Marilyn Carlson Nelson on safer, more diverse industry
Marilyn Carlson Nelson on safer, more diverse industry
20 FEBRUARY 2020 9:46 AM

In an interview with Hotel News Now, Marilyn Carlson Nelson of Carlson Holdings speaks about how she champions better corporate citizenship in the hotel industry and works to end child trafficking as well as how the industry can better diversify its leadership.

LOS ANGELES—Preventing child sex trafficking in hotels and increasing diversity within hotel industry leadership have long been passions of Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and throughout her career she has seen the industry evolve on both fronts.

Nelson, currently the co-CEO of Carlson Holdings and former chairwoman and CEO of Carlson, was recognized for her work at the 2020 Americas Lodging Investment Summit with the International Society of Hospitality Consultants Pioneer Award.

Before receiving her award, she sat down with HNN to talk about her experiences pushing for corporate responsibility, what it was like being the only woman in the boardroom and how the industry has changed for the better over the years.

When she began her career, corporations were the “Milton Friedman” type and focused only on profits, Nelson said. Things have evolved now to an interesting place in which philanthropy has carried over from separate foundations into corporate initiatives, she said.

“It’s really corporate citizenship,” she said. “What it means is that we aren’t isolated from our communities. We’re totally part of them. We need to be integrated in them.”

Corporations have looked to see how they can serve the common good using the means they have available to them, she said. The hotel industry therefore had a platform to talk about combating child sex trafficking, because those activities often happen in hotels, she said.

That movement of companies aligning themselves with certain causes has gained traction recently, Nelson said, in part because millennials want to work for companies that make a difference.

“I think some of our leadership companies have actually done that very carefully, in consultation with their boards of directors, but no longer is business isolated in rationalizing that the only stakeholder is the shareholder,” she said. “Now, the stakeholders are the employees, the communities, the investors, the share owners, of course.”

During her career, Nelson said she had so many passions and it has taken a long time to actually bring about change. When the United Nations came out with End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (now ECPAT International), Carlson was the first North American company to sign on, she said. Now, more than 375 companies have signed on, she said.

Missed opportunities
When she took over leadership at Carlson, Nelson said she was the first and only woman on the board and often the only woman in the room. While the situation has improved since then, there are still too few women in hospitality leadership positions, she said. Only one in 22 CEOs in the industry are women, and only one in nine are president, she said. Women make up 53% of the industry but less than 25% of the leadership and management positions, she said.

“So is that a missed opportunity? I think it’s not only a missed opportunity, I think it’s dangerous,” she said. “I think that we will not sustain, especially in a full-employment economy. We have to draw from the best and the brightest and the people with service at heart, and we have to promote them, nurture them, protect them, and I promise they will be the leaders. They will lead this organization into its next generation, in partnership with men.”

Any woman who has an opportunity should aim to become a CEO, Nelson said. Women should make it clear what their ambitions are, make it clear they want to learn and take jobs that put them outside of their comfort zone, she said. And yes, they can have a family, too.

“The nicest thing is when you’re CEO, you can arrange your time,” she said. “That in itself is worth aspiring to, because yes, you have the ultimate responsibility, but at the same time, in some ways I think I missed fewer of my children’s games and performances and school conferences when I was CEO than I did when I was coming up in the ranks and someone else called the shots.”

Hotel loyalty programs
Her father Curt Carlson started the company in 1938 the Carlson Gold Bond Stamp Company, which was a loyalty company for drug stores, gas stations, service stations and dry cleaners, Nelson said. The company later made its way into the hotel business through Radisson Hotels in the 1960s, growing its presence in the hotel industry through the decades before selling off its hotel division in 2016.

Service is the name of the loyalty game, she said, and it would require a powerful loyalty program to overcome poor service and an unclean and unfriendly environment.

The change in loyalty programs to allow members to use their points for experiences in their destinations of choice instead of toward future rooms is something she would have loved to have seen when she was CEO, but they didn’t have the technology necessary at the time, Nelson said.

“Now we can recognize people, see what they like,” she said. “We can offer them customized ideas that make it exciting and really strengthen our relationship.”

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