Stepping into your father’s shoes to become the next leader is never easy. Lindsey Ueberroth, CEO of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, talks about the challenges facing a new CEO and how she overcame them.
T+L: Tell us about the vision behind Preferred Hotels & Resorts and how it has evolved to become a present-day giant.
It was 1968. 12 independent hoteliers in North America decided to come together to form a member-owned hotel group. They grew substantially in the late nineties, primarily in the US, and then they decided that they needed to grow internationally. Through a partner, they went out and acquired Summer Hotels and Resorts and Stirling Hotels which were very large groups in Europe and Asia at the time, and that kind of put Preferred’s portfolio on the global map.
My family got involved in 2004. When we bought this company, it had less than 300 hotels and we had eight offices globally. Now, we have 700 hotels and 36 offices.
An interesting fact: When the brand first started, we had Ritz Carlton, because it was the only Ritz Carlton at that point. We had Fairmont too. It’s interesting that a lot of hotels that are now big brands, were initially a part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts portfolio.
T+L: Do you see the initial ambition realised?
We always loved the brand, but we couldn’t have envisioned where we are today, at that point. The ambition was to embrace one-of-a-kind hotels and those were the type of hotels that we personally enjoyed staying in as well. It’s been about innovation and changing the business model. When we took over the company, it was the typical sales and operations model where our professionals would bring hotels on board, but you’d never talk to the hotels again (after the acquisition). We changed that. Now there are regional directors who are responsible for bringing them on and keeping them happy. It was a pretty dramatic shift. On the other hand, it’s still very sales focused. We continue to invest in our sales teams, and that, outside of marketing and strategy, is the biggest driver of revenue. We still believe in old school sales. We still believe in calling on the travel agents, calling on the meeting planners an the corporate traveller, and building the relationship side of business. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
T+L: Tell us about your early days on the job with your father (John Ueberroth). What was the first advice he gave you?
I was with Eccentric Consulting in the beginning, where I was into change management consulting, and I ended up working for my father quite by accident. He was into travel related businesses at the time—primarily incentive travel—and that was kind of my space too (she was 28 when she joined her father).
There are two advices he gave me. “You need to listen more than you speak” and “never be afraid to ask questions” and that goes hand in hand with the listening part. When it comes to business, sometimes, it’s difficult to ask hard questions like “What the hotel is trying to achieve?” and easier to make assumptions and give them what you want. But to ask things like, “Tell me what your priorities are, what your issues are,” or more importantly, when you’re a partner hotel, “tell me where we’re not performing.” You can only be the best you can be when you ask the right questions.
T+L: What were some of your landmarks at Preferred since 2004?
There are three that stand out. One that I was personally very involved with, was the launch of Preferred Boutique. Fast forward, when we decided to retire that brand and do this massive rebranding, it was another landmark moment for me.
The other is the launch of iPrefer, our loyalty programme. By the simple nature of the fact that we have 700 hotels and that you have to convince 700 hotels that this is a good idea and roll that out, is an epic journey. It’s great to see it now performing and how the hotels are embracing it.
Another one, very personal though, is when my father decided to make me the CEO. I can’t even express the emotion that goes into stepping into those shoes.
What were some of the early days as CEO like?
I was very blessed with the fact that my father didn’t go anywhere. He always was and still remains a great mentor. I was very lucky because it doesn’t happen very often in a succession model, especially in family businesses. He told me, “I’m here If you want,” but he was really good at deferring people and saying,“It is her decision now.”
Also, as a new leader, it’s hard not to bite off more than you can chew. I remember that in the beginning, there were a lot of learning curves.
From a personal standpoint, it took me a while. I had to take care of myself personally in this quest to fill the shoes. When you want to live up to the expectation, you can take on terrible habits. And yeah, I did not take care of myself. I remember being sick a lot that first year.
T+L: How have you evolved as CEO?
I have definitely evolved as a leader. Sometimes, when you try so hard to prove yourself, you can do things despite yourself. I did a philanthropic trip to a very remote part of Amazon last summer, where we went into these little villages and had to run some fire hoses from the Amazon up to a point to clean them out. But there would be this mud and marshy stretch in between (that would make it difficult to get there). Two if us decided that the most efficient way was to run up. One friend goes first and she sinks up to her hips, and she’s stuck. I think, “I’m going to run faster, harder to get through this.” I go about five steps and then I sink up to my waist. We laughed about it, but the harder we were struggling, the more quickly we were sinking. I remember that afternoon when I had a sort of epiphany—that sometimes the harder you run, the faster you sink. I told my executive team, “You know, sometimes we are trying to run so fast that we are sinking.” After I was back, I slowed down, focused on three priorities and tried not to veer from those. And it’s OK to go down that path and later realise that it’s a wrong path. But it’s the part about simplifying the process that sticks.
The other thing I used to feel as a leader is that I needed to have all the answers. That, that was my job. Now I realise, that’s actually not my job. My job is to surround myself with people who have the answers. That, for me, has been an amazing shift. Because you realise you are a great leader when you’ve hired great people… when you realise that you can only do so many things well and that there will be blind spots.
T+L: What are your biggest challenges in innovation today?
How fast technology changes and staying ahead of the tech curve. Also, there’s a tendency to follow other hospitality brands leading in innovation, so that’s something we try to stay away from. -As told to Anwesha Sanyal