Direct approach elevates GM’s career path
17 JULY 2015 8:20 AM
As she watches her newest challenge rise right before her eyes in Cleveland, Hilton’s Teri Agosta continues building her career by connecting with people at every level.
CLEVELAND—Teri Agosta credits her ascent in the hotel industry to being an “enthusiastic motivator of highly qualified people.” In other words, she’s a people person.
“My mantra every morning is to inspire people to do something they never thought they could do,” Agosta said.
Her climb through Hilton Worldwide Holdings’ system took a step up in January when she was named GM of the 32-story, 600-room Cleveland Downtown Hilton that’s under construction and scheduled to open next spring. To get there, she left the sprawling 24-acre, three-story, 574-suite Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix.
“It’s a physical job—at (Squaw Peak) I walked six miles a day, and that definitely got me in shape for this job,” Agosta said as she sidestepped and walked over a stack of rebar during a hard-hat tour of the construction site.
After exiting a construction elevator full of various laborers who aren’t shy about asking visitors for free T-shirts and other swag, Agosta admitted that her language has gotten a little coarser since becoming a mainstay on the construction site. But the experience has been unique, she said.
“I’ve learned to deal with a lot of different people,” the Michigan native said.
Agosta’s most eye-opening experience at the construction site doesn’t involve the breathtaking views of Lake Erie, the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame & Museum or the shaping of the LEED-certified glass-laden structure.
“It’s been great to spend time with the guys and girls in each trade. … They have such pride in what they do,” Agosta said. “These (buildings) are their creations. They’re given problems and they solve them at every step.”
The real fun has been watching the blue-and-gray glass structure rise on the Cleveland skyline, she said.
“It’s getting real now—when you walk in and see the walls,” Agosta. “It’s been a smooth process, but I do have senses of panic every once in a while.”
Agosta said the project is well ahead of schedule and is expected to open next April. So she knows that while completing the hotel is of the utmost importance, there are other jobs to do: “The No. 1 priority of this office is to book business,” she said.
As the manager of the Squaw Peak property for eight years, Agosta directed a $45-million renovation and opened a $2-million spa and health club. But overseeing the Cuyahoga County-owned, $272-million Cleveland property is her first “big time” construction experience, she said.
The hotel was designed by architectural firm Cooper Cary and is being constructed by Turner Construction Company, Ozanne Construction Company and Van Aukin Akins Architects.
Don’t take things personally
Agosta joined Hilton in 1993 as the director of sales & marketing in Baltimore. In the 22 years since then, many doors of opportunity have opened—including the latest one in Cleveland.
Agosta said her best advice for GMs that find themselves fortunate to be involved in a hotel project from the ground up is to not take things personally at any point during the process.
“A lot of people have opinions; everybody has a vision,” Agosta said. “Listen to what everyone says. … Take people’s opinions seriously. Never lose perspective that this is a building of the people.”
The biggest learning curve between the process of watching over a construction project of this magnitude and running an operation resort property is adapting to not having 500 employees around.
“I was team member No. 1,” Agosta said. “I went from 500 employees to zero.”
This is Agosta’s sixth property in the Hilton system—the fourth one at which she has served as GM. Working out of temporary office space in the adjacent Global Center for Health Innovation, Agosta said the biggest challenges are basic.
“You really have to do everything yourself—hooking up the printer, dealing with the phones, making your own coffee,” Agosta said. “I’ve learned to read blueprints well and to look up and down so nothing falls on you and you walk over nothing.”
Agosta is treating the hotel in its current state as an operational property—right down to having its first site inspection during which the existing streamlined sales team laid out the site-inspection sheet and a daily morning stand-up meeting.
“If we do it now with eight employees, it will be part of the culture when there’s 500 (employees),” Agosta said. “Standing meetings are always very important in a hotel. You can go weeks without seeing people, so it’s a primary way to communicate.
“A big part of my job is to create touch points,” she added.
Leading a catalyst for growth
Agosta’s new gig includes a lot more social occasions as the new hotel is the belle of the ball in Cleveland.
“We are the face of Hilton. … It feels great,” Agosta said. “We’re going to create new business here.”
The Hilton will increase by 50% the definition of a citywide convention in Cleveland. Agosta said the number will be 900 rooms instead of the current 600.
The hotel will be tested right out of the gate as the city will host the Republican National Convention next summer—securing that event was a big reason the local government gave the green light for the hotel project. But Agosta won’t put undue pressure on the staff for one event.
“The (GOP) convention is one week of 52,” she said. “Our goal is to get 52 groups every year. Cleveland gets 17 citywides a year, and we have to triple that.”
As Agosta mulled the list of potential names for the hotel’s various food-and-beverage outlets posted on the wall of her temporary office, she reflected on her first six months in the city.
“We’re affecting people’s lives on so many levels,” Agosta said. “We’re changing the landscape of Cleveland literally and figuratively.”
The hotel will be the catalyst for new restaurants and other attractions in a neighborhood that often rolled up its sidewalks after dark.
“It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing you can give back in that way,” Agosta said. “At this point in my career it’s about giving back.”
Décor throughout the hotel will reflect the works of Daniel Burnham—the city planner who developed downtown Cleveland’s layout—as well as the area’s bridges and connection to rock-and-roll. It will reflect a working-class city, according to Agosta.
By the end of the year there will be 20 managers in place, Agosta said.
Filling the hotel with the 400 to 500 employees needed to operate it will start with a mid-winter job fair in the ballroom that will feature on-the-spot hiring as part of the process.
“We’re going to look for the right people with the right attitude who are going to deliver service,” Agosta said. “At any level in this business you have to want to serve. It’s all about having the right attitude and the right culture.”
A specific leadership style
Having the right attitude can get an employee all the way to the top, according to Agosta.
“As leaders we have the responsibility to identify the superstars in the kitchen, checking people in and parking cars,” Agosta said. “The message is you can create your own future—that’s how you motivate people.”
Agosta said she adopted a straightforward leadership style that consists of hiring the right people and letting them do their jobs.
“It’s so important,” she said. “This is a business of creativity and artistry, and they want to be able to express themselves. You have to give them the arena to express themselves.
“The expectation is, ‘I trust you’ll do your job; I trust you’ll communicate,’” she added. “It all goes to the core of hiring the right people.”
The right people can climb a ladder to success in an industry that needs many leaders to step up, Agosta said.
Agosta’s advice to any aspiring GM: “Really decide what you want and go after it. Don’t let anybody change your mind,” she said. “There are a lot of people who will make judgment, but you have to know in your heart that you’re doing the right thing and keep doing it.”