Can't Spell Hero without HER: Michelle Walder, C Card Creator & Director of Operations, NOMAD London
With her gorgeous mane of shiny chestnut hair, you would never imagine Michelle Walder has beaten cancer not just once but twice, spotting her in the lobby of the glam new 91-room NOMAD London where she is filling in as General Manager from New York. But her grace and genuine, warm smile belie her background spanning some of the trendiest and most luxurious hotels in New York, London, and Miami and a stint with the World Economic Forum.
Inspired by her own experiences battling Hodgkin's lymphoma and needing to stay in a hotel during her lengthy bone marrow transplant treatment, Michelle Walder, created the C Card to link cancer patients and their carers with hotels near hospitals at a discounted rate, when there is availability. We chatted with Michelle in the hotel's sumptuous Library to learn herstory and how she started the C Card.
How did you get interested in the hotel business?
My father was a Swiss banker but had a passion for hotels, and on the side had a small B&B near where I grew up outside of New York City. I began helping there when I was 13, cleaning, checking people in, whatever. I loved working. As soon as I could, I went into NYC and talked my way into a job at the 890-room Hudson Hotel, which was a happening place run by Ian Schrager. I was only 16 but my parents didn't mind and the hotel let me hostess and work the coat check. From there I moved to room service and actually became the Room Service supervisor while still in high school. I started at NYU studying hotel management, all the while working Front Desk and then as a concierge. I loved it.
Did you graduate from NYU Tisch School of Hospitality?
No, life got complicated, my parents split up and I realized affording NYU was going to be a challenge but as a Swiss citizen (which I was through my parents) I could go to university there for free, so I took a chance and applied to the famed hotel school, Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. My boss at the Hudson begged me not to leave, offered me a promotion, and said I didn't need a degree to succeed in hotel management. I was torn, but decided to go, and it was the best four years of my life.
As part of the program, you need to do two six-month internships. I worked with my sister one summer in Nantucket, she went to Cornell and is the GM of the White Elephant. And then I worked for the Mercer in NYC with Andre Balazs, from then on every break went back to NYC to work at Mercer. After graduating, I went to work for the Standard on the Highline for the opening in 2008. Incredible experience, I was the assistant Front Office Manager. Hired the team, wrote all the SOPs, was promoted to do task forces helping to open hotels in Miami and the Hamptons.
Did you love working at the trendiest hotels in New York? How did you sustain that lifestyle?
Yes, but it was a crazy lifestyle, and I wanted to try something else, so I went back to Switzerland to work for the World Economic Forum as team lead for the center of business engagement. Worked on the big event Davos in Switzerland. The job was 9-5 and I was bored out of my mind.
So, you're not cut out for a 9-5 job?
No 9-5 is not for me. I put feelers out there and got a job working back in New York on the launch of the YOTEL, which was an amazing learning experience. But, I realized I preferred the luxury sector and I have a real passion for architecture and design. Through a former colleague, I met the team of the original NOMAD in New York, working with the CEO Andrew Zobler on creating a design-led brand. The General Manager was Meredith Morgan and we hit it off. I joined the pre-opening team in 2011 as Front Office Manager. It was an exciting project with a Michelin-star restaurant with restaurateurs Daniel Humm and Will Guidara. I grew with the company working on the task force to open the 398-room LINE hotel in LA. From there, I did an opening project for the Faena in Miami and went back to help Ian Schrager open the 273-room EDITION Hotel in New York. The Sydell Group, which owns NOMAD, was working on a new project in London, The Ned Hotel along with Soho House. I loved the idea of going back to Europe and working in London, so I jumped at the chance. This was 2016, I was just about to quit my job and go off the company healthcare, but I had noticed a small lump and figured it was nothing but would just get it checked. Turns out it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I was 32.
At just 32 years old and about to move to London for the opening of The Ned and you realize you have cancer?
Yes, but there are really no symptoms, and Hodgkin's lymphoma is the "good" cancer with a high success rate for treatment, which I did at NYU. I had chemotherapy and it worked. Sydell Group was so supportive. I moved to London to be the director of rooms opening a stunning, 300,000 square foot luxury hotel with 272-rooms, nine restaurants, a fitness/wellness center, and private members club in the city of London. It was very exciting!
And your health?
All was good, my cancer was in remission, I was loving life in London at The Ned, and about nine months in, my cancer relapsed. This time I had to have more treatment and have a bone marrow transplant and decided to return to New York for a clinical trial which was not available in the UK at the time. During my transplant, I was in Sloan Kettering for 26 days. Then I had to do follow-up treatments, but my own home was not suitable to live in for the weeks after transplant due to unplanned construction and my weakened immune system. Because of daily appointments, I needed to stay close to my hospital and required a clean and comfortable space to recover in. I was lucky enough to find a contact in the hotel industry that helped me get a hotel room in a great location at a reduced rate.
When you needed to stay close to the hospital you realized the need of other cancer patients as well?
Yes, throughout my cancer journey, I met many patients who traveled from all over the world to visit hospitals and specialists in New York. I began to understand the financial burdens these patients and their caregivers faced just to be able to see these specialists and affordable housing was one of their biggest stressors.
Did you create C Card then?
It was on my mind for sure, but once I'd recovered I went back to work at the NOMAD. This was before COVID and the travel industry was booming. I was promoted to Hotel Manager and then General Manager by 2019. Then COVID hit and in March of 2020, we had to shut the NOMAD and furlough over 400 employees. It was a terrible time, I was working directly with Sydell COO and CEO, heavily involved in all strategic planning to get the properties safely and successfully through the pandemic. Moving from 2020 and into 2021, involved creating new “business models” for the property and pivoting all F&B outdoors, and developing a robust delivery service. Finally, due to a corporate restructuring, the NOMAD New York was closed for good in April of 2021, it was heart-breaking.
Wow, that sounds stressful, did you take time off during the pandemic?
Yes, once they shut the NOMAD New York I decided to take time off and regroup. Being off work, I realized this was my chance to do something about the need I saw within the cancer community. People come from all over the world come for cancer treatment at Sloan Kettering and other area hospitals in New York. I always thought about how hotels can help while I was in recovery. Travel is so important, even just a change of environment is therapeutic and transformative.
There are charities that offer assistance to cancer patients, but it can be a lengthy administrative process with long waiting lists. I wanted a way for cancer patients and their carers to be able to click and book stays at a reduced rate, and I knew hotels if given the flexibility to open and shut the booking channel would want to help. So, that is essentially the concept of the C Card.
When did you launch C Card and how does it work?
Started working on the C Card at the end of 2020, built the website, and was able to get a pro bono lawyer, Goodwin Procter LLP, to help register the C Card as a charity. C Card works by giving qualified patients a unique booking code that they use directly on hotel websites. The C Card booking code basically acts as any other that hotels can open and shut inventory based on availability.
What hotels are involved and how do patients connect?
Through industry contacts, 11 hotel partners have signed up to C Card so far including: AKA Properties, The Beekman, citizenM, Freehand Hotels, The Edition, The Library Hotel, The Made Hotel, Mondrian, Maritime, Pod Hotels, and The Wythe.
We find qualified patients through cancer partners, at the moment working with seven New York City Hospitals: Albert Einstein Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Montefiore, Mount Sinai, New York Presbyterian - Weill Cornell, New York University - Langone and Northwell Health and the American Cancer Society. So far, the partner hotels have helped over 40 patients or their carers.
Michelle, it really speaks volumes about the kind of person you are to not only beat cancer twice but also created the incredible solution that is the C Card.
Thank you, C Card is really a tribute to the many who suffer. I was especially motivated by dear friends and colleagues that also struggled with cancer including Nomad’s original Director of Sales and Marketing, Brian Finkelman, who was a mentor to me at Ian Schrager properties and sadly passed away from cancer in 2018. Such a devastating loss. Brian was instrumental in the development of the C Card and getting the first partner hotels involved.