Executive Briefing: Preferred’s Michelle Woodley

Michelle Woodley started out as a “systems girl.” That’s what she calls her first hospitality job 30 years ago, handling what today would be considered IT for Swissotel Chicago. She worked on an IBM System/36, a hulk of a computer that Woodley called “the washing machine.” “It was making sure that all the systems worked, like the restaurant point of sale system integrated into the property management system,” Woodley recently told HSMAI, “and then it was even doing things like making sure everyone’s printer was working.”

Soon the systems girl moved to the front office at Swissotel Chicago, then into global work for the brand, ending up as vice president of distribution management. She moved to Preferred Hotels & Resorts in 2002, where she served as senior vice president of global marketing strategy, SVP of distribution and revenue management, executive vice president, and finally — appointed this past January — president. She’s done just about everything, and as we learned in our interview, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

What skills have you found valuable as you’ve moved through your career in hospitality?

During all of these experiences, moving into operations and then moving into distribution, revenue management, marketing — probably the biggest skill set I developed was this idea of integration among different departments, and seeing how no single department could operate optimally without input and integration with others. Sure, there were different specific skill sets that had to be honed. In revenue management, analysis and objectivity had to come into play with being able to look at things objectively and not emotionally to make good, sound business decisions. Then on the marketing side, the skill set was more about understanding your customer who you were marketing to. But at the end of the day, the biggest skill set I developed was understanding that what’s required to be at optimal performance is people working together, departments working together.

What are your priorities as president of Preferred?

Obviously, they’re aligned with our ownership and our CEO, and that has to do with growing our brand through the addition of new hotels and expanding our consumer reach through a lot of guest-facing programs. Our loyalty program, I Prefer, is a major focus for us. Also, providing new services to our hoteliers, so we represent the independent hotel space— whether it be reservations, technology, sales, or marketing for individual hotels who on their own wouldn’t have the scale to do some of these things on their own.

Are there any innovations that your team has introduced recently that you’re really excited about?

We’re developing something called Preferred Hospitality Solutions, which is helping our hotels get to some broader-based solutions. We’ve been doing consulting services on the revenue-management side beyond what we do as being part of the brand — short-term assignments, doing assessments on revenue-management practices. We’ve also been doing a lot of PR consulting assignments. For hotels that are looking for a broader reach on the PR side but not necessarily looking to have a hefty retainer from an agency in the UK, as an example, we can help them out for a shorter period of time, and we already know them.

Another innovation is Preferred Residences. With that, we’re meeting the evolving needs of the consumer relative to a residential stay. Part of our portfolio is AKA, which are purely residential apartments. And then we have the other extreme — like we have the K Club [resort] in Ireland that has one home, the Stratford House. And then we have mixed use in between. Preferred Residences caters to audiences looking for a residential stay but also looking for the amenities and the safety and the other things that come with a hotel stay.

Last book your read? All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Favorite vacation spot? Glen Lake, Michigan, way up in northern Michigan.

First paying job? Probably washing windows at my dad’s office building.

Bucket-list goal? I actually accomplished one this year, which was going to see the northern lights. I was in Oslo, Norway. But another other one that I haven’t yet is the total opposite end of the world — going to New Zealand.

How important is the convergence of sales, marketing, and revenue optimization to Preferred?

Nobody is successful operating in a silo. It really takes integration among others to be at that optimal performance level. We practice that more and more on the Preferred side of things, but then try to convey that down to the hotels. A good example of that is our collaboration between sales and revenue management for our annual RFP process for corporate accounts. It used to be that it was just a sales function and our sales team would meet with the hotels. What we would see is that there was a major disconnect within the hotels of those who were controlling the channels and sales. And so what we’ve done is, in our annual account review with our hotels, it is not just sales from our side doing it. It’s our sales team and our revenue-management team that are sitting down with their sales team and their revenue-management team to go through accounts and make sure that everyone is aligned.

What are some emerging trends that have caught your eye?

It’s always great to look at some of the cool technology things that are happening, like apps, on-site kiosks, keyless entry, even robots. One of our hotels in Canada — Monville [in Montreal] — has a robot that if you order room service, the robot delivers it. They’re fun concepts that definitely will evolve over time, but are they really revolutionizing hospitality? I’m not so sure. The things that I get excited about are things like Preferred Residences, where it’s really about catering to the needs of the guests on a broader scale and bringing them products that they’re looking for. The technology and all that are big enablers and I’m sure they will continue to play a role. It’s just a matter of what’s really making a differece to the guest experience. 

Are you seeing the talent shortage that everyone seems to be talking about?

Yes, definitely, and I see it especially for independent hoteliers. We just had our hotel advisory board meeting in June and talent was a big topic for us — getting them in the door and getting them to stay. What’s interesting is that once somebody gets in a hotel, if they are a hotel person, they stay. But getting them that exposure is what’s really tough. We do a lot of work with Cornell and École hôtelière in Lausanne [Switzerland] and other hotel schools with helping place students for internships. Really just to encourage those that are in the hospitality universities to stay, because we know a lot of them are leaving and going into other industries.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in hospitality?

People have to remember what does “hospitality” mean by definition, which is to receive and host strangers and guests in an open, friendly, good-will fashion. And so, what I say to people thinking about entering the industry or even going to school is, whether you’re headed down the financial and operations track, the F&B track, the marketing track — don’t forget what hospitality means. If you’re not committed to that, to being the consummate host, then hospitality might not be for you.

Categories: Marketing
Insight Type: Articles