By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing International (HSMAI)
It has been approximately one year since COVID cases first started popping up in the United States, changing life as we know it. Sheila Hession, executive director of sales at MGM National Harbor in National Harbor, Maryland, didn’t see her job start to change until March, and it has been a whirlwind since then. Recently, she spoke with HSMAI about her story of recovery, her plans for the upcoming year, and some insight into who she is.
What has your experience been like over the past year?
At the end of February 2020, we were set up for an amazing year. Then, on the first Monday of March, we got a call from a healthcare group asking to move their end-of-March program to later in the year. Two days later we were inundated with calls from additional meeting planners. We closed the resort on March 15 and my team of 16 was dropped to two, with the rest furloughed. For the next few months, it was just myself and my director of catering and conference services.
The hardest month was last April, when it was just two of us. We had hundreds of calls and emails coming in to move business, plus a tremendous number of new inquiries for planners that needed to shift their programs but couldn’t find availability. We moved most of our bookings to 2021, which created a win-win situation, as opposed to just outright canceling. We were, and continue to be, extremely flexible with our planners as we want to consistently demonstrate how much we value their partnerships.
In July we were able to bring back two additional staff members, including Lauren Witt, who HSMAI spoke with over the summer. That took away a lot of the stress we were dealing with. We reopened the resort on June 29, 2020, with the casino at 50-percent max capacity. Then we were rolled back to 25-percent capacity in mid-November, and that’s where we remain today.
What has the past year taught you?
I think as a leader, you have responsibilities and funnel them down to your team, but when I lost my team, I had to learn all the fine points of everything that everyone else does so wonderfully. I had to do things like create Passkey links, load inventory, and respond to Cvent leads — things that I’d never done or haven’t done in years.
I was able to pull from my previous roles to continue our trajectory to the future. I’ve been in the hospitality industry for over 30 years and held positions from front-desk clerk to night manager and director of front-office operations before my move to sales. I worked my way up, so experiencing the many levels of a guest experience has prepared me for where I am today.
Lastly, sitting in executive committee meetings and working through the pandemic plans with the amazing leaders of this resort has been an extraordinary experience. My executive committee is made up of some of the smartest, most diverse, and dynamic leaders I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.
Have there been any silver linings for you?
My husband and I have two sons that have finished college and they’re both living at home while working on their MBAs and working full time. Having all four of us in the house this past year has been amazing. To be able to see my sons daily and to watch them work and grow through this pandemic has truly been a silver lining. My parents also live five minutes away, so it’s been a blessing to be so close to them to help them through the difficulties of the pandemic. I’m happy to say that just last week I was able to take them to get their first COVID-19 vaccine!
What have you been most proud of accomplishing in the past year?
I have the honor and privilege to sit on a few boards, and I’m so proud of what has been accomplished this past year. I’ve recently been named vice president of the National Harbor CVA. This organization has afforded me the opportunity to see what’s going on here in our own backyard and to work with our neighbors as partners in our mutual success. I’m also on the board of Experience Prince George’s County’s CVA. As a lifelong resident of PG County, I’m proud to be a part of this dynamic organization.
And lastly, I’m the chair of the Advisory Board of the HSMAI DC Chapter. Our chapter has been very busy this past year! We were able to produce one in-person event last February, then 14 virtual programs throughout the rest of the year. I’m extremely proud of the educational opportunities we brought to our members, albeit skills to manage through the changes of the pandemic or data to help members prepare for owners’ meetings, budgets, and business plans.
Professionally, how are you gearing up for the coming year?
MGM Resorts International has been at the forefront of the COVID discussion. We first announced our Seven-Point Safety Plan addressing all areas of the resort experience. We then rolled out our Convene With Confidence plan, which specifically addresses the meetings and convention side of our business. Our corporate team worked with medical experts to create a path forward for events.
As vaccinations become more widely available, my goal for 2021 is to rebuild my team and to get back to the business of booking business and welcoming event attendees!
What about personally? Do you have a New Year’s resolution for this year?
My resolution is to focus on reading, specifically historical nonfiction. Right now, I’m working on a book that my niece’s husband, Cuan Ó Seireadáin, coedited — Douglas Hyde: My American Journey — and I’ve really been enjoying it!
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone in hospitality who is struggling right now?
At this point, stay strong, stay true to who you are, and if you’re looking for employment opportunities, look sideways to related fields and be flexible. If you’re at home schooling your little ones, be patient and then be even more patient.
For additional information, insights, and tools, visit HSMAI’s Global Coronavirus Recovery Resources page.