Saying yes to opportunities that "nobody else wants" has led Australian Marlene Poynder to a place everyone wants to be, leading a bastion of New York City's style and glamour, The Carlyle Hotel, a Rosewood Hotel. An Upper East Side institution since it opened in 1930, The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel has become synonymous with luxury, status, and sophistication.
Considered the "other White House" during the Kennedy administration, more recently The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel was home base for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their visit to New York, where a video of them at the famed Bemelmans bar surfaced on the 'net, and a favorite of countless Hollywood stars who according to Vogue love the hotel for its "distinguished discretion, intimate accommodations, and a lively atmosphere." So storied, the hotel has been the subject of a fashion collection, an Assouline coffee table book, and even a star-studded documentary (with George Clooney and Lenny Kravitz––highly recommend!)
And now the iconic property is making history once again by choosing a woman to continue to uphold its impressive legacy. Heavy lies the crown. We chat with Marlene to learn more about her career journey from "Down Under" to the Upper East Side.
You have had an incredible career spanning several continents and markets in Australia, Asia, and the US, what trait or skill have you learned along the way that has been most effective for getting promoted? Say yes to the roles no one else wants to take on (if it means you are learning a new skill to benefit your career). Saying yes to sideways moves can also be helpful.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert and do you think you need to be an extrovert to succeed in the hotel biz? I do not consider myself to be either now. Certainly, when I was younger, I could have been considered shy until I felt comfortable in someone’s company. Over the years I have learned to speak up. Yes, I can be the life of the party. Extrovert, not quite. I do not believe you need to be an extrovert; however, you do need to be able to think with an attitude to serve people.
Looking at your Linkedin, it seems like you’ve jumped from success to success. Have you ever faced failure? What did you learn and how do you move on? I have faced failure three times in my career. Once very early in my career, I moved to a role within my company that did not fit my skill set or personality. I was doing the role but did not feel I was excelling. I was at a leadership training course and the external coach running the course came to me privately and said I think you need to re-think this role and do something else. I did just that, within the same company and never looked back.
On the two other occasions, I was not getting through to the people that hired me. Although I was in very senior roles, I could not gel or feel confident in my decision-making with either man. In the end, I left both roles and felt I had failed. It was not until I looked within, with help from a "Women in a Leadership" course I attended that I discovered it was a common feeling among many senior women. I learned not to take things personally and to take myself out of the equation when dealing with this Alpha-type male.
Have you ever had to work through a professional plateau? Yes, I have on two occasions. Once I decided to make the move and leave my Australian hometown to transfer internally within the company to stretch myself and get out of my comfort zone. On the second occasion, I was a Director of Sales and Marketing at the property level and was being overlooked for regional positions. I decided to leave the company and country and go back to the travel industry in a senior role in the US. I was then approached by my previous company a year later to take on a role that was two levels above what I had been applying for unsuccessfully, previously.
You also have a track record for building strong teams quickly, what are your hacks for creating unity among your staff? Be honest and talk straight. Give people a sense of purpose. I generally will lay out my vision and work with my leadership team on the strategy, so everyone has bought in. Give as much insight as I can to all levels of the organization so that they feel vested.
What qualities make for an effective leader? Stamina, Empathy, and Emotional Intelligence. A willingness to admit when you are wrong.
You’re the first woman to lead The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel in the 90+ year history of the property. Congrats! Do you think there was a barrier for women to lead iconic hotels that has been broken now? If so, why? You know I have been hoping for the past 30 years that the barrier would break. I do truly believe we are at a turning point now for women in hospitality. There are enough women leaders in place and men in power now that see the value a woman can bring to the leadership roles in hospitality. Caring and nurturing are within our DNA. Both skills are required in our industry.
Do you think having a woman leading will change the guest experience? That depends on her influence on the culture of her team and her style. I would not like to generalize as it can change with different styles of male leadership as well.
What would you like to see change for women in our industry? More flexibility within hotels and corporate roles for women raising families. Consider more part-time and job-sharing roles so that women can stay in the industry through the early years of their family commitments and can then be ready for bigger roles when they can return to full-time work.
What are your biggest challenges in taking over this beloved NYC institution? An almost one-hundred-year-old building. Being the steward to manage the legacy of The Carlyle whilst introducing the iconic lady to a new generation.
You have years of experience in hotel openings, the Carlyle was redone and debuted a new look last year. Will you be doing anything further? We do have a few areas of the hotel to continue the refresh – details to follow!
You’ve been working with union hotels for several years and in a few markets, what’s different now post-pandemic? It is hard to find union staff now which has never been the case in New York.
You’ve been super involved in NYC&Co, with hybrid working, and corporate travel still not fully back, where do you see opportunities for the city to market itself and get its mojo back? I believe NYC&Co has done a great job marketing the city during the worst of the pandemic and now as we emerge. The campaigns, in the beginning, called on residents of our five boroughs to support our tourism and hospitality businesses. Many local New Yorkers answered the calling. Then the regional drive market was targeted and when air travel was coming back domestically the campaign addressed this audience. All the while advertising in our key international markets saying that New York was still there, and we looked forward to welcoming them back soon. We are now at the stage to really ignite our international markets. The statistics look very strong for this year and we know if there are no setbacks with COVID, New York will be back to 2019 levels sooner than we had hoped.
Are you facing labor and staff shortages? Or is that not an issue at The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel? If so, have you utilized any innovative solutions either with technology, scheduling, or flexi-time that are helping? We face the same challenges as other hotels and markets. There are other markets around the world suffering more than New York, so as an industry we need to be more creative. Flexi-time and job sharing is becoming more of an option in our industry as it has already become in other industries. Technology is also top of mind to ensure communication between our staff and guests is seamless.
Dealing with ultra-luxury guests presents its own set of unique challenges, how do you handle unhappy high-end guests? I believe handling any complaint be it high-end or not, should be the same. We genuinely care about the issues, listen intently, and be sure to resolve any issues if possible before the guest leaves the hotel. This means all of us listening and observing intently to pick up on any signals the guest may be sending.
The luxury travel market is on fire post-pandemic, what are the top things your guests are looking for? An experience that provides a sense of place and represents good value (not necessarily cheap). Guests are willing to spend their money if it feels authentic and priced correctly. This is no time for price gauging; however, we have had many years of rates in NYC not rebounding as quickly as the occupancy. This has provided a correction in the ADR.
What do you think will be the next trends in luxury travel? Sustainability initiatives and experience-driven functionality. Be that in F&B operations which are back as a key driver in a hotel stay decision making, to experiences they cannot buy elsewhere.
Who inspires you right now? All the factories and businesses now in Ukraine working out of basements in wartime still trying to deliver goods around the world to assist their economy.
What advice would you give to women starting out in hotel operations that aspire to be GM? Do not try to change who you are to fit into a mold you believe companies are looking for. We are women and have emotional intelligence skills that are our strengths, not something to be kept in check and not spoken of. We need to sell ourselves more for the next role. Men are incredibly good at selling themselves to each other. We must become better at that.
The hospitality business is known for long hours, and the need to work holidays and weekends. How have you managed to balance a personal life with work? I have managed some balance for the most part. There have been times in my career when the long hours are required but there are also times when you are able to manage this. For example, when opening hotels or moving to a new role, the hours are longer. Weekend work is a part of our industry so ensuring you take time off to rejuvenate during the week is important. I have found in my early years I drove myself very hard and did not think about the consequences on my well-being. Now I know I function at a much more effective level when my mind and body are fresh. I also have a husband who alerts me when he sees I need to check myself.
Priorities have shifted for younger generations to more of a work-life balance, research shows younger people also have to believe in the mission and values of the company they work for, have you changed anything to accommodate for that to attract younger workers? I have always been vision and mission-driven myself. You can ask any of my teams. How can we expect people to be engaged and have a sense of purpose if we do not share, where we are going? This is what has always been important to me so maybe as a baby boomer that is why I feel very comfortable with the current young generation. Good on them for knowing working 80-hour weeks is not good for you year in, year out!
How can we expect people to be engaged and have a sense of purpose if we do not share, where we are going? This is what has always been important to me so maybe as a baby boomer that is why I feel very comfortable with the current young generation. Good on them for knowing working 80-hour weeks is not good for you year in, year out!
If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why?
I believe in the big dream! I truly believe I am where I am because I have always dreamed BIG. Some people call me a dreamer and not realistic, but I have never listened. If I had listened to this rhetoric, I would never have achieved what I set out to do. Grit, determination, a positive demeanor, and self-belief are required to keep the voices in your head and those of others at bay, whilst you pursue your dream.