Lessons on Leadership, Building Relationships: An Interview with HSMAI Americas Chair John Washko

By Frances Moffett, HSMAI Editorial Content Director

When John Washko started his career, he didn’t think he’d land in hospitality. Though he grew up in the industry — his father had a 25-year career with Marriott — he hadn’t intended on heading in that same direction.

“Honestly, I never thought I was going to be in the hotel business. I kind of fell into it,” he explains. “My degree was in marketing, and hospitality wasn’t on my career path. My father had been in operations, and back then, he worked six days a week. That busy lifestyle was a bit daunting. That’s why I initially went into hotel sales instead of the operations track. Sure, at times, there were long hours, some nights and weekends, but I found I really enjoyed the client interaction.”

It’s been more than 25 years since Washko made that decision, and he hasn’t looked back since. Throughout his career in the independent resort sector, he has held executive-level roles with Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas, and The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. He was named one of HSMAI’s Top 25 Extraordinary Minds in Sales & Marketing in 2015, as well as Resort Marketer of the Year in 2010. Now, as vice president of sales and marketing at Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun and the new chair of HSMAI Americas, he is dedicated to furthering his impact on the industry and bringing others along for the ride.

“I have always been a believer that, to be successful in life, you have to figure out ways to be a resource and to help other people — and that doesn’t always mean it’s self-serving to you in the short term,” Washko says. “What I have always tried to do in my career, and what I encourage my teams to do, is look at their expertise, their experience, and their knowledge and see how we can use that to help others in this industry with whatever challenges they’re facing.”

Over the past two years, there has been no shortage of challenges. The pandemic has changed many things, including how hotels operate; how sales, marketing, and revenue optimization professionals work; and how business leaders lead.

“[The pandemic showed us] you have to really embrace empathy,” Washko says. “Everybody’s situation was different — your customer’s situation was different, your employees’ situation was different, and your situation was different. And if you weren’t being an empathetic leader during that time, you missed a real opportunity you’ll never get back.”

Part of that empathetic leadership, for Washko, was being a resource to the industry, as he and his team at Mohegan Sun produced and widely shared information and tips on COVID-19 safety guidelines and protocols for convention meeting spaces. During a time when planners had no roadmap on where to go or what to do, Washko aimed to help where he could.

John Washko (center) with industry association leaders (left to right) Paul Van Deventer, President & CEO, MPI; Bob Gilbert, President & CEO, HSMAI; Don Welsh, President & CEO, DMAI; Sherrif Karamat, President & CEO, PCMA

“If you have a one-and-done mentality, that you’re just going to focus on closing a piece of business and that’s it, you may make your quarter, but you’re not going to make your career,” he says. “We should constantly be focusing on being a resource within our organizations but also within the ecosystem of the hospitality industry. What you put out into the universe is what you get back. People don’t forget when you help them. If I could position myself and Mohegan Sun as a resource, that will come back to us.”

In this industry, relationship building is key to success, and that’s what it all boils down to for Washko. While the increased use of videoconferencing, virtual meetings, and remote workplaces have changed the way people communicate and how they collaborate with each other, at the end of the day, hospitality is a business of people, and building genuine rapport and connections matter. “We use the term ‘relationships’ a lot in this industry,” Washko says, “and I think it’s easy to focus on that when everything’s going well. The real strength of an organization’s commitment to relationships is really emphasized when things get tough.”

To illustrate this, Washko explains how Mohegan Sun was able to safely hold events earlier than some organizations because of the withstanding trust with three main clients they created “bubbles” for: NCAA Basketball, Showtime Boxing, and Bellator MMA. “We converted our arena into an international broadcast center in a bubble. And the reason we could move forward with those three types of events was because of the relationships we had established with them over the years.”

A strong network of peers is just as crucial as a strong network of established customers. Expanding his network of like-minded professionals was the reason Washko joined HSMAI more than 15 years ago, after being introduced to the association by his mentor Mike Dimond during his tenure at The Broadmoor in the early 2000s.

“I have been so blessed by people in the industry that I’ve been able to call and share successes with or to ask questions. Having that relationship and the confidence that people within your network will try to guide you as best they can — because they know you’ve got their back and they’ve got yours — is so important,” he says. “I have Mike to thank for that. He helped me get involved with my local chapter, and over time, I got involved with the Americas board, which led me to my current appointment as chair. I am very humbled and very honored to serve this great industry in this role.”

Washko will serve as chair of HSMAI Americas for a two-year term, and during this time, he says he hopes to show more individuals resources they can use toward a successful career in hospitality. He says, “This is a very pivotal time for our industry. We want to make sure the next generation of leaders and superstars in the hospitality industry see the pathway forward and see the resources that are available, as well as how HSMAI can play a vital role in their growth and career maturation. I want to do the best I can to pass along just how exciting, fun, fulfilling, and rewarding a career in hospitality can be.”

Washko is familiar with the challenges that can come with determining a career path, particularly in hospitality, and advises new professionals to become well-versed on the in’s and out’s of their job and also take advantage of every learning opportunity, whether it’s sitting in on important meetings or talking with leaders to learn the intricacies of sales, marketing, and revenue optimization.

“Also, show a level of passion and enthusiasm for your work,” he advises. “My father told me, ‘If you bring passion and enthusiasm, you completely control your day, and you control your career just by bringing those things to the table.’ And if you bring that, people are going to want to help you and be around you. It’s infectious.”

This passion and enthusiasm are what keep Washko optimistic about the future of travel and the hospitality industry.

“I think we’re going to be surprised by how quickly the recovery takes place,” he says. “We’re already on the downside of the most recent variant, and every time we’ve gone through this, we’ve learned lessons and we’ve learned coping skills. Across the board, I think everyone’s ready to get back to travel and face-to-face meetings, getting that business traveler back into the industry, back to meeting with customers in the market. My outlook is bullish. We’re going to see, I believe, a rebound in all those facets that are so intricately tied to the hospitality industry. It’s a natural need. People need to interact with people.”

Categories: Sales
Insight Type: Articles