By Christopher Durso, Vice President of Content Development, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)
When Mike Leven was serving as president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, he visited Japan and had dinner with the director of the country’s equivalent of the U.S. Small Business Administration. During their conversation, Leven asked him, “What’s important to you?” The man’s answer: “My wife, my children, my country.”
“I would have given the same answer,” Leven writes in Can’t Do It Yourself: How Commitment to Others Leads to Personal Prosperity, his new memoir recounting his life and long, distinguished career in hospitality. “Regardless of race, age, country of origin, or the other categories by which people define themselves, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t agree with this answer.”
It’s one of many stories that Leven shares in Can’t Do It Yourself, which traces his time growing up in a working-class Jewish family in Boston, through his education at Tufts University (bachelor’s degree in political science) and Boston University (master’s degree in public relations and communications), to his rise through hospitality, beginning with his first job in sales at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and gradually moving into operations. At every step of his career, he said in a recent interview with HSMAI, the idea that people want the same things kept him focused on how to make guests and employees alike happy — including during stints as president of Americana Hotels, Days Inn of America, Holiday Inn Worldwide, and U.S. Franchise Systems, which he founded, to say nothing of his time heading up Las Vegas Sands and Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, where he served in a volunteer capacity as chairman and CEO.
“What’s the difference?” Leven said, reflecting on his dinner with the Japanese executive. “There’s no difference. Maybe he eats sushi and I eat gefilte fish, but other than that…. I always enjoyed that part of the work very much — to meet people from different cultures and different situations. At the end of the day, the human experience is not different; the values are basically the same.”
Now retired, Leven devotes himself to the Michael and Andrea Leven Foundation, which “gives money to a variety of causes that are important to me,” as he describes it in his book, including educational opportunities for underrepresented populations and first-generation college students as well as Jewish causes. He’s also continued his long involvement with HSMAI, for which he served as board chair during the 1970s, including endowing the Mike Leven Chapter Leadership Conference for HSMAI chapter leaders. During our interview, Leven was warm and funny as he discussed his life in hospitality, including how he feels about customers, why his background in theater has been an asset to his work, and what he tells young professionals who are joining the industry in the middle of a pandemic.
Who is your audience for this book?
I started off by writing a book that would be a memoir for my family, and then as the book went on, I felt I had some things to say about how to drive business. I wanted younger people in business to see that you’re going to have ups and downs, you’re going to have advantages and disadvantages. I wanted people to see that your values are built from an early childhood, and that consequently, you can use those values and that moral compass as you go forward. I think there’s some universal messages that go way beyond hospitality — how to get results, how to make change, what influenced me to do that.
Did you learn anything from your first hospitality job — working in sales at the Roosevelt — that really set your career on course?
What I learned is that sales is not just a “hail fellow well met” situation. Sales is a discipline that you have to have in order to be successful, and I used that discipline in teaching salespeople and managing salespeople going forward. And I always liked my customers. My father was a salesman; he didn’t teach me how to sell, but he told me that the customer was king, and he had a great relationship with his customers. The reason I drove myself out of sales and into operations was, I was tired of fighting the operations guys. I really wanted to take care of my customers.
In the book, you write that as a salesman, your father made every relationship person and that’s what you’ve tried to do. Is that harder today with the pace of business and with so much communication happening digitally?
Well, I think today’s environment is a little different, because you’re on Zoom calls, but I can tell you that if this call is successful, for example, you’ll know enough about what I’m talking about because I’m sensitive to what you have to do, not what I have to do. You’ve got a job to do, and if I can make it easier for you to do what you have to do and do it right, that’s great. And I think that’s the attitude you ought to have with everybody.
Throughout your career, you’ve also been involved in the arts — not just as a patron but as a performer, a stage actor. What’s the connection between that and your career in hospitality?
I was very fortunate to get involved in the theater in college and do some theater after college when I was working, and I loved it. In college, I actually took some directing courses and did some directing. And that’s management — managing others and helping them to be successful in the stage performance and everything else. It gives you a lot of confidence with people, it gives you confidence in speaking, and it gives you more sensitivity for people when you have to play other roles, because you have to get inside and know what people are thinking about. That’s great from a sales standpoint. And when you’re performing, you want the audience to be happy. They’re your customers, too, believe it or not. So, I think that was a very un-strategic thing that happened to me. I never thought I would use it, and it was very lucky, really.
As your career got bigger and bigger, how did you hold on to your philosophy of prioritizing personal relationships?
I think it’s the same. Look, I had 50,000 people at Las Vegas Sands, and at U.S. Franchise Systems I had 56 people in a corporate office. But at the end of the day, you only have so many people reporting to you. The way you execute as you go further up is, you make sure that the four or five people that are reporting to you represent the values and the culture that you want to have. And then it goes down the line.
What are your thoughts on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the industry, which seems to be unprecedented?
The industry over the course of my career has often run into unprecedented things, but this may be the worst of anything I’ve seen. And the worst part is, you’re faced as somebody running a business with a lot of human pain that you have to absorb, and you have to be very tight on how you run your business and how you get your break-even points down. You have to know what your cash position is, how you can help people and how you can’t help people. And a lot of these hotels are not going to survive, or it’s going to be years before they come back, particularly with some of the big-box situations with convention business.
The first thing you do, particularly in a large organization, is you say, “Look, I’m not going to take my salary. I can afford not to, I’m not going to take it.” You can’t just sit there and take a multimillion-dollar salary when you’re telling 400 people they’re out of work tomorrow. You have to share the pain in some visible and promotable way. It gives you instantaneous credibility. If you have a relationship with the people that work with you that’s been built up, then they know you’ll share some of the pain and they’ll understand what you do for them, sometimes even if it’s negative.
What do you tell students and younger professionals these days about having a career in hospitality?
Well, I tell them that they’re young and there are jobs that they can still get in the business. There are going to be entry-level jobs available, or there are going to be jobs they’ll get in other businesses. So, take your time and do something where you can make a living for yourself, because the hospitality business is not going away. Over a couple of years, this will return to normal and your education will be fine. But get something where you can get in some level of customer service and do something where you can apply the skills that you’ve learned in hospitality.
Can’t Do It Yourself by Mike Leven is available for pre-publication sale benefiting the HSMAI Foundation. Purchase