Jenny Lucas, Senior Vice President, Operations, Loews Hotels & Co
What does it take to move up the corporate ladder in the hotel industry? Do you constantly need to be on the treadmill of looking around, switching roles and companies? Is it possible to have diverse experiences and find a stimulating and satisfying career path if you stay with the same company? YES, says Jenny Lucas.
Drawn to Loews Hotels & Co by her former boss, what she found was a company whose core values matched her own: caring, creative, and committed to responsible growth. Her ability to jump on opportunities as the brand grew, put her in good stead to rise. She carved her way through training, understanding the brand and specializing in hotel openings and, after 24 years and as many openings, Jenny is still with Loews Hotels & Co as the Senior Vice President of Operations. Today, Jenny is as excited and passionate about her job as the day she started.
What drew you to the hotel business?
I stumbled on hospitality while I was studying International Business at James Madison University in Virginia and after a year, I realized that having a specific business to focus on, would be helpful. I had a friend in Hotel & Restaurant Management, which was also in the Business School, and having spent a lot of time traveling and in hotels growing up, I switched programs. Around the same time, I started working at the local Sheraton in Harrisonburg, VA, as a bus person in the Olympic Room restaurant, then became a hostess and that was my introduction into F&B. I loved the teamwork and camaraderie in the restaurant, how when it got busy everyone pulled together. I worked at the Sheraton throughout my college years. The next two summers I spent working in the Disney College program in Orlando, at that point I was hooked.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
Situational extrovert. I will talk to someone in an elevator have no issue speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people at a company meeting or teaching Grand Orientation in an opening, but put me in a room with 50 people in a setting out of my comfort zone and I quickly become an introvert.
Are you hospitable? Are you born with the “hospitality gene” or can it be learned?
Most definitely I am. Hospitality is something you are born with, it’s in your DNA. People either have the gene or don’t. You can teach others just about anything, except how to naturally extend themselves and care for others.
What has been your career path, how have you moved from job to job?
Twenty four years of my career have been spent with Loews. I started as the director of restaurants at the Loews L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC. Lou Carrier was F&B director then, and he had been my boss at the Mayflower Hotel, which was my first hotel job after college. I loved working for Lou, he’s fun, brilliant, and a true visionary but also challenged me and pushed me to take on more and more. When he moved across town to a hotel I had never heard of and called me with an opportunity, I had to listen. He shared his vision for turning around an F&B department that had been losing money for years and making it profitable. When he shared more about Loews and the number women in senior leadership roles, I was drawn to the possibilities that weren’t as evident in other hotel companies back then. When he asked if I wanted to join him, I jumped at the opportunity.
Loews was growing but maintained a small corporate office in New York. They plucked people from different hotels to help open the Loews Miami Beach in 1998. This was a big deal for the company, a brand new 790-room property right in the center of Miami Beach. I was completely sucked into the excitement and energy of the opening process. My job was to work with new director of restaurants on the Loews standards to help infuse the Loews culture into the team. I had an interest in training from that point. A year later, I was sent back to Florida to open Loews Portofino Bay Resort, the first hotel on the grounds of Universal Orlando, opening in the middle of a hurricane which was also exciting--exhausting too--but really fun. I was definitely hooked on the adrenaline of the opening process.
Loews, as a smaller brand, had a small corporate training team but needed more support at the property level. Because I had shown an interest, Loews created a new position for me in 2000, as regional director of training for Loews L’Enfant Plaza and Loews Annapolis Hotel. I was responsible for delivering the Loews training programs and working with the GMs on service, and quality assurance
By 2001, Loews offered me a chance to move to New York to work from the home office. I was really excited, but then 9/11 happened and the job was put on hold. In early 2002, I moved to New York to be the number two person in the corporate training department. For the next few years, I did a lot of hotel openings. I thrived on the teamwork dynamic, the energy and the excitement of opening hotels…the intensity really motivates me. Even though the hours are long, I love the challenge of getting all of the moving pieces to work together and the satisfaction of working with a team to make it happen.
By 2013, I moved out of HR into Operations, which is my job today. This was a pivotal time for Loews because it was shift in leadership where several new executives were brought in to run the company. Moving to Operations was a logical shift for me, the training work I was doing was all rooted in service. It was during this time that I began working for my current boss, Chief Operating Officer, John Cottrill. John had a remarkable tenure with Hyatt and Ritz Carlton and brought great perspective not just to Loews but to me personally. He was not looking to come in and change things, instead he encouraged us to look at things differently. John knew that training was my wheelhouse but really pushed me to become more knowledgeable and comfortable in different areas of operations; labour standards, products, and hotel openings overall, beyond training.
Today in addition to openings, I oversee brand standards for service and culture, essentially putting the pen to paper, figuring out how we can make an idea become an operational reality for our hotels.
This year, I have been the point person on all things COVID, coming up with the health and well-being protocols, trying to make everything for the hotels easier as the pandemic has caused so much disruption. So, while we were in the process of opening three hotels back-to-back in early 2020, the focus shifted in a matter of days to COVID. We had to act quickly, and with as much information as possible, in order to protect our team members and guests.
What is the timeline for opening a Loews hotel?
Lots happens with the Development and Design teams long before I get involved, but we start to coordinate the different disciplines about 18 months out. We have a Loews opening playbook with a critical path for each area. About 10-12 months out the hotel team starts to come on board and everything needs to be coordinated and communicated so people are not working in silos, and even more importantly, so the work stays on track. As we get closer in, we select task force members from across the company to help support the hotel team with training and infuse the culture in order to open with our signature Loews service experiences in place.
What are the most important skills for opening hotels?
To be organized, a problem solver that has the ability to take charge, make decisions and give direction to make sure the team stays on point, this takes focus but also passion for hospitality. You can have the best plan in the world for an opening, but 99.9% of the time, it will be derailed with things that are completely out of your circle of influence. You have to adapt quickly, figure out the next move to keep things on course. It is also the time when the ability to have built strong relationships matters most, as you need people to trust you and follow your lead. For me, I love getting directly into the mess, excitement and chaos of opening a hotel. Because once you sort through all of that, on the other side you get to watch a successful opening day, which is an incredible sense of accomplishment and pride.
Given the nature of hotels, the ability to work well with others is paramount. What are your tricks for engaging and motivating team members?
My job is to support the hotels, our team is small and this year we are all remote. We are responsible for all the standard operating procedures, quality assurance, leveraging systems to deliver on the service experience and for training on all those pieces. It’s up to us to provide the tools and direction to maintain brand standards and work with the hotels to execute the unique Loews service experience.
The relationship with the hotels is key to all of our success and developing and keeping trust is vital to those relationships. Trust is built over time. We have to demonstrate a track record of results and use our credibility to be able to implement new programs and in return create buy-in. Listening to feedback, admitting when we got it wrong and adapting, has allowed us to not only further that trust but also form meaningful partnerships with those in the field and in the home office.
Did you ever want to be a General Manager?
Oddly enough, I never wanted to be a GM. I remember back in college being told to always say I wanted to be a GM when asked “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I never felt it or said it. Over my career, I’ve found a way to do what I love, to grow, evolve and contribute in a way that works best with my passion and talents. Plus, I get to focus on what makes the P&L actually happen – our team members.
Have you ever had to work through a professional plateau?
I’ve never been bored, because the projects are all different. I am always learning new things, whether it's labour management or how to handle delays in construction, there’s always some twist or turn to get me out of my comfort zone and keep my job exciting. John, my current boss, is a big advocate of challenging yourself and expanding your knowledge beyond your job description.
There is a misconception that when someone has been at a company a long time that they are stuck, but actually, my experience is that people may leave a company because they don’t want to change with new direction. I think those that stay are actually more adaptable. Businesses are dynamic and you have to change to keep up the pace. People use the term “legacy thinker,” as a bad thing, but I would challenge them to look at someone who has been around awhile as one who has been flexible and agile, and has so much to share about the journey and lessons learned.
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. What lessons did you learn?
Every time we do an opening, we do a post-mortem, where we go over everything, what worked, what didn’t so that we are able to learn and change courses for the next one. An opening never goes 100 percent according to plan, those moments are opportunities to learn, not failures.
Along with that, have you ever been so afraid of the success that you didn’t go for it? What happened?
Everything leads you somewhere, my original plan was to be an F&B director, but the training route took me to where I am now. I love what I do, and have put in a lot of hard work, so fear of success was never on my mind.
Have you ever taken a big risk at work?
Every job move has been a risk for me. I don’t have a formal education in training so I have learned on the job. Any time you do something you haven't done before there is risk. I was fortunate to have leaders that believed in me and challenged me to take on new and different projects and roles. Sometimes all you need is a little push to help you see beyond your perceived limits. Fortunately with every risk there has also been a reward.
Have you ever had a big win, promotion, or success that ultimately didn’t lead where you expected?
Every job I have had! If someone had told me this was going to be my job twenty years ago, I would have laughed. But looking back it is easy to see how the early task force opportunities and every role I’ve had along they way led me to where I am today.
How do you cope with the long hours and travel required for your job?
Balance can be difficult. When I was in F&B working crazy hours, I thought it was the job, but even when I moved into training which was meant to be 9 to 5, I was still working long hours. I realized it isn’t always the job but also one’s mindset. Early on some of it was, as a single woman, I would happily do extra hours, so my colleagues could go home to their families. But the more hours you work the more that comes your way.
Prior to the pandemic I was on the road about 160-240 days a year. Traveling does provide balance to the office work since am on property and connecting with the teams. When I am not traveling, time with friends and family is always key for me to ensure I have that balance. It has to be your choice to have balance, and determine what that looks like for you, then make it priority. I have gotten better over time as I’ve realized it’s not a job that gives you balance, it’s you that gives you balance.
If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why?
Passion! Being passionate about something gets you through all of the hours and hard work. If you really believe in what you are doing, there’s a reward in seeing projects come to life.