I've Had the Time of My Life: Heidi Stone, President & CEO, Mountain Lake Lodge
Drawn to the energy of hospitality early on, Heidi Stone began working at the local Howard Johnson's in high school. By divine chance, this property was helmed by a woman, Bonnie Thomas, who Heidi credits as a massive influence on her career. Heidi has faced her share of setbacks and successes since her first summers at HoJos but she's persevered, as a single mother and as an executive. She took an ailing property, the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, capitalized on its history as the filming location for the hit film, Dirty Dancing, and turned the hotel into a star. In 2018, she was named GM of the Year, and the hotel was named hotel of the year by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association.
Now, in celebration of the 35th anniversary of Dirty Dancing, she's coordinated a new TV reality series, packages, and events to cement the property in cinematic history and get even more fans to experience the hotel. Along the way, she's turned the property into one of the best and largest employers in one of the poorest areas of Virginia. What is most amazing is that Heidi nearly didn't even get to be GM of the hotel. She was the Director of Sales when the previous GM left, and the board didn't think she was up to the top job...except for one member who persuaded them to give her the chance. It was a privilege to chat with Heidi, to learn about her career, her thoughts on leadership, and how she is helping other women achieve their dreams with careers in hospitality.
Your first job was as a desk clerk for Howard Johnson's, was that when you got the hospitality bug?
I knew I wanted to go into the hospitality industry as a teenager. I spoke with everyone I knew about getting a hotel job so I could gain experience during summer break while still in high school. As it happened, my mom graduated from high school with a gal who was the general manager of the local Howard Johnson’s. I didn’t realize at the time that a female general manager was such a rare thing. I’m forever grateful to Bonnie Thomas for giving me my first job and allowing me to work several summers. She was a great role model––confident, gritty when appropriate, kind, and steady and calm under pressure––and her influence has endured all these years later.
A debate we often have at hertelier is there a hospitality “gene" or can it be learned?
Yes, I believe there is a hospitality gene. We all are familiar with those who do not have it! I can spot the gene in a second – it’s an unassuming, kind soul who is genuine, caring, friendly, smiley, selfless, and thoughtful. Sure, we can coach folks to be friendly, but being genuine and selfless are characteristics that cannot be taught.
What do you love most about the day-to-day of running a hotel?
I love the energy. I love the energy of guests as they are first arriving – they are finally here at their long-awaited bucket list destination. Their eyes and voices are filled with happiness and anticipation. I love to see my employees engaging with guests – both have stories to share – then comes the sound of laughter, clapping, and “Cheers!”. My absolute favorite part is walking around the property and seeing my employees happy and fulfilled in their jobs. I know the personal struggles of most of them, and what they have had to overcome. I have such a sense of pride as I watch the joy they are experiencing by being a part of something greater than any one of us.
When I was at a conference recently, a female GM said they recruit employees for kindness and empathy, is that a trait you search for? If so, how do you interview for these traits?
Yes, I always look for these traits and learn how applicants are wired by asking:
1. What are you most passionate about at work? What do you loathe about your current position?
2. Who has been your favorite mentor during your career and why?
3. Tell me about a time when you handled a difficult or challenging situation at work. How did you solve the issue?
How do you nurture employees on your team and help them rise up the ladder? Please give a specific example.
Having been a single mom myself, I seek out women and single mom applicants who want to support their families and grow their futures. No woman can climb the ladder of success without a team in her corner. I lead by inspiring employees and giving them opportunities to grow. I have created a culture that promotes from within and invests in the future of our staff and management team. My vice president of sales started out as an event coordinator, and the vice president of food and beverage began as a part-time banquet bartender. Investing in your people is a win-win for everyone. If you follow these principles, the roots of your organization will be able to withstand tough winds, unexpected challenges, and even a worldwide pandemic. We are now one of the largest employers in Giles County, VA – and we are thriving.
Every year I put together a two-day leadership retreat for the management team to help them learn, grow, and bond. As an independent brand of one, I have not had the luxury of a corporate office planning such events but my special events background has certainly come in handy! My leadership events are high energy filled with fun, competitive teambuilding elements, learning, and time for serious and transparent collaboration. This time together has been invaluable to the entire team’s growth and depth. Over the years I have used several books as jumping-off points for our conversations that every leader should read – at one of our first meetings together we learned about the flying fish in Seattle, followed by:
What challenges have you faced as a woman rising up the ranks yourself?
Ten years ago, I moved to SW Virginia to take the position of sales and marketing director at Mountain Lake Lodge, which at the time was extremely rundown and on the brink of permanent closure. I took on the rebranding effort to help save this historic property but six months after tackling the project, the opening general manager resigned to move back to Colorado. Subsequently, I raised my hand to be considered for the position of general manager. Although I had never been a GM, I knew the gig inside and out, and what needed to be done to turn this hotel around. After four months and the board’s review of 400 resumes, they turned me down because they didn’t think I could handle the position.
Thankfully, I had one board member in my corner. And he did not give up. He had been raised by a single mom and saw firsthand how hard his mom worked as a housekeeper to take care of him and his siblings. About six weeks after the board turned me down, he changed their minds, enough for them to reluctantly give me the opportunity to become general manager of Mountain Lake Lodge. I jumped at the opportunity to prove that a woman could more than handle the position. Now, a decade later, I’ve been promoted to president and CEO of the entire organization. Occupancy and revenue numbers have grown every year since I took over, and as I’ve guided the hotel to embrace its history as the site where the iconic 1987 Dirty Dancing was filmed, we have received national recognition.
What advice would you give to women just starting out in hospitality?
Anything is possible. My advice to young women starting out in our industry is to seek out a woman leader where they want to work and ask her to be their mentor.
What are the most useful skills to learn to rise up the ladder?
Perseverance and never giving up. The effort to save Mountain Lake Lodge has been herculean and so many lives are forever touched by the great work my team and I have accomplished together. If the Lodge had been shuttered and thrown into mothballs a decade ago, so many success stories would have never happened. We have created more than 150 jobs that almost didn’t exist and offered real career opportunities in one of the poorest counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
What would you like to see change in our industry for women?
We need to start a movement to give girls more confidence from elementary school through college and into the workplace. We must let girls know they are enough for whatever the challenge. We need to end hate and stop bullying forever. Enough of the “good ‘ole boy” network and lower salaries for women. Enough of the dirty looks that women get from men when they show up as the leader in charge. Together, we need to start movements to influence real change.
Real change happens where you live and work every day. So, I ask myself, where have I made the most change? What actions have I already taken that could inspire others to do the same? “Be a Champion (for someone else).” Who can you pour yourself into and make a difference in their lives? Who can you mentor? Who can you inspire? There are so many people around you who need your expertise. They need you to see what they can become and to believe in them. Women leaders, who are you championing?
We have seen some of the big brands starting to offer WFH and some flexible
scheduling, do you offer that, and do you see that helping women stay in the industry?
The resort business is an IN-PERSON business with little that can be done from home; perhaps the sales department from time to time, but overall, we must show up every day to take care of our guests. At Mountain Lake Lodge, we’ve had to rethink our level of flexibility with schedules just to get folks interested in our hourly positions, i.e., servers, housekeepers, and recreation staff. Now, in fact, flexibility seems many times more important than the hourly wage earned.
Is your hotel suffering from labor shortages? Or being remote you are OK? If so, how are you handling it?
Everyone in business has had to rethink the hiring model and we all know that nothing is as it was prior to the pandemic. Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever return to the ways of 2019. Like so many hotels and resorts, we’ve brainstormed on how to overcome the labor shortage and so far, are faring better than most.
The following are key:
1. What are the benefits of working at your hotel/resort? List them all, even those you don’t think are important.
2. Do you offer an employee-referring bonus? Hiring bonus? Retaining bonus (if an employee works 60 days)?
3. Do you have an employment portal on your website listing the jobs and ALL your benefits?
4. Does that employment portal have pictures of your employee appreciation events?
5. When was the last time you compared/accessed the pay scale of your workers? Are you competitive? Note: You don’t have to pay the highest wage – rather it’s about the WHOLE package, i.e., flexible schedules, growth opportunities, a family-like atmosphere, and employees not just being a number. The big companies can lure employees with a higher hourly wage, but can they offer flexible schedules and a caring supervisor?
6. Are you working with your local high schools and community colleges on internship opportunities for their students?
7. Are you offering to be a guest speaker at local high schools, colleges, and universities?
Full disclosure, I am a HUGE fan of Dirty Dancing. What can fans of the film expect staying at your resort?
For the most immersive fan experience, book a Dirty Dancing Weekend or Kellerman’s Film Package. The Dirty Dancing Weekend starts Friday afternoon and concludes after breakfast on Sunday. The entire lodge literally turns into Dirty Dancing circa 1967 with a “Come as your favorite character” costume contest; screening of the original Dirty Dancing on the front lawn of Kellerman’s; dance lessons with professional dancers; a trivia contest; a scavenger hunt, and all meals. Or sample Kellerman’s Film Package, a two-night stay that includes a welcome cocktail and souvenir glass, an exclusive logo gift bag and Kellerman’s beach towel, and a $200 dining credit.
How has the 35th anniversary of the movie impacted demand for Mountain Lake Lodge?
Actually, in a very big way! This is a huge year for Mountain Lake Lodge. We started with the airing of the mini-series, The Real Dirty Dancing, and our first of six 35th anniversary Dirty Dancing Weekends start in April. Dirty Dancing Weekends are booked for the entire year, and we just introduced the 2023 schedule.
We have three major building projects happening on property right now: new outdoor dining at Harvest Restaurant, a new outdoor pub offering brews and pizza, two new retail shops including the first-ever Kellerman’s Gift Shop, and a new Trail Center. And over the July 4th weekend, the resort will host the best fireworks, barbecue, and live music in the area!
While I continue to collaborate with our partners in film––Eureka and Lionsgate–– on new and exciting things, our organization is working with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC to strategically plan the resort’s next decade of growth.
What is next for you personally?
I hope that my new role as president and CEO will give me a platform to create real change for women in the workplace––not just in the hospitality industry. Yes, we have made strides but there is still much to do. I want to be the voice that we all wished we had early in our careers. I want to be that voice so our daughters and granddaughters will not have to experience what we have to endure.