Raquel Toro is 47 years old, lives in Chicago, is married with two daughters-- a 22-year-old at the University of Iowa and a 12-year-old with special needs. She spent 22 years with Kimpton, working her way up from Front Desk to Senior Sales Manager. Before COVID, her husband stayed at home caring for their younger daughter, so Raquel was the main earner for their household. She was let go from Kimpton/IHG on March 5, 2020, which put her life in a tailspin.
After sending out over 150 applications and finally getting three offers, on March 1, 2021, Raquel started her new job as Sales Manager of the Ambassador Chicago, a Joie de Vivre Hotel by Hyatt.
Herstory on how she survived the pandemic:
“The front desk at the Kimpton Allegro was my first job, and I loved it. This was also the first Kimpton Hotel outside of California, it was early days with the brand which grew quickly in Chicago. I loved Kimpton…it was funky and cool. The people were great too.
When IHG took over, it was incredible, suddenly we were “Kimpton powered by IHG'' with fantastic sales leads from corporate and more clients familiar with our brand internationally. This was great for me as Senior Sales Manager, my markets included anything outside the US: corporate, entertainment, bands, commercials, film shoots, so I handled the markets where the coronavirus hit first.
In February of last year, when news of the pandemic broke, we didn’t think it was so serious. In fact, in the last week of February, there were jokes going around, memes and President Trump said not to worry. A week later it was a BIG DEAL. We started getting cancellations. This was right before the Housewares Convention, one of the bigger conventions in Chicago.
Then suddenly on Monday, March 2nd, the Housewares Conventions was canceled. One thing that really stuck with me from that day, I didn’t see my boss for the whole eight hours: he was on the phone between the home office and regional sales, and the Chicago housing bureau. Meanwhile, we were getting calls from clients, and we didn’t know what to say. Information was coming fast and furious and we didn’t know which direction things were going.
Three days later, on March 5th, I was let go. Each of the Chicago Kimpton properties had their own sales team and we had a small business transient team that worked for all four hotels simultaneously, servicing four Kimpton hotels in the city. One by one, each hotel was furloughing or letting go of their sales teams. By the next week, when the Mayor said Chicago was in lockdown, only the Director of Sales was left. Everyone else was gone. My world was in a tailspin.
I’m a planner. I try to think of the things that can happen in life and prepare. My Mom always told me, ‘Have a year’s worth of savings.’ Well, I didn’t have a year, but I had 8 months. The very first thing I did was apply for unemployment. Then I called my former Kimpton/IHG co-worker and good friend, Courtney, who lives in Miami and she said layoffs were happening there too. She said, ‘Whatever you decide to do, you have to take care of yourself and your family…take care of everything else after that. And make sure you update your resume!’
Courtney actually drafted my resume for me, I didn’t really know where to start. I hadn’t done a resume in 20 years! Using her draft, I made the timeline accurate, updated each role, and assigned a monetary value to my contributions. For example, I won Manager of the Year and I made sure to put a dollar amount to the business I brought in and I added some accolades I received throughout the years.
Then I updated my LinkedIn, so everything matched up with my resume. I paid for LinkedIn premium access, because I wanted to be able to email recruiters and job posters directly. All of April I did nothing but search, and it wasn’t working. There were basically no hospitality jobs.
I thought to myself, ‘as a salesperson, how would I be prospecting a new client that I wanted?’ This led me to find industries that had a hospitality mindset. I did optimization searches and saved them, which means I got an email every time a job that matched my searches came up. In the end, I had about four or five different searches and created customizable resumes and cover letters to go with each search. Whenever sending a cover letter, I made sure to include keywords from the job listing, which helps in getting callbacks.
In May, in addition to LinkedIn, I started searching on Indeed.com. This actually made the search harder, because it was broader and there was no way to funnel it down. After all this effort, I only got two interviews, both with senior living facilities. They never told me why I didn’t get the jobs.
Weekly Friday night Zoom calls with my Kimpton co-workers kept my spirits up, it was hard coping with the uncertainty.
By June, Chicago was in deep lockdown until August. As nothing was happening, I decided to take a break and enjoy the summer with my family. We put a kiddie pool in the backyard, rode bikes, relaxed. My elder daughter said to me, ‘this is the most time you and I have spent one on one.’
Around the same time, I became aware of some fairly serious health issues I had been ignoring. I was overweight and it looked like I would need surgery on my spine. Between the comments from my daughter and the severity of my poor health, I suddenly realized I didn’t have the work-life balance I thought. Before, I was always running around and just never knew how it was impacting my family and my own quality of life.
In September, my elder daughter went back to college and home school started for our younger daughter. I took on her care and my husband got a job working for UPS overnight. I was still on the job search, but I was more in tune with taking care of my family. The more I searched, the more I realized I only wanted to be in hospitality. I was looking for sales jobs but willing to work anywhere in a hotel. Meanwhile, I had surgery on my spine and was recuperating.
In October, through Indeed.com, I got a message from a janitorial company looking for an account manager, someone with really strong relationship skills, but also to be a liaison between sales, operations, and account management. I quickly sent a letter and resume. Didn’t hear for two weeks. Then I got a phone interview. The guy stops the interview mid-way and says, ‘I really like you, can you come in for an interview?’ Yessss!
I went in for the interview, thinking I would meet the hiring manager and they asked me to meet with the CEO! Suddenly, I was nervous. Ever the planner, before the interview I went on their website and noted things that related to hospitality: pet program, eco-friendly, and customer comments. This enabled me to speak knowledgeably with the female CEO, who impressed me. The company was at the forefront of COVID care for all types of buildings. I left there thinking I could have a new career!
Fast forward to November, disappointed I didn’t hear back from the janitorial company despite having sent follow-up emails and very personal handwritten notes. I called the hiring manager to see why. He said that they were worried that a hotelier would poach me once hotels in the city came back! They had NOT filled the job. After some assurances, he asked me to meet with the Director of Operations. Again, they didn’t call back.
Around the same time, my friend Courtney in Florida saw a post on LinkedIn from a mutual contact looking for a sales manager in Chicago, and they had actually tagged me. I was excited and followed up through LinkedIn. My first interview was a phone screening call with the DOS, where I learned the hotel would not open until April…a ways off, but it made me feel there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
By December, I started getting messages. I continued sending my resume and had some informational phone interviews. Recruiters were trying to find the best fit, as there was a big pool of people looking for jobs. Around this time, I had an interview request with a company that does residential housing for college students. We arranged it for January.
Technically I had three possibilities: the janitorial company, the hotel, and the college housing, but no offers. Then the holidays happened. I was worried my unemployment was going to end and I wouldn’t have a job.
In January, worried about money, I decided to put my house up for sale. I used connections with a builder friend and a realtor friend, and we got the house in perfect shape to sell. We packed everything up and moved in with my Mom. She had room for us and was about to retire from her job, so the timing was good. I had the interview with the college housing company, and it was great.
By February, my husband got promoted, our house had an offer, and I got a call back from the hotel for an interview with the GM. By the week of February 15th, I received THREE job offers: the college housing, the janitorial company, and the HOTEL! The hotel offer was the best paid, and the job I was most excited about. They wanted me to start the week of February 21st, but I wanted to spend more time with my family and sentimentally, didn't want to start so close to what would have been my 23rd anniversary with Kimpton.
March 1st, 2021 was my first day at work after 363 days. What a year! Over 150 + job applications, 5 interviews, 3 job offers, 1 house sale, 1 back surgery, and 1 big mental readjustment to my life priorities: health, family, and work. I am so much happier--definitely healthier--having lost 85 pounds since my surgery, and feeling financially secure because I'm working for First Hospitality at the Ambassador Chicago, a Joie De Vivre Hotel by Hyatt.”