Stephen Powell is the first of his kind: the inaugural recipient of HSMAI’s new Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Sales, which was presented at the Adrian Awards Dinner Reception and Gala in New York City on Jan. 22. If the award weren’t brand new, you’d wonder what took so long. Now retired, Powell enjoyed a 40-year career in hospitality sales — including stints as vice president of sales and marketing in North America for Sheraton, vice president of sales and marketing for Lodgian Hotels, and senior vice president of worldwidesales for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), from which he retired in 2015.
“I did not belong to HSMAI when I was still in college, but I joined immediately after that,” Powell said in a recent interview. “It’s the association that I’ve been a member of for all of my career, and it’s helped me a great deal in my development. For a lifetime achievement award, and to be the first one — I’m very humbled and moved by it. To have the association come out in my golden years, so to speak, and to have me be recognized at this point — I thought, Well, I had a good career, but it’s done. To have this come out now is very meaningful to me. I think it is a wonderful honor, and it just says to me, ‘Steve, you did some good in that 40 years.’”
Here are five things we learned from our conversation with Steve Powell:
1. He was supposed to be a geologist. “I went to the University of Texas at Austin, and I was majoring in geological sciences. I needed to work while I went to school, and you could get internships in the professions during the summer, but I really needed to figure out how to also work during the school year. And guess what? Hotels became a good place to do that. I started working for a hotel in Austin [Lakeway Inn, today Lakeway Resort and Spa] that had a really great general manager who was a friend of an aunt I had who lived there. His name was Pierre Caselli, and every semester I’d say, ‘Mr. Caselli, my schedule is changing again. Could you help me?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, for this semester, you’ll be an engineer. Then the next semester you’re going to be a banquet waiter.’ And then the next semester I was in the front office. That was for four years — I was working there and going to school.”
2. He got his start delivering brochures. “I went into sales from the front office. The director of sales said, ‘We need somebody to call on travel agents. Do you think you could handle that?’ — so, dropping off brochures, back in those days. So that’s how I started. Then I graduated, and at that particular time geologists were making about as much as school teachers. I wasn’t being offered that much more than what I was making in the hotel business. I just thought, Maybe I’ll stay with the devil I know than with the devil I don’t know.”
3. He’s proud of hotel sales — but a little worried, too. “In the early part of my career, I think sales was a marquee department, if you will — a lot of people depended upon us. We needed to bring the business in and it kept everyone employed during the good times and during the bad times. I’ve been with hotels and I’ve been with corporate when sales was not at the big table, and I’m really proud of the fact that we got to the big table. So I feel really good about that. I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s changed to a certain extent. Distribution is key now. And sales is still there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s sort of taken a second seat, I think. What I was always saying is, let’s be careful about that, because there will be mergers and acquisitions in the distribution. You want to be careful about putting all of your eggs in one basket, because there were a lot of operators that thought, Well, if I just get this right, I don’t have to be as dependent upon sales. I always wanted to say, ‘You know, the distribution part of the business does not have a real loyalty sense to your particular company or your particular property whereas the sales department does.”
4. He’s happy there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. “When you get to the B-to-B customer, that has not changed. The needs of business-to-business customers have changed, the way they do business and the way they do meetings and the way that they purchase their business travel have changed. But it’s still a customer, it’s still a face, it’s still someone who wants another face to talk to with, someone who wants a solution provider. The customer wants someone that has authority and can make decisions and be creative and provide solutions and make the whole relationship happen. And that has not changed. That’s what I caution the people who are inclined toward the distribution model a little bit too much. That may work somewhat on the consumer side, but on the B-to-B side, you still need to be talking to one another and developing those relationships.”
5. He’s most proud of the talent he’s helped develop. “What has been most gratifying, sitting in my retired years now, is the development of people. At IHG, for example, over the last 12 years of my career, I think I developed more vice presidents internally. I didn’t hire vice presidents, I actually helped them develop. I gave them the tools and the support and the coaching and the counseling in order for that to happen. I’m really very proud of that and still have a lot of those relationships. When you look at it, it’s a really small industry. Working for 40 years, and probably 30 of those have been in a leadership role — I’ve had a lot of people that have worked for me, and it’s just very gratifying to see where those people have gone.”