The primary goal for Kimpton Hotels is to preserve their core value of quality customer service— while always keeping the brand fresh. General manager Mark Hayes, of the Nashville-based Kimpton-Aertson location, understands how vulnerable an experience traveling can be. It is why the hospitality wizard will do just about anything to wow his guests. He recognizes that connection and communication are critical to comfort.

While Hayes may not have a hospitality degree (he began his career in forestry—a far cry from his current position) he learned to lead by patiently climbing the ladder. Eleven years ago, he was hired on by the boutique hotel brand, which has been noted as one of Fortune’s Best 100 Companies to work for. As Hayes explains below, each hotel adapts their international model to the spirit of a specific city. The Kimpton brand proves its loyalty to local artists, chefs, and cultural trademarks by intentionally incorporating them into its vision. While the hotel was still under construction, we chatted (in hard hats!!) about his transition from donning Orange Smocks at Home Depot to spiffy suits. Hayes still pinches himself daily that he ended up where he did.

Can you tell me a bit about your background pre-hotel industry?

Mark Hayes: I was born in Chicago, raised in Atlanta, and then moved to Maine where I studied forestry of all things. Totally different lifestyle than where I ended up. (Laughs) Eventually, my wife and I moved to Chicago where the only job that I could get with my degree was in Home Depot’s garden department. A friend’s girlfriend was a supervisor at the downtown Kimpton hotel and told me to apply one afternoon for a front desk job. Eleven years ago, I was hired on and immediately, the pace of the job really appealed to me. I love having my attention pulled in many directions and thriving off of that energy you experience while in the weeds.

Why did the company hire someone with zero hospitality experience?

MH: More important than a resume, is for Kimpton staff to be themselves, pay attention to details, and engage with the guests. The hallmark of our brand is to be empathetic and normalize the guest’s experience as much as possible. We want our employees to lend substance—rather than follow a script.

Do you think face-to-face connection is more critical than ever today?

MH: Yes! I find it bizarre that people will accept the advice of a stranger on Trip Advisor, yet if someone walked up to them at the grocery store and delivered the same feedback they would be weirded out. We want our customers to be transparent when it comes to feedback. It’s tough to fix a problem if you see it, after the fact, by means of an anonymous Yelp review. It’s also why we empower our staff to surprise and delight— without having to check in with a manager first.

Tell me how you climbed your way up the ladder.

MH: After working at the front desk for six months I moved into housekeeping as a supervisor where I stayed for five years. Housekeeping is a marathon versus a sprint. You develop close relationships with your staff and manage a variety of personalities. During that time, I learned Spanish and picked up some Bosnian and French. Next, I transitioned into an AGM position at our Boston Property and then moved to Philadelphia where I was quickly promoted to General Manager.

What did moving up the ladder in the traditional fashion teach you?

 MH: That you have to put in your hours and be patient. I oftentimes worked 60 to 80 hours a week just to get the job done. I am someone who gets bored easily yet there are always new things that you can learn from each role. Constantly, I asked myself if there was something within the hotel that fell short of our standards. Then I would create a project to fix the problem.

What is something that would surprise people about your industry?

 MH: How many people it takes to make a project happen. This property alone has a 150-person staff from the engineers to the accountants and marketing department. Every single person is a part of this perfect storm.

How do you instill the importance of commodore amongst your team?

MH: Informal team meetings are key to people letting their guards down. I try to keep it light and mix in personal conversations with professional ones. Instilling confidence in my staff is huge, which is why I try to ask for their opinion as often as possible. I want my team to have stake in the hotel, by running with their own ideas, rather than feel like they’re just checking tasks off a list.

Why would a new employee want to work at a Kimpton hotel?

MH: Just like we try to surprise and delight our guests, we also do the same with our staff. That comes from top-down support, having an open-door policy, and showing a great appreciation for what they do.

What have you learned from hospitality that you apply to real life?

MH: This industry has taught me patience, perspective, and empathy. If someone is rude at check-in, it might just be the last straw in a really stressful day. You never know what someone has gone through in the last 24-hours.

What advice do you have for other leaders?

MH: Delegating is huge when it comes to personal sanity as well as the development of the brand. If I can’t get to something on my to-do list, I have to feel comfortable passing it off to someone who can. I try to expose my staff to as many different situations as possible to help them tackle the unknown more easily. No one can do everything on their own.

How much has word of mouth impacted the Kimpton brand?

 MH: We don’t do any traditional advertising and instead focus heavily on top-notch service. After all, our strongest advocates are the ones who’ve experienced it. We want to treat our guests like friends by showing them all sides of Nashville—from Tootsie’s to the trendy Midtown neighborhood that we’re housed in.

What’s your favorite thing about what you do?

 MH: I am eternally grateful to have the opportunity to work for this company. A hotel can either be a bed in-between walls or a full-blown experience. We want it to be the latter. I love producing the best possible stay for our guests.

Learn more about the Kimpton Aertson Hotel here, which opens on June 14

Portrait by Ron Manville

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Lily C Hansen

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