Hilton SVP Vera Manoukian: “Everything Happens for a Reason; Find the Reason”

Everything Happens for a Reason (Find the Reason). It’s important to always remember things happen for a reason. There were many times in my career when an unexpected curve ball forced me to quickly change my plans. As a result, I began to feel lost and my mind became foggy. Knowing that the only way […]

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Everything Happens for a Reason (Find the Reason). It’s important to always remember things happen for a reason. There were many times in my career when an unexpected curve ball forced me to quickly change my plans. As a result, I began to feel lost and my mind became foggy. Knowing that the only way out was through, I continued to work hard and, instead of getting frustrated, I became energized at the new challenge in front of me.

I had the distinct pleasure to interview Vera Manoukian. Vera Manoukian is the Senior Vice President and Global Brand Head for Hilton Hotels & Resorts, responsible for the strategic direction, vision, growth and performance of Hilton’s flagship brand. As a seasoned professional with more than 30 years of hospitality experience, Vera is known for driving brand growth, maximizing operational excellence and delivering financial performance. She most recently served as President and Chief Operating Officer at Denihan Hospitality, where she led branding, sales, marketing and operations and managed the company’s growth and development pipeline. Before that, Vera acted as the Senior Vice President of Operations for Starwood, where she was responsible for the company’s largest geographic region, seven brands, 68 full service and luxury properties and $3.4 billion in revenue. Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Vera speaks five languages, including English, French, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish. Vera holds an MBA from the University of Southern New Hampshire, specializing in Marketing, as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, with minors in Math and Biology, from Rivier University of New Hampshire. She is based at Hilton’s global headquarters in McLean, Virginia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Vera! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I often tell people that my career in hospitality happened because I saw a sign; and not a metaphorical one — a literal “Help Wanted” sign in the window of a hotel in Bedford, New Hampshire.

At that time in my life, I knew NOTHING about hotels. In fact, I had only stayed in a hotel on one occasion.

Until that point, my perception of hotels was heavily influenced by my childhood in Lebanon, where they weren’t viewed as positive as they are in the U.S. I kept thinking to myself, “If I pursue this opportunity, how am I going to explain this career choice to my parents!?”

Despite my initial reservations, I needed a job, so I applied for the open concierge position, convinced I could leverage the analytical skills I acquired during my undergraduate studies and the marketing skills I learned while completing my MBA.

After stepping into that first role, I immediately fell in love with hospitality. I loved the energy of the hotel, the personal interactions with guests and the challenge of a 24/7 business. I knew it was a career I wanted to pursue.

From concierge, I moved on to become the head of banquet and then front office. With every new position, my natural curiosity kicked in, urging me to continue asking questions and learning more about the business.

By 29, I had become the first female and youngest-ever general manager at Sheraton Corporation — working at the Sheraton in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 2018, after nearly 30 years with Starwood, I accepted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead Hilton Hotels & Resorts — the flagship brand of one of the world’s largest hospitality companies. The past year in this new role been a whirlwind, but one of the most exciting years of my career. And I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years bring.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was working as the GM at The Westin Copley Place in Boston, we had just completed a renovation and were preparing to host the CEO for the first time and take him on a property tour. The team was at their absolute best — and the hotel looked stunning. Just hours before our V-VIP was about to arrive, someone alerted me that a piece of fiber from the spa jacuzzi fell out, creating a big, noticeable, black spot.

Immediately, our operator connected with the assistant controller who agreed to sit in the jacuzzi to cover up the spot during the tour. Within an hour, she drove home, grabbed her bathing suit and was in place before the tour started.

The mistake I made? The tour was cut short, and we didn’t make it to the spa and went straight to lunch. That would be fine, but I forgot to alert the operator to relieve our jacuzzi soaker. She sat in the spa the entire time we were at lunch. Beyond the obvious lesson of not forgetting my team members (especially as they are turning into prunes in the spa!), that situation also taught me to always make sure our dedicated and passionate team members felt appreciated. They are invaluable.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon when, at the time, it was referred to as the Paris of the Middle East. Times changed, and one of the most impactful times of my life was when, because of the state of our war-torn country, my parents decided to send my brother and I to America to finish out high school. I was a senior.

Upon arriving in America, the first hotel we stayed at was a Hilton. While walking around the city, as a teenager in the midst of a completely different culture, I felt intimidated, but when I entered the Hilton in Los Angeles, I felt an overwhelming sense of hospitality — I felt safe. I may not have known the language perfectly or how I was going to handle high school in America, but I knew of the Hilton brand. For the remainder of our stay, my family and I could relax and get acquainted with our new country knowing we had a welcoming home base. We felt at home and at ease. That forever left an impression on me.

Our founder, Conrad Hilton, established Hilton 100 years ago with the intention to break down cultural barriers and “to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.” And while I didn’t know that as I checked in as a scared high school senior, I felt it — and will appreciate and remember that token of hospitality for the rest of my life.

That’s what makes Hilton stand out from the rest: it’s the people and the feeling you get when staying at one of our 5,700+ hotels. We have an internal motto, “We are Hilton. We are Hospitality.” Whether you are working the front desk or serving as a Brand Head, we strive to live up to that mantra every single day. It’s as simple as that.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Hilton, innovation is in our DNA. We’re continuously reimaging travel by listening to our guests and getting ahead of the trends and then introducing the offerings and amenities that matter the most to them.

Right now, we are specifically focusing on the changing needs of today’s business traveler — from the food they eat, to the technologies they use, and the ways they meet and the services they expect.

Over the course of 18 months, we immersed ourselves in both Hilton-led and industry research, digging into the needs and wants of business travelers, as well as meeting professionals and attendees. The results were eye-opening and spotlighted areas of opportunity, which led us to action both immediate and future change.

While we know that work styles are changing, we also know that the expectations of our meeting attendees are shifting.As an extension of Hilton’s rich history of innovation, we are reimagining our hotel spaces and services to reflect the modern needs of our guests.

For example, one design concept we’re working on was inspired by the Innovation Gallery in Hilton McLean Tysons Corner.

The Innovation Gallery was introduced in 2017 as a 4,300-square-foot space for us at Hilton to incubate, test, scale and showcase the products and processes that we’re creating to enhance our guests’ experiences and redefine the future of hospitality. What we found is that this space was actually extremely functional for connecting spaces, people and ideas. With this concept, we are providing the right venues and layouts to facilitate engaged social interaction and collaboration.

Several hotel teams around the world have expressed interest in building out similar concepts, including Hilton Ras al Khaimah and Hilton London Metropole.

Another design concept we’re working on is themed around experiential spaces that offer creative details and a visual backdrop, signaling to attendees that they are not just in a meeting, they are part of an experience.

These can range from:

  • Wellness-focused designs, incorporating features like a healthy, locally-sourced F&B program, natural daylight, live foliage and spa-inspired amenities;
  • Theater-themed rooms with modern, dramatic design and eye-catching urban art;
  • Organic-inspired, plant-based designs, focusing on our human need to connect with nature and outdoor spaces;
  • Youthful start-up spaces that infuse colorful and bright colors to energize the area and create a perfect environment for a brainstorm or cocktail reception.

A couple of in-market examples include:

  • The Reverbery at Hilton Austin: The Reverbery is inspired by the city’s cool recording studios, transforming the typical meeting space into a business and event lounge. Including both inside to the outdoor space — and with a menu that reflects the Live Music Capital’s culinary culture just as much as its energy — The Reverbery is all Austin, all under one roof (and sky).
  • AGORA meeting room at Hilton London Bankside: Designed to create the perfect work environment, this comfortable, colorful and warm room dispels the reputation of the boring beige box meeting room. The 75 in. screen connects wirelessly to your devices — meaning you can start the meeting without any frustrating delays. But the coolest features of the room are the multi-sensory details included that are proven to enhance innovation and productivity, including mood-improving lighting installations, hypnotic video art, stimulating bursts of aromatic air and brain power-boosting refreshments.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

If I were to give advice to another leader — female or male, I would tell them to push their team to be versatile, both in their professional and personal lives. I thrived in my career, because, at an early age, I learned not to stick to a strict plan; I took opportunities as they arose and continued to be constantly curious.

Over the course of a professional career, everyone faces opportunities and challenges that force us out of our comfort zone. In these instances, what separates the exceptional from the average comes down to our mindset and willingness to capitalize on those moments. This means overcoming personal fears, being willing to tackle any challenge and ignoring the distractions that may divert from success.

I encourage my team to live life with conviction and the will to succeed, even when success seems out of reach — and they will be stronger for it.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

When leading a large team, one of my first priorities is to ensure that I have a team of expert leaders in place who are the best at what they do — and who complement each other and myself. Every day, I learn from my team because I’m surrounded by top talent in areas such as hospitality marketing, development, design and innovation.

I empower those leaders to make the right decisions and deliver the results in the way that they know best. I recognized early in my career that I was a better leader — and my team was happier — once I had the confidence and trust in them to step back and let them do their job. That confidence comes from trust; and the trust comes from nurtured professional relationships, from all parties involved. It’s always a two-way street.

Additionally, because of the realities of a larger team, often, as the leader, you don’t have as much face time with individual team members as you may like. It’s then when I’ve felt that my role was to inspire and set the tone for the team. It’s important to me — for both large and small teams — to create an environment that allows team members to fail forward and learn from their mistakes, to inspire a culture of loyalty and to value each team member as a professional, but also as a person.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Without a question, my mom was the most influential person in my life, who pushed me to achieve all of the successes that I’ve worked for in my career. Prior to her passing, she was always my biggest fan and toughest critic. No matter what I accomplished, she was always extremely proud, but she pushed me to do better. Good enough wasn’t ever good enough.

She was a terrific role model. She survived a civil war, moved her family three times — but always had a positive outlook on life, growing stronger and more confident after every unfortunate or difficult situation. She encouraged my siblings and I to do the same both in our professional and personal lives. She wanted us to be both excellent and resilient — but also kind. Throughout her life, she made a point to give back to charities and be involved in the community and made sure we grew up with those values as well.

She also taught me to lead by using my head, my heart and my gut — and to never give up. Even now that she’s passed, her advice and guidance is so engrained in me that I hear her every day — pushing me and encouraging me to be the best that I can possibly be.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve made it a mission of mine to help young people, particularly young women, in the industry.

As part of that mission, while at Starwood, I developed Starwood University, a comprehensive training system that began at one hotel and was later adapted across the organization. The program features three pillars: fundamental hotel business management, such as P&L; a corporate responsibility track, focused on how the industry can give back to the communities in which it operates; and a mentoring track for identifying, developing and promoting talent.

At Hilton, that passion continues as I currently mentor several young female professionals. I’ll never pass up an opportunity to mentor, especially a female colleague, as I never had the luxury of an older female mentor to help pave a path for my career. I missed that, but I also appreciate that you can continue to learn regardless of what age you are or title you hold, and I value the perspectives of our next generation of leaders.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Stay Curious. In addition to great mentors and supportive family, I credit my curiosity for taking me as far as I’ve come in my career. From serving as a hotel concierge to my current role as Global Brand Head, I never stop asking questions, and I never stop learning.
  2. Build a Team on Trust. As a leader, it’s important to build and establish trust — and often the best way to achieve that is to trust your team first. You need to walk the walk and talk the talk before you can lead. You can be a leader with high expectations but also catch your team when they fall — no matter how hard. Creating a safe-to-fail environment requires people to fail, and trust often comes after you pick them back up.
  3. Find Opportunity in Adversity. I love the quote from Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” As someone who immigrated here from war-torn Beirut as a teenager, I was taught at an early age to see opportunity in adversity — and to figure out how to land on my feet. That stuck with me in my career and taught me to stand up despite the several punches I received throughout my life and career.
  4. Everything Happens for a Reason (Find the Reason). It’s important to always remember things happen for a reason. There were many times in my career when an unexpected curve ball forced me to quickly change my plans. As a result, I began to feel lost and my mind became foggy. Knowing that the only way out was through, I continued to work hard and, instead of getting frustrated, I became energized at the new challenge in front of me.
  5. Find a Mentor. No matter how high I climb on the corporate ladder, I will continue to value the role of a mentor in my professional career. Recognizing or finding opportunities is sometimes only half the battle. For me, summoning the courage to step boldly in the direction of opportunity is the other. That’s where a strong mentor can help shed outside light on a situation. My mentors have played and continue to play an important role in my life and success. Linking up with someone who can offer informed, unfiltered guidance can have a lasting positive impact on your professional development. I encourage my team members to look out for someone who shares your professional values and who you can trust to provide you with solid advice. But to also balance that advice with knowing yourself and being confident in your decisions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I had the power to inspire a true global movement, it would be centered around education in third world countries or even struggling communities in the U.S. [added for consideration, thinking about areas like Appalachia]. There’s the saying, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for the day or teach a man to fish and you can feed him for a lifetime.” I would encourage top leaders in various industries — like architecture, city planning, technology and tourism — to travel to needed communities and teach the locals how to build the expertise needed to improve their lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote comes from the, unexpected, Mike Tyson who said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” My life and career to-date is a result of taking each and every punch that was thrown at me and rising from them as a stronger person. Sometimes you just have to throw your plans out the window and figure out how to avoid or recover from a punch.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to share lunch with Diane von Furstenberg. Beyond my love of her famous wrap dresses, I’ve always admired her career path and the way she was able to reinvent herself in her 60s. Like me, as a young woman, she immigrated to America and found opportunity in adversity. She credited her mother, who survived the Holocaust, for instilling her with never-ending positivity.

Her career began as a passion, and her wrap dress, created in the 70s, took on a life of its own becoming a symbol of women’s liberation.

Finally, we share a passion for mentoring and supporting young women. She’s used her success to benefit others through various charities but also set up her own DVP Awards, which were established to honor women whose leadership skills and vision have had a positive impact on the lives of other women around the world.

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