Title image for article The moderator
TEXT Stefanie Bisping · PHOTOS Alex Garcia

The moderator

Michelle Woodley is president of the world's biggest independent hotel brand, Preferred Hotels, which includes over 700 hotels and resorts. She barely even notices that the entire management team, right up to the CEO, consists of women. For her, each voice means valuable input on her mission to expand the brand and increase sales.

She blames it on her genes. Four Greek grandparents couldn't fail to leave a mark on the next generation but one. Lavish feasts and a house full of guests were an everyday occurrence for Michelle Woodley from her earliest childhood. "The Mediterranean hospitality is part of my life," she says. "Whenever friends came to visit, my parents would constantly ask if we wanted to eat. My sense of genuine, personal hospitality comes from them."

Even as a teenager, she made practical use of this attitude to life and ran a small catering service, mainly for her family. Whether it was for her mother's bridge club, her brother's school prom or a barbecue in the garden, Michelle provided the buffet. She had no doubts about what she wanted to do later in life: "I saw my calling in the food and beverage industry."

Guests want to feel at home when travelling and to live like locals, and we realise that that's important.

Although Michelle Woodley remained true to her passion for hospitality, things turned out a little differently. The Ueberroth family, which owns the company, restructured the leadership in March and made the 51-year-old president of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts brand with over 700 independent luxury establishments in 85 countries. Since then Woodley has not only been in charge of sales, marketing, IT and sales management for the brand, whose members have to undergo an anonymous quality assessment each year. As president, she also determines the strategic direction for expansion of all areas and represents the company externally.

Her route to the top was straightforward – or almost. Following her vocation, she firstly attended the college of hotel management at the prestigious Cornell University in the US. But the very first seminar proved a sobering experience for the wannabe chef. "I sat there in food chemistry, a highly complicated subject, and thought: I just want to cook!" Woodley remembers. She soon realised she would be better off keeping this particular passion for her free time.

From that point on, she devoted herself to IT for management – and found her first job after graduating at the Swissôtel in her home city of Chicago. "I was responsible for IT there at a time when it was still complicated to operate computer systems," she says with her characteristic modesty. 

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It all started at reception: Michelle Woodley in the partner hotel Sophy Hyde Park, Chicago

From an office screen to the front desk and senior management

The second crucial impetus, after the change in direction in her studies, came from a colleague who was promoted to head porter at the Swissôtel Chicago and suggested that the young woman who looked after the computers should succeed her as front office manager. "She said to me: You can learn to check guests in, but you can't learn a friendly smile like yours."

The GM of the 650-room hotel was not very enthusiastic initially about the idea of giving such an important job to a career starter in her early twenties. "My colleague told him that if it didn't work, she would take full responsibility and we would both go back to our old positions," Woodley grins. The GM agreed to a trial period of thirty days.

The experiment was a success; the front office became Woodley's new home, and from that point on everything fell into place. She enjoyed welcoming guests and managing processes behind the scenes. "Dealing with customers and putting colleagues in the right place and helping them to realise their potential was one hundred per cent my thing," Michelle Woodley says.

But while she might have found her vocation, her ambition was far from exhausted. Through dedication, a keen willingness to learn and the gift for dealing with people that had set her apart right from the beginning, Woodley moved on from the front office to reservations and sales and eventually became head of marketing and overall sales for Swissôtel and Raffles Hotels and Resorts. However, she knew there was more to come. In 2002 she joined Preferred Hotels and Resorts, where she went straight in at the top as Senior Vice President for Marketing and Sales Management.

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An all-female management team

Early this year there was a reshuffle at the top of the company. Lindsey Ueberroth, co-owner and Woodley's predecessor as president, is now CEO and thus the most senior boss at the company, which her parents John and Gail Ueberroth took over in 2004. The latter now act as chairmen. Many of Woodley's most important colleagues are also women, with Kristie Goshow as Chief Marketing Officer, Caroline Michaud as Vice President and Head of Communications and Lindsey Ueberroth as CEO, a fact that Woodley herself only noticed when people kept talking to her about it. "I actually hadn't thought about it at all, because I've never regarded the hotel industry as a man's or a woman's world," the President says.

That has always been the case. "My own mentor was a woman. Later, when I was a corporate manager at Swissôtel, I worked in a predominantly male environment," she remembers. "Perhaps it was because I was young and a bit naive, but I never thought about the fact that I was one of only a very few women there. Maybe that bothered other people, but for me, everyone at the table was quite simply a colleague, and they all brought their own perspectives." Woodley says she has never experienced any gender-specific challenges or problems in her career. "I'm always at a bit of a loss as to how to answer that question," she explains. "I can't actually name any difficulties that affect only women."

It could be because of her way of dealing with others impartially and accepting each person as an individual. "On my travels I've also repeatedly seen how important it is to have respect and understanding for other cultures," Woodley says, adding that it's exactly the same in the conference room: "I approach people there just as openly as in a hotel lobby."

She describes attentive listening and intensive communication as the cornerstones of her work philosophy. "Making guests feel welcome and listening to colleagues and making sure everyone is talking to each other – which is of crucial importance in my current role – for me, those are two sides of the same coin."

A willingness to talk and a talent for communication are her strengths, but they aren't the sole secret to her success. Michelle Woodley was involved in two rebrandings, launched the bonus scheme "I Prefer" in 2008, together with the associated IT, and ensured record bookings for member hotels in 2017 through her strategic alignment of the group. Those kinds of successes can't be achieved through talking alone.

A passion for hospitality

After studying at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca in the US state of New York, Michelle Woodley held various management positions at Swissôtel and Raffles and was deputy head of sales from 1997 to 2002. She then joined Preferred Hotels, where she has been President since the beginning of this year. Her goals in her new position are to further expand the brand and strengthen customer loyalty, for example by expanding the "I Prefer" bonus scheme. She also wants to offer more to hoteliers, with advice on sales management and PR measures. Michelle Woodley lives in Chicago with her husband and two teenage sons who love travelling. 

Communication is everything

Communication and collaboration across hierarchical levels and departmental boundaries are her most important tools, the President emphasises. "Each individual's input is valuable, and each division will only achieve its best results if it doesn't regard itself as a lone warrior. That's why it's so important to bring everyone together into the conversation."

This also explains why she doesn't consider controversial topics such as Airbnb to be problematic. "Guests want to feel at home when travelling and to live like locals, and we realise that that's important," Woodley says. "But we've also noticed that they don't want to forego the security, comfort and personal service offered by very good hotels." In response to this market development, the group is expanding its "residential units with hotel service" segment. Eighty establishments already offer this service under the name "Preferred Apartments".

However, Woodley believes the biggest challenge that hoteliers and hotel owners are facing right now is something completely different. "The most important thing is employees who can make a guest's day. You have to find and retain these people." That also includes university graduates who may not even be looking to work in the hotel industry, she says, as other sectors promise better salaries. The key thing here, she feels, is to start at an early stage, to find talented people through internships and keep them in the long term. "Once you get them on board, they love the work." She personally works with the American HSMAI Foundation, "to support people with a feel for genuine, individual hospitality."

People like Michelle Woodley herself. Her own sense of hospitality is the main thing that drives her to this day – in both her professional and personal life. "There's still nothing that makes me happier than throwing a really good party."