Women in Luxury: In Conversation with Michelle Woodley, President of Preferred Hotels & Resorts

Words by:

Nyssa P. Chopra

The Women in Luxury series on The Cultureur celebrates visionary women who are breaking down barriers across the luxury industry, highlighting their trials, tribulations, and triumphs.

Meet Michelle Woodley.

She is the newly-appointed President of Preferred Hotels & Resorts after more than 15 years of experience in various roles such as Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Strategy, Senior Vice President of Revenue Management & Distribution and most recently, Executive Vice President. Prior to joining Preferred Hotels & Resorts, she held various positions for Swissotel and Raffles Hotels & Resorts in the various operations, revenue management, distribution, and marketing disciplines.
If you’re not familiar with the brand, Preferred Hotels & Resorts is the world’s largest independent hotel brand, representing more than 700 distinctive hotels, resorts, residences, and unique hotel groups across 85 countries, with 35 worldwide offices and 300 associates.
Read on to learn more about her and her inspiring story as one of the leading hoteliers in the luxury hospitality industry.
michelle woodley preferred hotels the cultureur women in luxury1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
With my recent promotion, I am excited to serve as President and oversee multiple departments  including sales, marketing, IT, revenue management, and customer relations. I work closely with our CEO, Lindsey Ueberroth on financial planning and talent management, and support the development of other strategic areas of focus within the organization.
On the personal side, I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago (yes, I am a lifelong Cubs fan!) and live there today with my husband and two teenage sons.  My grandparents on both my mother and father’s side immigrated to the United States from Greece. So if you catch me talking with wild hand gestures, don’t be alarmed!
After graduating from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, I have been fortunate to travel globally for business and pleasure and consider myself a global citizen. My love for travel also includes a passion for languages, so I can speak and understand Greek, Spanish, and German, all to varying degrees.
2) How did you get involved in hospitality? 
I am pretty sure that if I did a DNA test, they would find hospitality in my blood! From a young age, I have enjoyed cooking and entertaining others. Whether it was my mom’s bridge group, my older brother’s senior prom, or a backyard barbecue with friends, serving others and making their occasions special has been a passion. The planning, prepping, and thrill of executing these types of events has always excited me.
With this energy and love for cooking, I went to Cornell with big aspirations for the food and beverage area. After my first food chemistry class, I swiftly realized that maybe food and beverage wasn’t for me, and that I should stick to cooking as a hobby. Instead, I focused on information systems and management.
3) What does hospitality mean to you? What does luxury travel mean to you?
I take the definition of hospitality for its true meaning – receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm and friendly way. Whether in the board room, the hotel lobby, or my home, I believe hospitality plays a big part of my daily life. Similarly, luxury travel is a personal perspective and, to me, includes an experience that meets and exceeds one’s expectations and provides pleasure and enrichment, regardless of one’s purpose of travel.
4) What qualities make you successful in hospitality? Are there any unique traits that women bring to the field?
My life philosophy includes open communication, mutual respect, teamwork, purposeful actions, accountability, and a life centered on integration and overall well-being. I have chosen to apply this way of thinking in the hospitality area, but I think the same could be applied in other businesses. I just happen to have a passion for hospitality.
While male and female executives alike bring valuable perspective to any organization, oftentimes,  women are less likely to focus on the past and, by nature, prefer to work cross-functionally, which can help to overcome barriers. Diversity of thought is vital to a prosperous workplace, and when we surround ourselves with an assortment of voices, opinions and ideas, better choices are ultimately made. The variety and mix in skills that women bring to the table enhances any organization.
5) What are your favorite parts of being in hospitality?
My favorite part of being in hospitality are the people. Those in hospitality are in it to receive and host guests.

Whether it is a general manager in Santa Monica, a revenue manager in Singapore, a door man in Mexico City, or a chef in London, every encounter enlightens me in a new way.

I love to hear about their life stories and life lessons they’ve learned through guest interactions. There is no better way to learn about people than to hear them talk about their passions and sources of joy. I value the input from others and make a conscious effort to learn something new every day through listening and participating. I believe that applying this approach to the big and small keeps me connected to what is happening within our organization and within our hotels. To me, the best compliment is when someone says thank you for listening.
6) What are some unique challenges you’ve faced as a woman in hospitality?
This question always makes me pause as I cannot think of any unique challenges that I have faced simply because I am a woman. In working within some cultures, there are certainly gender-related issues for which we need to be mindful.  However, by working with colleagues who are local and understand the nuances, objectives can be met.
7) How do you think all the social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp will impact hospitality?
These movements are important to all work environments. I can only comment on them from my perspective looking into the industry in general, as Preferred Hotels & Resorts has never had any tolerance for discriminatory antics in our global workplace. It is very sad that these situations continue to occur, and I support the women who continue to come forward in an effort to ensure others do not have to go through similar experiences.
8) How does Preferred Hotels & Resorts combine local culture and luxury travel? What’s next for Preferred Hotels & Resorts?
Many of today’s travelers define luxury as an authentic and genuine experience that teaches them something beyond what they had previously heard from others or “experienced” virtually via social media. Our portfolio of independent hotels has always been about local and authentic experiences and this holds true from city center locations to remote resort destinations. Because our hotels are not restricted by heavy corporate guidelines, their personalities and unique attributes shine through with every guest visit while delivering a consistently luxurious experience. For example, at the iconic Imperial New Delhi, guests experience the grandeur of the 1930s building, which has been modernized for today’s traveler, along with service from staff in traditional attire, all in an authentic colonial environment. Our five distinct collections are designed to help travelers craft their own inspiration as they travel the world in a way that meets their life and style preferences.
This year at Preferred Hotels & Resorts, we are celebrating our 50th Anniversary! For our Golden Anniversary, we are celebrating our legacy of “Inspiring Travel for 50 years” while putting in place exciting innovations to drive our success into the next five decades. We are committed to taking what we do to the next level with a consumer focus on desires and experiences. As part of this, we are dedicated to making our pineapple logo a globally recognized symbol so that when travelers see it, they immediately connect it with the truly outstanding, memorable, and authentic independent hospitality that only Preferred Hotels & Resorts can provide.
Included in our future is the continued growth of I Prefer, our guest loyalty program, which is the largest global points-based loyalty program for independent hotels. More than 2.5 million individuals have enrolled in the program thus far and are enjoying benefits like room upgrades, special amenities, and point earnings toward cash-like certificates to use at our hotels. We are also committed to the continuous yet thoughtful expansion of our portfolio to ensure that travelers can experience luxurious, authentic hospitality in any destination to which they would like to travel. 
9) Who are some of your role models in the hospitality industry?
One of the most important mentors in my life is Mary Anne Russell, who is currently the general manager at a hotel in the Washington, DC area. From our first introduction at the Swissotel Chicago in 1990, I admired her firm handshake, confidence in what she did, and huge smile.  We worked together for a couple of years – I was in charge of the hotel’s technology and she was the front office manager – before she asked me to take her place in the front office as she was being promoted to rooms division manager.  The general manager at the time was not happy about moving a “young 20-year-old” into a prominent position of a large, downtown Chicago hotel, but Mary Anne stepped up and let him know that she took personal responsibility and that if it didn’t work out, we would both go back to our positions. He reluctantly agreed and gave us 60 days to prove ourselves. And, we did. I will never forget her confidence in me and her approach to hire for talent and train for skill. I am forever grateful to her.
10) What current hospitality trends do you find exciting and what do you think is the future of luxury travel?
As we have all seen, technology continues to play an increasing role in hospitality. This includes apps, on-site kiosks, keyless entry, and even robots delivering room service (something offered by our newest opening in Canada – Hotel Monville)! These are all interesting and fun concepts that will evolve over time. More exciting for me is the growing trend of guests desiring a residential stay with the comforts and assuredness of a luxury hotel experience.

While we thank AirBnB for putting the “live like a local” residential experience top-of-mind with travelers globally, we have also seen that the majority of consumers are reluctant to forgo the luxuries of a hotel stay.

Our Preferred Residences collection was designed to satisfy this niche, and because of its thoughtful positioning, we are so excited to see its fantastic growth rate, now offering more than 70 global properties, and growing. Preferred Residences is the ideal solution for extended stay travelers, families, and guests who simply want more room to spread out during their travels because it provides the best of both worlds: the space, privacy, and local flavor of a residence with the 24/7 security, amenities, service, and quality assurance of a luxury hotel stay. We are confident that the residential travel experience is here to stay, and look forward to having Preferred Residences be a frontrunner among luxury guests looking to indulge in this trend.
11) What advice do you have for women entering the hospitality industry today?
Whether you are headed down the path of operations, finance, marketing, ownership, or management, remember that you are entering the hospitality industry, which by definition is to receive and host strangers and guests in an open, friendly, and warm manner. If you are not willing to be the ultimate host in all that you do, think again.
12) Do you have a digital footprint available to the public?
I am most active on Instagram, where I celebrate fun moments in both my personal and professional lives. Follow me at @MLWoodley to see what I’ve been up to and stay updated on where I’m headed.

Thank you, Michelle for sharing your journey — onwards and upwards!