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OTH President and CEO Todd Felsen

It all began with a family trip to Disney World for Todd Felsen, president and chief executive officer of OTH Hotels Resorts, an independent hotel management company. As he told LODGING, he never did outgrow his youthful attraction to the industry. It was love at first sight upon arriving at the Polynesian Village, which was one of the first Disney resorts. “I remember walking into that expansive atrium lobby with cascading waterfalls, exotic birds, and people in traditional Hawaiian costumes as if we were in Maui,” he recalled. “Everyone looked so sharp and was so friendly. I thought even then it was something I should consider for my future.”

From Doorman to CEO

Felsen’s climb up the ladder included positions on the “outside,” as doorman at the Hyatt Regency in Miami, and “inside” as a corporate management trainee working his way up to his lofty current position. “I eventually worked my way through every discipline—front office manager, executive housekeeper, food and beverage, etc.,” said Felsen, who moved on to a series of executive positions including general manager and hotel manager with Doral Resort & Spa, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, The Peabody Memphis, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

In the years leading up to his joining OTH, Felsen honed a host of new capabilities that paved the way to that destination. For several years, he ran his own consulting group, managing hotel and resort assets, repositionings, renovations, sales and marketing campaigns, and the development of new hotels, resorts, and hotel/resort condos. He then took on the position of senior vice president of operations for BENCHMARK, a global hospitality company, where he oversaw 14 resort and hotel operations throughout the United States and Caribbean.

Cultivating a Great Team

Today, as president and CEO of OTH, Felsen said he strives to “deliver exceptional financial results, efficient operational performance, and warm, memorable Southern hospitality,” while leading with what he termed “a team-first policy” that recognizes employees as “OTH’s No. 1 asset.” As such, Felsen aims to foster a positive work environment. “We know that having positive employees helps us reach our goals—both financially and internally as an employer,” he said. Also instrumental to achieving OTH’s goals are employees he described as “entrepreneurial leaders, having passion, being innovative and accountable.” Professionals who display these qualities have “the will” he is seeking. “We hire the will and train the skill,” he said.

Yet the promising newbies to his company often follow a different path than his own, he observed. For example, while Felsen was enriched personally and professionally by his own career transfers, including several years in the Caribbean (see sidebar on page 13), he noted that many prospective team members today are less willing to accept the kind of relocations that were once part and parcel of advancing in hospitality. “When we were younger, you had to move around to get promoted. That was always the way it was. But in today’s market, flexibility [in an employee’s present position] is the name of the game,” he explained.

The reluctance of candidates to uproot their families and leave their communities, he said, has impacted staffing for key positions. However, he added, his own attitude toward building a better hospitality company, too, is changing—even to the extent of his recognizing the advantage of having family- and community-minded team members who want to stay put. In addition, he has rejected the prescriptive approach to customer care inculcated by his early training at Ritz-Carlton. “They were great believers in being scripted—what to say, how to say it in every situation. My own belief now is that hospitality is all about being unscripted, and, in fact, our company tagline is ‘unscripted hospitality,’” he said.

Nurture Over Nature

Felsen is clearly “a natural” for the hotel business—he’s outgoing and enjoys meeting new people. “I believe developing individual relationships is so important; everyone’s different, and you don’t know the life circumstances of the person next to you,” he said.

Yet he maintained that his success in the business is a result of hard-won nurture rather than nature—mostly by always consciously striving to be the hardest working and most positive person in the room. “I always take care of business, but I also have a passion for people and taking care of them, and I believe in treating people with compassion, showing you care,” he stressed. That compassion is extended to his own employees—who he personally calls to comfort and celebrate—as well as to the guests in the hotels they all serve.

Lessons From the Ladder: Todd Felsen Recounts His Meaningful Experiences and Takeaways

The path Todd Felsen took to his leadership position at OTH Hotels Resorts was not without its challenges. Yet there were lessons learned on every rung of the professional ladder he climbed. “I feel I grew up in the business through the life lessons learned while doing everything possible,” he related.

A few examples:

Positive first impressions. As a doorman, then bell captain, he learned about the power of first impressions—and a smile—while meeting and greeting guests, for which he was amply rewarded. “At that time, my pockets were always filled with cash from the tips I received,” he recalled.

Adapting to a new business culture. As a hotelier abroad—he spent four and a half years in the Caribbean while working for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts as hotel manager/general manager—he learned about doing business in other cultures. “I learned a lot about being a guest in someone else’s country, where there were challenges such as from unions and unfamiliar politics, and that the way they do things is not necessarily how you do things,” Felsen explained. “I learned to think strategically about how to say things and operate, and to depend on my local team to help make decisions in their country.”

Beneficial “chance meetings.” Felsen has learned about the value of everyday opportunities to network. For this reason, Felsen said he urges his sales teams to chat up people having breakfast or sitting at the bar at the hotel. “I talk to everybody I meet, that I sit next to on a plane, or stand near in line at the grocery story,” he said. “There’s a lot of business out there and there are a lot of people out there making connections and networking.”

Standing out in the crowd. From powering through difficult times and always moving forward by working hard and staying positive, he learned how to beat the competition, which, as he told his daughter, is virtually everyone: “I tell her, ‘It’s great to have friends in school and work, but never forget they are also your competition. You therefore need to always do your best to stand out among your peers, show you can do more, be better than everyone else. Be friendly, but always take care of business.’”

Maintaining a positive attitude. “There are always curve balls in life as well as in business; it doesn’t go in a straight line. Nothing’s ever perfect. It comes down to the way you adapt to change, being realistic but having a positive outlook on everything,” he advised.

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