A literal legend in the industry, Valerie Ferguson has worked for everyone from Hyatt and Ritz Carlton to Loews Hotels and now Disney Parks and Resorts. A former Chair of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), she has led the way not only for women but for all people of color...opening doors and shattering ceilings.
Currently, Val oversees ten Deluxe Resorts for Disney in Orlando. An operations person to her core, she still loves having her office inside a hotel, walking around, talking to team members, and meeting clients; and while she adores the career she has chosen, Val’s journey hasn’t always been a smooth one. Here’s Herstory.
What drew you into hospitality?
My plan was to become a rich and famous lawyer. When I relocated to Atlanta to study law, my mind was blown! Coming from San Francisco, which had a small African American community in the late 1970s, I was suddenly immersed in a city where there were lots of people that looked like me. It was very exciting and I loved every moment. However, I didn’t realize I also was myopic and accustomed to a very diverse environment. I had a hard time with strong southern accents, I missed the beach, the wine country, and the choices of cuisine. I decided that despite the excitement of Atlanta I needed to return to San Francisco, so I took a random job in the interim to make money.
I accepted a job as Night Auditor at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. I LOVED it. At the time, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta was the highlight of the city, the first open atrium hotel in the world. The hotel was incredibly busy and people would visit just to ride the glass elevators. I loved the job, even working the night shift. I fell in love with Atlanta and my new career started. I worked my way up to Front Office Manager. Then I met Ed Rabin, who at the time was the Regional Vice President for the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to be a General Manager.” It was 1980, there were two female GMs in the US and only one black male GM. Nevertheless, he understood, took me under his wing, and mentored me. I am truly blessed to have had great people support me all throughout my career.
By the time I was promoted to GM in 1985, I was the first Black female GM for a major hotel brand in the US. Hyatt had six female GM’s which was more than any other company. Overall, I think in the whole country there were about 30 female GMs. There were only four Black GMs (including me), two were with Marriott and two with Hyatt.
During my 18 years with Hyatt, I ended up managing five different hotels. From there, I went to the Ritz Carlton Atlanta two blocks up the street. I was invited to join Ritz Carlton at an exciting time, the City of Atlanta was hosting the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, and I had the chance to manage one of the most desired hotels and learn the luxury side of the hotel industry. An experience that I will never forget.
With so few Black people, and even fewer Black women in management, how was your experience being both?
At times it was exhausting, but I’ve loved my life in this business. There was added stress and pressure. For example, I was assigned to be the GM of a new hotel. When I arrived, I was met with animosity from the community for no reason other than I was a Black woman running a business. I received a number of racist and anonymous letters. I saved 12 of them as I wanted to share them with my boss. At the end of my financial quarterly review, I showed the letters to my boss. His face went ashen, he apologized profusely and said, “We’ll move you.” I said, “I don't want to leave, I just wanted you to know that I not only deal with the stress and pressures of running this business, but I also deal with the stress of being Black and running this business.” He was a true ally and clearly understood my message and supported my decision. By the way…I ended up enjoying my two-year assignment and have sustained life-long relationships with friends from that community.
Throughout my career, it has been extremely difficult to be the only Black person and the only woman. You have about three seconds to impress and let people know you are just as important as they are.
The times where I experienced being marginalized, I took it as lessons. What I learned is that your point of view matters, your perspective is important and you must learn to SPEAK UP. It took a while for me to build that confidence, to speak in any setting. You have to be sensitive to your audience–prepare in advance and enable your inner power to guide and articulate your message transcending those that may try to minimize your value.
Have these experiences made you more sensitive as a leader?
Yes, I am very aware of personal dynamics, especially in group meetings. You probably notice it also, there are always chairs placed off to the side. Who chooses this location? Whenever I’m hosting a meeting, I make sure the people who migrate to those chairs come and sit by me instead. I make sure everyone has been heard. Interestingly, during the pandemic with Zoom is that everyone is on the screen in the same boxes. It’s a different dynamic.
What are your tips for being heard in meetings?
Remember this: you wouldn’t be in the room if your voice, your knowledge, or your perspective wasn’t needed. You are worthy and you need to make every effort to ensure that your voice is heard. No doubt, it can be daunting and insecurity will certainly take hold. This is a muscle you need to work. Preparation and awareness will fuel your confidence and allow you to exhibit your value.
As women, to qualify for advancement we think we need to check every box seeking perfection in all that we do. Men will say the same things over and over, just to talk! How many times when walking out of a meeting, have I heard a woman say “I was going to say that.” Well, SAY IT, speak from what you know, everyone has an individual thought. It is a muscle you have to train. If you come out of a meeting and hear people saying “ I didn’t agree with that,” yet nobody spoke up, either the environment didn’t allow for collaborative thought or made people feel insecure. That is the time to be daring–speak up and speak out. You never know the power your voice has until you realize its impact.
Do you feel the movement for more diversity is working?
The numbers are still baffling for Black people. Do you know, there are only four Black CEOs in America of Fortune 500 companies? Why isn’t this questioned? There should be significantly more. Building diversity doesn’t mean you are leaving someone behind, building diversity means you are including all qualified people. In hospitality, our businesses require a range of people and talent to create diverse and impactful experiences. We are serving people at their most intimate moments–celebrations, weddings, graduations, vacations–we have to make sure it is relatable to them. Every guest is looking for an experience that makes them feel valued, that they belong, that they are important.
Back to leadership, what do you think makes a great leader?
I’ve been surrounded by all types of leadership styles in my career, you choose who you want to learn from. Leaders that are great listeners, have an eye for details and are compassionate. Being cruel, ignoring people, speaking in an abrasive manner does not make you strong or a good leader. Your words matter and can break people down or inspire and motivate. I have learned from great leaders and from poor leaders why it is important to be kind, respectful, and empathetic.
How do you motivate people?
When I interact with people–at any level–I like to find out about their truth, what matters to them, and how their personal life and work life combine. When I am walking through the hotel I want the team to know their contributions are valuable. I enjoy having in-depth conversations with everyone and finding out where they want to go and what they want to achieve in life. In childhood, nobody dreams of being a housekeeper when they grow up, but life happens and you have responsibilities. I want each and every cast member to know that they have the opportunity to grow. We are in the business of selling clean rooms, so to me, there is no job more valuable than a steward or a housekeeper. I am proud of our cast members that do this work every day. Whatever you want to do with your life, we are going to make sure we help you get there. We have so many educational programs at Disney. We do everything we can to make sure our cast members know they are valued what resources are available to facilitate their growth.
The industry is facing a labor shortage for front-line workers, why do you think that is?
Some companies have failed to realize the importance of childcare, we need more programs to support home care for employees. When people have to make decisions between working and taking care of their family, the family will always and should always be first. As an industry, we also need to support a living wage.
What are your views on failure? How do you cope?
We all experience failure and embarrassing moments. Early in my career, I made a big mistake and I was so upset that I walked into my boss’s office ready to resign my position. He said, “Why? This is typical and you will continue to learn.” We want perfection every day, but it doesn’t work like that. We are hard on ourselves when failure occurs and have a tendency to overreact instead of saying, “OK what did I learn – what’s next? What do I need to do to recover?” Look at it from the rearview mirror and see what lessons you can do differently. You can’t be successful if you haven’t failed. Remain focused, keep at it until you become a passionate subject matter expert.
What have been your career highs?
Being Chair of AHLA, traveling throughout the US, and speaking on behalf of the industry, was a great experience. Coming to Disney and becoming a part of an iconic international company. When I had the opportunity to work in Hong Kong supporting the opening of the Hong Kong Disneyland Explorer’s Lodge Hotel and returning on special assignment in 2019. In 1993, I exchanged hotels with the GM of The Athenaeum in London, Sally Bullock. We both had a blast! Sally in Atlanta at the Ritz Carlton and while I was in London. There’s not a day of my career that I would change, some have been hard, but all have contributed to where I am today and who I am.
How did you get so involved in AHLA?
One thing I realized early on as a GM, you need to be involved in the community to build the business. I started locally with different associations: MPI, ASAE, and AHLA. By the time I was back in Atlanta, Dave Kenney, also from Atlanta, was the AHLA Chairman, and he suggested I run for national office which is the stepping stone to being Chair. When I went to present myself for a national position Jon Tisch, Chairman of Loews Hotels was there, and he was running also! I thought I was running uncontested! Turned out Jon was running to be Treasurer and I was a year behind him in the process. Dave Kenney and Elaine Etes, who was the first female Chair of AHLA, helped and guided me through the five-year transition. Elaine was an inspiration to me and mentored me all along. AHLA is where I got to know Jon Tisch, and that is how I ended up working for Loews Hotels for 17 years. Opening the Loews Philadelphia, as the Regional VP of Operations, followed by the opening of Loews Atlanta.
Weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you while working in a hotel?
When I worked in Atlanta, a major celebrity used to walk around the hotel with a cockatoo on her shoulder. One day she went through the revolving door and the bird went crazy. We managed to get her out and the bird finally calmed down. Top tip: don’t use a revolving door with a cockatoo!
What would you like to see change about the industry for women?
Women are succeeding. I’d like to see more men and women of color find themselves in top c-suite positions. We are losing people of color to entrepreneurial jobs because of the lack of visible role models and growth opportunities.
What’s next for you?
I still have ambition. We’ll see. I am at a great place in my career and I work for a wonderful company where 45 percent of senior leadership is women. All the theme parks at Walt Disney World are led by women except one. I look forward to my continued growth with Disney.