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality and Gilda Perez-Alvarado, CEO, Orient Express & Chief Strategy Officer

There is little downtime as the day after the conference ends, planning for the next conference begins with Dorothy collecting feedback from committee members, patrons, and sponsors.  Over the summer she does research, talks with leaders, shares information with the chair, and sends out the first meeting agenda to committee members.  In early September the committee meets to rough out the agenda for the upcoming conference.  Dorothy takes detailed notes regarding trends, topics, and insights which will be used by the chair and the committee to determine who and what will be featured in general sessions.  The committee trusts her to maintain a record of ideas that delivers timely, insightful, and interesting conference.  Her pride in having the right mix of speakers and panelists with behind-the-scenes knowledge of and involvement in key deals is only exceeded by her determination to deliver for the conference chair.  Her droll sense of humor serves her well whether someone is maneuvering for a better speaking slot or demanding access to the conference chair.  


One example of the esteem to which she is held has to do with the unexpected death of Brener in May ’94.  NYU decided not to name a chair for the 1994 Conference creating a bit of a frenzy as many professionals wanted to step into the role for a variety of reasons.  Later that summer, the University decided Jonathon Tisch, CEO of Loews Hotels was the logical choice and asked Dorothy to secure his agreement to serve as the next chair.  One factor in Jon’s agreement to the request was for Dorothy to continue in her role.    


Focus on Student Advocacy


Dorothy views her legacy as the conference coordinator as being a champion for NYU Tisch Center students.  She has been instrumental in raising millions of dollars in sponsorship and patronage donations directed toward scholarships and academic initiatives for students of the Tisch Center.  Without hesitation, she has opened doors for hundreds of students whether it be an introduction to a hotel CEO or providing a job recommendation.  She has become professional friends with the ‘who’s who’ of the global hotel industry and she willingly shares her contacts with the students.  In recognition of her efforts for students, a classroom in the new Tisch Center building was named for her in 2005.


If there was a designated show-runner in the global hotel industry it would be Dorothy Jennings.  While juggling her regular job, family, and work with animal shelters, she has taken on ever-increasing responsibility in a position that in any other conference would be filled by multiple individuals.  She has been the connective tissue for the university and the chair, for CEOs and celebrities.  I had a front-row seat for 14 years as she soothed egos, went toe toe-to-toe with less civil individuals, and shrugged off the slings and arrows of the petty, while keeping us all moving forward.  Her constancy of will and focus has over four-plus decades contributed to making the NYU Hospitality Industry Investment Conference a must-attend event.  In the sea of sameness, NYU has always stood out and Dorothy Jennings is the secret ingredient, without match among any hospitality conference anywhere in the world.   


dorothy jennings

Dr. Lalia Rach is executive managing director of Strategic Advisory Group, a business unit of ALHI. She is a recognized leader, consultant, keynote speaker, and moderator, providing relatable honesty and practical, thoughtful information.

Dr. Lalia Rach
Dr. Lalia Rach

She is best known for her 18-year career in higher education as the founding Dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University. At NYU, she created one of the most innovative graduate and undergraduate programs for hospitality, sports, and tourism.  The author of the Amazon # 1 bestselling book “Managing the Book on You: Rewriting Your Leadership Story.” 

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