Tourism is big business in South Florida, generating nearly $15 billion in combined economic impact in Broward and Palm Beach counties in 2012, and employing more than 180,000 locals.
Many of the nearly 18 million tourists that visited the two-county region last year stayed in one of its hundreds of hotels, resorts and inns.
Hotels are often where lasting impressions of the destination are formed, so ensuring that guests' expectations are met and exceeded is a top priority for lodging managers. Take for example, Kimberly Wilson. She conducts weekly room inspections helping housekeepers create the "perfect room." Marylouise Fitzgibbon, a mother of two sets of twins, has successfully opened a hotel; Cathy Balestriere has nurtured a once nearly vacant small hotel in Delray Beach into a popular destination and Cheri Rutledge nearly 35 years in hospitality began when she was 16.
On this Labor Day, here's a look at four South Florida female general managers as they offer insights into their professional journeys.
Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, Fort Lauderdale
650 rooms; 700 employees
Wilson, 50, is nearing two years as general manager of Marriott Harbor Beach and before coming to Fort Lauderdale spent a decade running several Marriott properties in Miami including the Miami Airport Marriott, a three-property, 828-room campus with $31 million in sales. Some of her proudest accomplishments as general manager include exceeding operational goals at every property she's managed, Wilson said. For the Hollywood resident, a typical work day runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and starts off with a property walk that includes greeting employees and getting "them charged up to take care of the guests." Wilson rewards housekeepers with a $100 bonus if they present her with the perfect room.
Q: What are some key skills or traits required of a hotel general manager?
Integrity and leading by example. Having an open-door policy and knowing how to strike balance. The way to maintain balance is to build a strong team around you and let them do their job. Be able to develop and mentor employees. Participate and be visible in your community.
Q: Is it challenging to find the right people to work in customer service?
Yes at times. We take care of people all day everyday and so you need to love doing that and some of them don't quite understand that. In interviews I ask: Do you want a career in taking care of people, because that's what hospitality is? Customer expectations are high today, and it's a competitive industry so you have to take care of all your customers, especially loyalty members. At the hotel we spend a lot of time talking about providing value because no matter what guests are paying, they want to feel that they're getting their money's worth.
Q: What legacy would you want to leave behind?
That I provided opportunities to people, that in some cases they might not have had.
Q: Any advice for women in the business aspiring to be general managers?
Work hard and achieve the results and be knowledgeable in at least two industry disciplines (sales, operations for example)
W Fort Lauderdale
517 rooms, 300 plus employees
At 32, she had the distinction of being the youngest general manager for a W hotel at the time, and in 2008 Fitzgibbon spearheaded the successful opening of W Atlanta – Buckhead, from concept to completion. The Florida native has 21 years of experience with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. Fitzgibbon's first hotel job was as a front desk agent as a teenager. In college she pursued a hospitality management degree and then later earned an MBA. For the mom of 8-year-old twin boys and 2-year-old boy/girl twins, striking a balance between work and home is important. "I'm also very organized," Fitzgibbon said. "When you have four kids and you're running a hotel, nothing can be left to chance. For example every lunch is done the night before and every outfit is laid out. I get up really early between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to get the kids ready for school and try to get to work by 7:30 a.m."