Sabrina Dey started college as an English major who thought she might like to go into banking. On the suggestion of a counselor, Sabrina applied to hotel companies to practice for her banking interviews––fell in love with hospitality and the rest is herstory! She spent her early career with the luxury Oberoi brand, choosing to focus on F&B, despite colleagues telling her "it wasn't for women," then worked her way up in hotel restaurants, increasing her skills and abilities. She was sadly on the job for the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 and shares her learnings from that tragic event. Today, Sabrina is Hotel Manager at the new five-star 301-room JW Marriott Bengaluru Prestige Golfshire Resort and Spa.
How did you get into hospitality?
I often refer to myself as an ‘accidental hotelier’, since hospitality was not my chosen field of study at university. In fact, as an English Literature major, my awareness of the industry as a whole was extremely vague. However, the year I graduated from my degree course, I realized that I was looking for something more than just a 9-5 job. I decided to take the entrance exams for management school and started working in banking to gain some experience. I think the universe hears us and provides opportunities for things we never even knew we wished for. That is what happened when my college placement counselor advised me to appear for an interview for a prestigious hotel management trainee program, stating that it would be great practice for interviews for the B-schools in the future. One thing led to another, with every hotel I visited for successive rounds of the interview process, I was drawn to this world of impeccably turned-out gracious people, who seemed to instantly set a nervous 21-year-old, at ease. I decided that this was how I wished to be perceived and so started a love story that has lasted a decade and a half, spanning two companies (Oberoi and Marriott) and eight cities to date. Hopefully, the best is yet to come!
Do you think hospitality is a “gene” or it can be learned?
I feel that there has to be an element of empathy and the desire to make people happy embedded in your personality for one to succeed in the field of hospitality. Whether one works in the front areas like the lobby, restaurants or in sales, or at the heart of the house supporting the operations, the sheer nature of the job entails that one puts themselves in another’s shoes. Being extroverted and enjoying thinking on your feet to find solutions to all kinds of problems are other things that help if you are a hotelier. However, the latter can be developed through training, experience, and will. The attitude and empathy have to be there though. That’s why in this industry, especially in the current scenario of manpower being the hot topic on everyone’s list, we believe in ‘hiring for attitude and training for skill’.
In the current scenario of manpower being the hot topic on everyone’s list, we believe in ‘hiring for attitude and training for skill’
You worked your way up in F&B with Oberoi, what skills kept you moving up the ladder?
I think more than anything it was the desire to keep learning and taking up new challenges, coupled with a stubborn streak to prove to myself. It was a time of great learning for me, especially since I was recruited to join one of the premier management courses for hospitality professionals in South Asia. I was in a dual specialization program, learning to manage both Front Office and Food and Beverage operations. While I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning the technical parts of the business, especially in food and beverage, I was cautioned by a few colleagues that the technical aspects of food and wine, and service may be too much to catch up on and that the hours in restaurants and bars were not something a lady may necessarily want to take up. That of course drove me to choose Food and Beverage as my area of interest and that is how I found myself managing first restaurants and bars, followed by banqueting and eventually the department. The fact that I love food, culture, and travel was the bonus that made this journey all the more rewarding.
I was cautioned by a few colleagues that the technical aspects of food and wine, and service may be too much to catch up on and that the hours in restaurants and bars were not something a lady may necessarily want to take up. That of course drove me to choose Food and Beverage as my area of interest
Did you have mentors or sponsors to help you, if so who and how did they guide you?
I have been very fortunate to have bosses and colleagues who have inspired me, invested in me, and made me believe that I was capable of doing more than I was at every step. As a lady in a field that was for many years considered a male domain, these influences have always helped me believe that the sky is the limit when it comes to how far one can go, irrespective of gender or background.
Tragically, you worked at the Oberoi Mumbai during the 2008 terrorist attacks. That must have been terrifying. (Briefly) What was it like and what did you learn from the experience?
Yes, I was at one of the hotels where the November 2008 attacks happened in Mumbai and was on the restaurant floor when the whole world as we knew it changed. While the hotel team worked hard to evacuate and keep safe guests and colleagues, it was a heartbreaking time, especially because it was difficult to believe that something like this can actually happen to you. I was able to make it to safety the morning after the attacks and what kept me going that day, and during the many days and weeks that followed, was the sight of so many of my colleagues putting other people’s lives and safety before their own.
What kept me going that day, and during the many days and weeks that followed, was the sight of so many of my colleagues putting other people’s lives and safety before their own.
The inherent sense that our guests were dependent on us as we knew the building and the exits and passages so much better than them, made the team naturally try and help as many as they could; comforting, guiding, and sometimes physically carrying people out of the building. The essence of hospitality, which is empathy and service, really came to the forefront that day and led me to realize that we must really prioritize what matters. Today, while managing hotel operations, I often think back to that time and recognize that the safety and security of our guests and associates and what is most important and must always be prioritized above all else.
Thanks for sharing those lessons for coping during a crisis. Now you are leading the new 301-room JW Marriott Prestige Golfshire Resort and Spa, which looks stunning. The hotel has been open for six months, how is it going?
It’s been fantastic! A very unique product, Marriott South Asia’s first integrated luxury golf resort, the hotel provides a mindful escape for individuals and groups alike. Spread across 24 acres, the property offers enough and more space to connect with the things that matter the most to our guests––whether it is golf, wellness, or just some quality family time. Designed with multigenerational travel in mind, the hotel offers something for all age groups. We have been blessed to be very well received by the leisure and business clientele, and as travel becomes easier, we hope to attract more inbound international leisure business as well.
For those that haven’t been to India, where is it in the country, and who is your primary market?
India is located in South Asia and is one of the most diverse nations in the world, where the culture, language, and cuisine change every few kilometers. As expected, therefore, the market is also very diverse, catering to individual and group leisure travel, high-end business conferences, and large events. With a population of over a billion people, we also have one of the most lucrative consumer markets in the world, with top international brands trying to get a share of the pie. This helps the market for hotels and we are hopeful that the upswing we have seen in recent months continues.
What has been most exciting about opening this resort in India?
The journey from the pre-opening phase of this hotel starting last October has been a truly rewarding one for me. The feeling of seeing a dream hotel come to life with the addition of every tile, every carpet, and every crystal chandelier has been surreal and I have been privileged to share this with the best team one could hope for. With 301 keys, world-class wellness, convention facilities, and everyday initiatives to support ‘good travel’, which is good for self, the environment, and the community, this is an opening I feel privileged to have been a part of. Every step of the process has been a labor of love and we feel blessed for the warm reception this unique product has received from guests and the hospitality fraternity.
Opening post-pandemic must feel like a really fresh start, what trends are you seeing in the luxury customer right now?
While there are several perceived changes in customer wants and behavior, one of the biggest I feel is in the emphasis on wellness and the whole self. Therefore, at the hotel, every effort is taken to ensure the guests’ physical safety and well beings, we believe that emotional well-being is equally important. The property provides various wellness programs like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness activities.
The team endeavors to create experiences that surprise and delight our guests, with serene spaces for activities like canvas painting and kite flying. As a luxury resort, while every digital convenience is available to our guests, we are conscious that our guests also seek their experiences to be guided and enriched through meaningful interactions with our team, trying to make up for the lack of human interactions in person over the past couple of years.
What are you doing to drive demand?
The hotel is a relatively new product and the desire is to build awareness about what we offer. Thus, marketing and innovative offers designed to attract various segments are always ongoing. More than anything, however, we believe that every guest who has a great stay with meaningful moments will be our best ambassador to the world outside.
What are your biggest challenges right now?
As a new hotel, finding, engaging, and retaining the right talent is the biggest challenge that faces our team. Considering the fact that all industries are again hiring for roles that did not exist during the pandemic, it is an uphill task but one that our motivated team keeps as a top priority every day. The only way seems to be to keep investing in people, an investment that of course pays itself back manyfold.
You are leading a large staff, what do you think makes a good leader?
We have a team of over 350 associates at the hotel. The understanding that the decisions we make and the conduct we display influences many young minds and how they perceive the hotel and the industry is critical to being a good leader. I believe in paying forward the support and guidance which I received through the early years of my career is a great way to start. I also feel that as leaders we must embrace and live the organizational values, especially when they are as strong as Marriott’s.
I believe in paying forward the support and guidance which I received through the early years of my career is a great way to start. I also feel that as leaders we must embrace and live the organizational values, especially when they are as strong as Marriott’s.
What do you do to inspire your team?
I try and live the values that I hope my team should embrace. I also love to share and encourage others to share personal experiences along with learnings. This makes us all relate to each other beyond our present function. It is amazing how much one can learn from the experiences and viewpoints of many of the very young professionals I work with.
As women like you move up the ranks in India, are you seeing more young women becoming interested in careers in hospitality?
I believe that women are truly each other’s greatest inspirations and support. Seeing women excel in previously testosterone-charged environments is so rewarding and is making more and more women invest in careers like hospitality. Women are naturally empathetic problem solvers, as our upbringings teach us to be, and what better place to use that than in the hospitality industry.
What changes would you like to see to help more women rise to leadership positions in India?
I believe family support and better childcare options would help more women stay in the industry and rise to higher positions. The time when most women drop out of the workforce is when they have young children and are unable to balance the needs of their work environment with the caregiver function, which unfortunately is still mostly considered to be a female prerogative. More flexibility for women at this time, organizational support, and great childcare at work would help even out the playing field in this regard.