Catalina Susan – General Manager of Armenia Marriott Hotel, Yerevan
What, in your opinion, are the main skills needed to run a successful hotel?
First of all, you need to be knowledgeable of all the hotel activities, and this you can get with experience. So, I strongly believe that a general manager should have experience working in different departments of a hotel. So, in my case, I worked most of my career, about 16 years in the hotel finance department, but the last two years I was involved with the work of other departments as well, in order to get more experience and more exposure.
Concerning the skills, I’d say you need to be strong, as there are always various challenges, life in a hotel is not easy, and something inevitably pops up and it needs to be solved.
You also need to be hardworking, as you need to dedicate all of yourself to the life in a hotel because when you try to split it in another direction as well, it gets extremely difficult.
And last but not least, you need to be very flexible to adapt quickly to new environments, people, culture, and if you’re not open to something new, you probably will fail as a manager.
What are the biggest challenges a hotel owner/general manager can expect to face?
To be honest, here in Armenia I face more challenges then I did in the previous hotels I worked in, for example in the European Union conditions, even the legislation is totally different from further east. This Marriott is not an easy property. The biggest challenge, I would say, right now is finding suppliers in the current market, as there aren’t that many options here, and surprisingly for me, some supplier does not want to work with Marriott.
It is also difficult to find outsource companies, which is one of the options for running the property with higher profit. And it’s much easier to work with outsourcing companies and hire them during the high season, and the other seasons you just base your work on your regular staff. Also, it is difficult to work in unfair conditions, for example, AirB&B is doing an unfair competition, I’d say, and a lot of customers prefer to go there instead of the hotels, despite the fact that they have different conditions. A lot of people do get disappointed, that whatever is shown in the picture isn’t a reality most of the time, but still, for the first experience they prefer something other than a hotel.
In Armenia it is difficult to find employees because bright minds and good professionals have chosen to leave Armenia, most of them work in Russia. So, whenever we have an opening, it gets really difficult. Turnover is not so big, but for some departments, like front office, it is indeed very high, and we face the issue of hiring people, training them, and consecutively they do not stay long with us, and instead move to another hotel with a higher position, or maybe another Marriott property. The majority of them say that it is a difficult job, but it really is not, and if you really want to grow in that company you need to start from the bottom.
Sure thing, as a General Manager you will most definitely be stressed out most of the time, but it is important not to show it because you will stress the others as well. And so, I try to keep calm all the time, and you will hardly see me upset.
Please describe a typical day of a general manager of a large chain hotel.
The typical day is very busy, usually, I plan my week at the weekend, but it never goes as planned, I only manage to get some 40% done.
I start my morning in the gym at 6.30, I go there 3-4 times a week, this refreshes me to have a long and busy day. Then I do a touring of the hotel, starting with the breakfast area, talking to the customers, I also come to the executive lounge, where we have our repetitive guests and VIPs, and sometimes I spend a lot of time here chatting with them. Next, I check the conference area to see what the events for the day are, whether everything is prepared, then I go through the lobby area and afterward I spend some time talking to the staff.
One or two times a week I pass by all the departments, I greet the employees, find out how they feel, whether they need something. Whenever we have a difficult or busy day I find it especially useful talking to the staff as they may feel overwhelmed, and while talking to them I try to encourage them and make them feel a little bit better.
During the day I do have a lot of meetings, internal meetings with my staff, like selling strategy meetings, I try to catch up with my emails, but I usually end up doing this after my working hours when I am at home, and twice a week I take Russian lessons, I want to learn Russian, I think it will help me in my future career.
What advice would you give to prospective hotel owners/general managers?
First, they need to pay attention to the staff they are hiring, because it is important to hire the right people, and not to be very “cheap”, because some people choose to go for young and inexperienced staff, of course, it is very important to hire young people to give them the chance to build their career, but it is very important to have experienced and skilled staff as well. Marriott is very good at it, because they bring people from other hotels for key positions, as these people know all the rules and procedures. Also, they need to be patient, in the beginning especially, as it might be difficult to teach all the procedures, rules and standards (if it is a branded hotel), if it is not, you set out your own procedures and rules. They need to pay attention to how they choose their suppliers and be very meticulous about everything, even the smallest detail because if you compromise quality and as a result, the customer isn’t satisfied and their impression of your hotel isn’t good, they are not going to come back. So, I can say that the suppliers directly impact the hotel’s guest satisfaction. And last but not least, be dedicated to your work and be aware of everything going on in each area/department of your hotel, you don’t have to show that you know everything, but it is good to be aware of it. And one bonus advice, try to always learn something new, I constantly learn, I also learn from other hotel’s experiences as well, because we meet occasionally with other general managers of hotels in Armenia and share experiences.
You have experience working in several countries. Could you tell us what is unique about working in Marriott in Armenia?
In Armenia the people are different than in other countries, I worked in. They are very warm, and they have hospitality in their blood, they like to talk to other people. The people made me feel home right away, despite the fact that my friends who learned I was coming to work in Armenia would exclaim, “Where are you going? It’s the end of the world’.
I actually knew a lot about Armenia before even coming here, because I am also orthodox and I knew Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as their official religion. So, I always wanted to come here for a vacation, but I never really had the time. So, I got very excited when I learned I am coming here to work.
Another unique thing is the Marriott property itself it is landmark itself, everybody knows it, it is in a very central position, all the diaspora knows about this property, and this keeps our customers loyal. When you think of a hotel in Yerevan, you think at Armenia Marriott Hotel.
Please tell us when and how your journey in hospitality began.
It started in June 2000, in JW Marriott in Bucharest, Romania (I am Romanian), I started as an assistant of the director of finance after other 6 years experience in other two companies, as I was graduating from university with a major in Finance, bookkeeping, so this is my main field. I worked for almost 16 years in finance. In 2006 I moved to Marriott Warsaw, and it is the biggest Marriott property in Europe with 523 rooms. I was Assistant Director of Finance for only one year, then I came back to Bucharest to take the position of Director of Finance, and for almost 9 years I stayed in that position. The latest 4 years of my career in Finance I was again in Warsaw Marriott, and that hotel is kind of a “ramp”, so who starts working there, they usually continue working as a General Manager, because you learn a lot working in that hotel. In 2016 February I started my first position as a General Manager in Courtyard by Marriott in Budapest, it’s an upscale Courtyard, not a standard one. I stayed only one year and four months there and was later asked to move to my current position in Armenia. And I’ve been here since July 2017.
Please tell us what it is like to be a female general manager in such a heavily male-dominated sphere.
It is actually very good being a female General Manager, and Marriott, in general, is trying to empower and promote women, as they are more attentive to details, they are watching differently than men, and they keep better relationships with guests/customer. But in general, it is a bit different, and especially in branded hotels, there are very few female general managers there.
I myself try to always support not only women, but also man, and wherever I work, I try to push my staff to get higher positions, to inspire them. And I think when the general manager is a woman it always inspires others in the company to raise their ambitions. Becoming a general manager was always my desire, I had the option of choosing to go work for the Marriott headquarters Finance department, but I decided to follow my dream of becoming a General Manager.