The Generosity of Hospitality - Kristen Conry - Episode # 050

[00:01:00] Today's guest is highly skilled at design and an architect by training.
Dan Ryan: She's an innovative industry leader. She's a hospitality design guru. She's the senior vice president of global design for Marriott international ladies and gentlemen, Kristin Connery. Welcome Kristen. [00:02:00]
Kristen Conry: Thank you, Dan. And I'm so happy to be here.
Dan Ryan: I'm so happy to have you here. And, um, for those listening, I think I wanted to just introduce everyone to how I first came to meet Kristen, because I believe you were working at Hyatt at the time, and I believe Larry Traxler who's now at Hilton.
I think you were working with him and he's like, oh, you have to meet Kristin. And I got to meet you that way and started doing all this work at Hyatt. This is my story. Correct. So far,
Kristen Conry: all of that sounds very true and very plausible.
Dan Ryan: Okay, good. And then, um, I forgot I was awarded some big project at Hyatt and I thought it would be really cool to celebrate, um, by going to Alinea, did I say the name, right?
Yeah. Alinea Alinea, which was this really? I don't even know if it's still around in Chicago. It was this incredible restaurant that was like this whole food theater experience. Um,
Kristen Conry: yeah. It's like the grant Achatz [00:03:00] molecular gastronomy experience.
Dan Ryan: Yeah. Yes. And the funny thing is the reason why I don't have the words to describe it is I, you can't make reservations.
You have to buy tickets. So it's kind of like a show and I don't remember exactly what happened. But I had some family thing come up and then I couldn't go. So I wound up having the six or eight of you guys go without me there. And you had like an incredible six hour dinner and the host wasn't even there.
So I thought that that was like the most interesting upside down turn of a memorable experience of hospitality.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. So I guess that would be one of my strongest memories of. My interactions with you and you weren't even there, it was a really memorable dinner. You missed a really, really good dinner,
Dan Ryan: Dan.
Uh, I'm S I still miss it, but I also think the story of like, doing this big to do dinner of this total long experience and really pushing the envelope in [00:04:00] cuisine, and then having me not even show up there made it even all the more interesting, um, when you think about like, how long was the dinner and like, what was your most memorable experience from it?
I heard stories like you put on a blindfold at dessert and have to inhale a pillow or something like that.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. So it's very, it's a very kind of sensory experience and it starts when you walk in, they, and they, they change their menu seasonally. And I really, I've only been the one time. So I've only experienced.
One time, thanks to you. Um, but yes, they do things like there's the pillow that deflates and you smell things. There was what's most memorable to me. I think there were like 18 courses, so I'm not going to remember all of them. Um, although I think I was sent home with a beautiful record of all the things that we had that evening.
That's part of the takeaway from the experience. But one of the things I remember the most was the dessert because they bring out this sphere of chocolate and they fill it. [00:05:00] They pour, I guess, like liquid nitrogen into it. And then they take this. The frozen bomb and drop it on the table and it explodes across the table.
And then they paint it with different sauces and whatnot. So inside of that sphere are our desserts that end up kind of freezing with the liquid nitrogen. So there were like ice cream pieces and waffles something, and then they, and they, they covered the table before that, with this mat that then became the canvas for this, this, you know, dessert art that they make.
And then you make a mess up, you all just with your hands. And when I just kind of eat off the table and take pieces that have exploded and dip them in the different sauces that they've painted on and whatnot. So that was very, that was all very memorable. That was kind of the most dramatic. But the other thing that was really memorable about that night was the service, um, was a really amazing mix of.
Formal and casual though, the waiters. And I think they were all [00:06:00] men that we had that evening had such a fun dynamic and rapport with one another, just kind of playing off one another. And they were kind of making fun of one another, a little bit too. So you're in this, this very sophisticated environment.
But they're having fun with it. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but what they're doing is incredibly serious, right? This is sort of like the height of, of molecular gastronomy and all, very much a spectacle, but they were part of their personalities, I think were very much a part of what the experience was supposed to be, which was very cool.
Dan Ryan: Uh, I really wish I could have been there, but I'm so glad you had a, an
Kristen Conry: amazing, yeah, I did. There were a bunch of tall waiters and one of them was kind of short and they kept making fun of him and his short arms that he couldn't reach across our big table. You know, all eight of us there without you.
Dan Ryan: Oh, well, I'm glad it was memorable because I actually, I think it's a really great launching point into our conversation today because you know, you've had, you've been on such a journey yourself.
You're talking about like a [00:07:00] culinary journey, but just also your, your career journey. And then also just in the midst of a pandemic and. Making this huge change and winding up where you are at Marriott. And thinking about that, like, as you said, the idea of formal and casual and just having fun with it, like, tell me about like what drew you to this incredible position that you have now at Marriott leading their design.
Kristen Conry: So one of the things I always say is just my heart belongs to this industry and I am, I have that like crazy irrational. Love for it. Um, and that's for, for our whole world of hospitality and I have spent as, you know, the, the majority of my career in it. Um, but Marriott in particular, you know, so you mentioned at the beginning of this, I started you, you and I met when I was at Hyatt.
So I did spend over a decade at Hyatt [00:08:00] and, um, and that's where I, you know, I learned about and learn to love the, our world of hospitality. But when I was at high, I had the opportunity to kind of watch Marriott from the outside as a competitor. And companies are very different, very different scales and very different approaches, both evolving tremendously and have evolved tremendously.
But one of the things that I kind of saw from the outside and it admired about Marriott was. The sort of transformation that they were going through and the commitment that Marriott had and the capability to execute on innovation, new ideas, growth. Um, so like I remember, um, spending when I was at Hyatt spending a couple of days camped out, down at the Marriott Charlotte hotel, the beta, the R R Marriott beta hotel down in Charlotte.
When, when Marriott was testing new ideas for the Marriott [00:09:00] brand and you went in there and you could interact with, um, the different experiences and give feedback and all that. And to me, I was like, wow. They don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk and they have the ability to do so to invest in these things, to really put innovation and new design ideas, really at the forefront, um, and guest facing, which was very exciting.
Uh, and then on top of that, you know, you couldn't get on an airplane without seeing Marriott commercials for Fairfield and courtyard and whatnot. And, um, you know, Mary just seemed to be everywhere. And Marriott really is, uh, um, in a very real way has kind of defined the hospitality industry and has led the hospitality industry and is very serious about continuing to evolve and is committed to the future of our industry.
So it, it's an incredibly exciting place to be with such rich history and legacy. And with that comes some kind of weight and there's challenges that come with that. Um, [00:10:00] but. With definitely an eye toward the future. And it's really exciting and inspiring. Yeah.
Dan Ryan: And so hearing you say that in like our original conversation where you just kind of light up about all these people that you're surrounded by.
Right. Um, and the feeling I got from you is they're all experts from just not even necessarily hospitality they're industry experts from every kind of job you could imagine that are coming there. And then there's this like passion that's going through it. But tell me about, or tell me, tell us about some of these varied, um, I guess colleagues that you have that just bring not only expertise, but just different perspective to what you're trying to do and helping you accomplish.
Kristen Conry: Sure. Yeah. So there's amazing, uh, amazing people here that I've gotten to know. So, you know, I joined here. Maybe I should mention that I joined here in December of 2020. So my experience with Marriott has been almost entirely virtual and it's remarkable that I [00:11:00] feel as connected to the people as I do. And I think that's a Testament to the culture and the people here and their willingness to embrace someone new like me.
Um, and for me to feel that for me to be able to say that, to know as many people as I do well enough to be able to say that I think, um, also speaks volumes about who they are. But when I think about the people here and, um, one of the amazing things about working at a company like this is there's the influence of our core business, what we do, uh, which is hospitality.
I'm talking about the operational side of hospitality. So the people who have come through and done. All the jobs, essentially in the hotels and have spent their careers in, in this world of hospitality and the influence that that has on the culture and the style of [00:12:00] leadership and the way people treat people is really powerful.
So you have people who have known the names of every person who has worked in a hotel from the engineer to the housekeeper, to an assistant manager, you know, all, all the ranks up through general managers. You have people who take such pride in the experience of P it's just such a people first mindset.
And I know so many companies I've met pretty much every company out there talks about being people first, but I feel like we have the opportunity. To, to really be people first in a way that some other industries don't and that comes to life in the corporate setting, where I exist as you know, in the architecture and design world, not out in the fields.
Um, but the influence that that has is, um, it's very palpable. And so it translates [00:13:00] into really taking the time to know your teams, to invest in others, to know all the owners, to know the networks of people who make this all happen. There's also just a very kind of human and humane quality to the, to the culture, um, and, uh, uh, sort of refinement of people, skills and soft skills, such as strength of people, skills and soft skills that I think you don't always get in other places that translates into something.
I think that's really special and I have had the opportunity to. Be on different sides of the table and I have felt that difference. And it's one of the things, um, that the people in the world of hospitality, I think
Dan Ryan: make it, uh, thank you for sharing that because one of the things that I found and I've been in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hotels, not just supplying furniture to them, but also going in and helping coaching them on safety and [00:14:00] every hotel that I've been in, it's always people first, you go into the back of house or hard house, whatever you want to call it.
And they have, there's some core value that's people first. And I can't tell you how many I've been to where it's people first, but then you go into the break room for instance. And it's like a war zone and I wouldn't eat in there. And it's just there, I think oftentimes people or companies or organizations use that people first cause okay.
Yeah. We're nothing without our people, but I don't think that they. Live up to that value because when you really get in there and you see what's going on, it's not, it's clearly, there's a disconnect. Yeah. And yeah. And I love hearing you say that, like not only looking from the outside and you're hearing and feeling that and seeing, but now that you're in it, you're seeing it and experiencing it.
And I also think about you joining in December, 2020, like a hero of our [00:15:00] industry is Arnie Sorenson and he wound up passing away. I think it was February, 2021. So you were really only there for a couple of months with like one of the Supreme leaders of our industry.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. I only had about. Three, a little over three months overlap with our knee while he was still here.
And it was very sad. I hadn't time set up to meet with him. One-on-one as part of my first kind of 90 day onboarding. And I remember the day that that meeting came up and it was a couple of weeks after he passed away. It was a very sad moment to think that this was, this would have been the opportunity to meet him.
I actually did have the opportunity to shake his hand before I was at Marriott. He was speaking at the economic club in Chicago when I was still in Chicago. He had given a speech there and he, he is, uh, just an effortless speaker. And I think you hear everyone say that about him and his sort of warmth and authenticity always comes through.
And he was, he's a tall guy. He's big hands, big warm hands. And I remember, [00:16:00] uh, introducing myself to him afterward and he shook my hand and he had that very genuine, warm smile. Um, obviously, you know, I had no idea I would end up working for him and his company, uh, some years down the road, but I do feel lucky that I'd get to get to meet him, but I did not get to spend time with them when I
Dan Ryan: joined him.
Oh, that's a shame. I've actually never met him. Uh, I've been around him at many times, but never, and all the P like so many people that I respect trust and love in our industry. I've never heard a bad thing, said about, I've never heard anything less than X excellence when, when, uh, they speak about RNA.
And I feel like it's such, he's such a missed force within our industry and it's left a void, but at the same time, you know, we're, you're, you were saying it how this is such a great time of transition for Marriott, for Marriott. And you think about not just in the change of leadership and also the [00:17:00] bringing in of the new people, but also just moving from Bethesda, out in an office park to downtown Bethesda.
And just thinking about this huge, like there's so many different transformations. And I, and I feel like Arnie is such a part of that. Cause all that stuff happened. While he was still with the
Kristen Conry: company. He was very much a part of, you know, putting that plan into action. Our new headquarters will very much be a tangible piece of his legacy and will embody a lot of his vision for the company, um, and where he was positioning us to go forward.
And you probably had heard we've got, so we have our headquarters and next to it, we have the new Marriott Bethesda hotel, which is beautiful and open. And you should come visit.
Dan Ryan: Yeah, I've been there when it was, when it was a job site. So Berman Faulk boy worked with, they actually supplied all the furniture there, but was that.
Arnie's last model room review that he was involved in,
Kristen Conry: or one of his, it was definitely involved in that model [00:18:00] room review. I don't know if that would have been his last one. Um, but a very meaningful one, obviously, of course. And the Plaza that's between the two buildings has been dedicated as the Sorenson Plaza, which will be open to the public, um, will obviously be a wonderful place for all the Marriott associates in our Marriott gas, but we'll be very much a part of the Bethesda downtown landscape.
Dan Ryan: Really? Yeah. So, and also thinking about this, I just had to look it up, but the Marriott Sorenson center for hospitality leadership, um, I had a guest on who is a graduate of Howard university Lawrence, and he said that there's this huge gift, um, that the Sorenson family left with with Marriott, with Marriott to really help grow their, uh, Their hospitality program as well.
So his impact is just being felt in so many different ways, shapes and forms.
Kristen Conry: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, you know, the, the [00:19:00] Marriott in sin, the endowment that was made at Howard university, obviously it's we Marriott and Arnie Sorenson wanted to bring up the best next generation of hospitality leaders.
But clearly that's not just for us, these people. Just graduate and come to us. This is to the benefit of the industry. And so when I talked about Marriott, really leading the industry and looking, looking out for the future of the industry as a whole, I think that that's one of, you know, that's a very large, um, example of how they're making that happen and the commitment to the future of what our whole world of hospitality is doing.
Not just merit. I think that that's a really, I don't know, it's just like a really beautiful and powerful statement, I think.
Dan Ryan: Totally. And I just, from what Damon's talking, I've had some conversations with him just sounds really exciting. And if you think about our industry and just kind of what we've been through and where we're going, I still firmly believe that no matter what you learned from training or [00:20:00] within our industry, and then you get a job or do you start a career that whether you like hospitality or not, the skills that you're going to learn are transferable.
Everywhere everywhere. And if you do wind up loving our industry, you stay in it. And because so many people have left because of COVID now the career path trajectory is so incredibly steep. Yeah. Um, so in hearing you talk about, and watching you just light up talking about, um, just different kinds of hospitality.
So from Alinea, which is like over the top crazy theatrical to shaking Arnie Sorenson, his hand to what you're seeing now with your teams and being inspired by others. How do you define hospitality as, as you Kristen?
Kristen Conry: To me, hospitality is that spirit of generosity. And it's when. [00:21:00] We anticipate and we delight people and we do it in that really selfless way that it delights us to do so.
And it's funny, cause you were talking about that first story, the Alinea story, and in some ways that's such a perfect gesture of it because we had this amazing experience and you were so thrilled for us to have it and you delighted in our delight and you weren't even there to have it yourself and you still delight in that delight.
So I think that spirit of generosity and just finding such satisfaction in delighting others is really what's at the heart of hospitality.
Dan Ryan: Yeah. That's I mean, I really still would've loved to have been there, but I, again, the fact that I, I was able to, or not, I was able, I still get joy out of the fact that I wasn't there.
'cause I dunno, it's just like it's. So
Kristen Conry: you enable that experience for other people and like that [00:22:00] that's what hospitality is. And you kind of do, even though you set up the whole thing, kind of take a step to the background and let other people enjoy it and delight. And I'm like that that's that's hospitality.
Dan Ryan: It is. And I think, you know, as I hear you say that also, you know, we're, I dunno, I dunno if we're 60 or something, podcasts into this, into me doing this defining hospitality thing. What I love about it so much is that I'll do these conversations with, with you or others. And it's really just bringing out all the learning that, that my guests have on, or that our guests have on, where we just are able to learn and delight.
What you guys are saying it's coming out and then it's kind of helping shorten the journeys of other people that are listening and kind of helping fill in the blanks on such a wonderful niche of an industry. And it's, it's about making, I don't know, it's like [00:23:00] completing or telling all of our stories.
And most of the time we don't get to tell our stories in a very like, listened to way. Right. If you really think about the built environment and what we're all designing, the best ones sound oftentimes are the ones where you don't notice anything. It's like, it's just, everything is perfectly in place and design just, well, and it serves this, I don't know, it creates this environment where you're just kind of going through and just having these imprints of what you're doing, but it's nothing is like jumping out at you.
Right. It's just, it's almost like you're just feel. Uh, encased in this warmth and you're all around this hearth and sharing stories. And, um, I don't know, oftentimes the best work that we all do, it just goes unnoticed.
Kristen Conry: Yeah, I think, um, well it sets the. It's essentially like sets the scene or sets the [00:24:00] framework for you to have amazing, having an amazing time or having an effortless time, or just have that feeling like you said, of warmth, of welcome of comfort.
Um, without it being too in your face, but there's going to be some times when you want things to be a bit in your face and you want them to just kind of like wake you up and make you think differently. And, and that's why you look at the, you know, we've got 30 brands, we have 30 different ways of creating experiences for people, um, depending on what they're looking for and where they're looking for it.
But I think what you're describing is that when all of the, when all the stars light, so you're talking about sharing stories, one, um, one that always stands out to me. So. I have spent most of my career, as I said in the world of hospitality design. So design architecture, I'm incredibly passionate about it.
I think it matters. I think it matters tremendously to create the experiences you're talking about, but one of the most [00:25:00] memorable and kind of powerful statements someone made, or maybe I'll say like a lesson that I learned. Um, so someone said that,
design can never make up for bad service. So when we're talking about how important people are and that sort of service mindset, that's at the heart of hospitality, this really gets at that.
Um, it was very powerful when it was said to me. And in some ways it's sort of like knocked the wind out of me because I was this architect, this designer and a hospitality company.
And to hear this leader of the company say that you will never differentiate yourself truly on design. And it's all in the service and design cannot make up for lacking service, but let, but great service can make up for a gap in design. And so when you [00:26:00] think about. Our hotels out there that need to be renovated, but you have amazing teams bringing these experiences to life, making you feel so welcome that will, you know, 99 times out of a hundred, be the most important and most influential aspect about your stay and how you feel like that feeling of warmth and welcome.
But when you have all the stars align and you have amazing design and you have amazing experience, I think that's when you get that, that really magical feeling, uh, that's kind of the best of what hospitality has to offer. And when I say that, I want to, I want to make sure that I underscore that the message is not that design doesn't matter because it absolutely, it absolutely does.
But I thought that it was a moment of kind of humility and introspection about what it is that we do and how it matters or kind of where it ranks in mattering. And it really there's still the people, part of it comes first. And to me, that was. It was kind of eyeopening [00:27:00] and powerful, but I also sort of loved it because in some ways there are there's, there are constraints and realities about our world of design.
And I think right now at this period where we're coming out of the pandemic, we're coming out of these financial constraints with all of our partners, our owners and whatnot. And we're thinking about, you know, how can we still deliver these amazing experiences for our guests? How can we still do what we've all set out to do?
And that's where looking at our teams and our people becomes ever, ever more important. Um, as we all get back to, to the good work of design and I
Dan Ryan: totally agree, and a lot of these conversations that I'm having with people with respect to the built environment, and you look at just how it was all about survival mode, cap, capital expenditure budgets were severely diminished and continue to be as we are treading water.
And now coming out of this. It really came down to the teams on site because a [00:28:00] hotel that might've been due for a renovation or just was threadbare or needed some help, some TLC, it just physically and monitor and financially wasn't possible to do the work during the pandemic, but it was really about the teams that made things memorable.
And I know, and a lot of that is also just accepting the fault. Right. You check in, it's like, Hey, you know, w w we don't have, um, housekeeping services. You might notice that blah-blah-blah, isn't just right. But, you know, we're doing the best that we can. And what can we do to like, turn the volume up on what we're doing to make your stay more enjoyable.
And, and again, it's just that it's accepting a role in it, but it's also having a plan and saying, Hey, we got you. Yeah,
Kristen Conry: yeah, absolutely. Yes. There are teams out at the hotels have, um, I have been having to, uh, live that, you know, surface making up for sometimes a [00:29:00] gap and where we'd like to be with design.
And that's very much a part of where we're at right now, but it's also an exciting time because we've got, you know, these next few years will be very interesting as we get back into the swing of things with renovations. And I think with all of this, it was kind of trying to find the silver lining in these really challenging and.
Kind of devastating experiences that we've had, but there are silver linings. And I think one of them, as it relates to design and the constraints that we're under and as designers and architects, we kind of thrive with constraints. You have to, you know, it's almost like if you take away all the boundaries, you become the it's almost you're floating and it's kind of hard.
And so when you're given these constraints, what I think it's forced us to do and to do with our owners is to really think critically about what does matter for each of these brands. So if we are looking to create that incredible unique, differentiated experience, what is it that really matters? And what has the most impact?
Because right now we [00:30:00] don't have the luxury to just say everything. We really have to dig into the details of our data. We have to really understand the return on every one of those dollars and okay. Expert advisors and be great partners and do right by our guests and do right by our owners and do right by our brands to say, this is the best use of our money right now to have the most positive impact on the business, on the guest experience and on the integrity of each of the brands.
And I think that that's only going to serve us well as we go forward, because we're going to be more focused. We're going to have a clear vision of what's important. What's really important. What's a non-negotiable for each of these brands. And I
Dan Ryan: totally agree with you that constraint. Is where the magic happens, because it forces us all to be super supremely creative.
I'm in a group of entrepreneurs and we had a, we meet monthly and we just brought in some new members [00:31:00] and as an icebreaker, or just to get to know each other, I said, okay, you're right. You're right. Your life story in the next 20 minutes in 400 words or less. And we all sat there and we just, we all had our word processor up where it was counting the words and 20 minutes, and then we read them to each other.
And it's funny. Cause the last time I did that was in 2018 and it totally changed. Um, everything was changed. And if I think about between 2018 and here we are in 2022, it's amazing. Like if I really sat down just to write and think about it, it probably would have gone back to. Elements of what I did in 2018, but I think just the constraints and just knowing that time is ticking something really cool.
And interesting came out that now I'm thinking about like, yeah, where do
Kristen Conry: we go next? A little bit of pressure, temporary out the best. And you know, the old adage. And I was like, you'll fill the time you have. So if you're a, if you were given three weeks to [00:32:00] do that, you would've got it done. You know, at two weeks, six days and 23 hours or 23 hours and 59 minutes, I would have, that would have, that would have been me.
Um, but if you're given 20 minutes, you wouldn't do it and you would do it in 20 minutes. The other thing, as you said, that it's also like, I'm sure you've had the experience where you, you know, you write something out, maybe it was for school. Maybe it's a long email and it disappears somehow. Like it crashes it, whatever, and you have to do it over and it feels like such a burden, but in the end you do a better.
You're kind of editing it as you go through and you're remembering just those parts that were, that were the most important and not the flourishes and not the, you know, not the kind of extra stuff. And so that's yeah, a
Dan Ryan: hot a hundred percent and yeah, and that's also like when I do write, I don't like writing with a word processor.
Right. I like to write, I write it with what Microsoft word or Google docs or whatever, but then I actually print it up and then I rewrite it again and make all the changes. So it actually goes through the whole process again, rather than [00:33:00] cutting and pasting. Because again, I want to put that through my whole filter.
Yeah. Uh, I have a question for you, so you, I have lots of questions for you, but okay. Um, you graduate from college, you get in architecture and then. You, you started doing historic preservation, you went out to area area. Okay. So that is so different from what you're doing now, how did you go from there to then working as a, as an architect in the states and then finding your way to hospitality?
What, what was that the initial part of your career journey? How did you wind up into getting into hospitality?
Kristen Conry: So my first job out of school, I moved to Chicago. I went to university of Michigan, the architecture school at university of Michigan, and like many Michigan grads moved to Chicago and I moved, it was August of 2001.
So it was, it was like a week before [00:34:00] nine 11. And I, um, I started working, I had a terrible job. I worked at. Uh, bar by Wrigley field, but it wasn't even like a real good bar job. I was like selling t-shirts. So like the souvenir girl, I can't believe I'm even like confessing that to you on this
humiliating, but you know what? You should do all the jobs, you should do all the bad jobs and, um, all the jobs you can. They're all good learning experiences. I, um, I, I, I organized that souvenir shop and increased sales because, uh, it was kind of a disaster before. So there's my, there's my, uh, my win there, but I did end up getting a job kind of against all odds in that, in that crazy time of 2001.
Um, and I worked for a very small firm and we did a lot of high-end residential. Meanwhile, I was living in like a little shoe box of an apartment and working with these amazing clients, we had an absolutely amazing clients. So a lot of [00:35:00] high end residential and bars and nightclubs and our clients were.
Um, a lot of the main players in Boystown in Chicago. So the gay scene in Chicago, so awesome. Um, I mean talk about people who truly truly live, breathe the spirit of hospitality and generosity. And I think before everyone was doing kind of design thinking and data analytics and understanding your target gas, these people were talking about it.
And so I learned a lot about the residential world and you know, that very kind of high touch thinking through every aspect of a person's experience in a space, and then kind of paired that with the food and beverage work with bars and nightclubs. Um, so I had kind of the makings of these important aspects of hospitality design, but not all put together.
Um, and then I took that. I took a little hiatus and detour and did some preservation work in [00:36:00] Bulgaria. And that was before I sat for my architecture exams. And I wanted to have, you're allowed to, to get some of your hours log some of your hours internationally. And since I had the freedom and ability at that point in my life to do so, I did that with the international council of monuments and sites.
And Bulgaria was one of the, one of the architectural sites. They also do archeological sites, but it was United nations. Correct? It's um, it, so the one that I did, so the international council of monuments and sites is an organization. The, the work that I did for this historic home in Plovdiv Bulgaria had a grant by the Japanese.
Um, division of UNESCO, I believe had given money for the preservation of these homes. So I went there and this could be like a whole nother podcast. I can tell you about my experiences. Good. We can get you back in Bulgaria. I, uh, yeah, it was, um, you know, I kind of showed up in this [00:37:00] country when you're not with a group you're not with anyone.
And I like found a place to live. I didn't, and this was like, I didn't have a cell phone. I didn't have a laptop. I worked out of the computer lab and at the university of Sophia and like made friends with the guy who ran the computer lab and, um, could work off hours. And anyway, so, uh, I did that and then came back and I went back to the small firm I had left and I didn't necessarily have the intention of doing that.
But one of the guys, one of the principles of that and this, when I say small firm, I mean, small, like six people total, uh, three of them being principals. So it was a very, very small firm, but what was awesome about that as I worked. Hand in hand and pretty much exclusively with just one of the principles.
And I learned a lot from him and he was so masterful with relationships with people. So these residential clients we were working with, or these relationships with the, with the hospitality, his name was ed Webber. Uber I'd [00:38:00] never. Yeah, so we had just a fantastic Kevin's for a minute, whatever. So there were three, three principals, Scott Fortman, Richard Gibbons and ed Webber.
And I. A lot with, um, add Weber who ended up leaving the firm. And that was part of what prompted me to take my next step in my career, um, and pointed me in the direction of hospitality. And there was a guy who worked in this, this little firm is actually kind of funny. This like little firm at, um, in Chicago has put out some of, some of the, like leading people in our hospitality design world and they don't even do hotels.
So I met there and he was actually one of my mentors, John Meister, who, after leaving, he left Gibbons forum and a Weber shortly before I did. And he did his own thing, I think for a while, but he came to Marriott and so he was working at Marriott at the time that I was thinking about taking my next step.
And he said, Kristen, I think you might really enjoy [00:39:00] hospitality when you, it, it brings together so much of what we did on the hospitality side and the, the bars and nightclubs, um, and kind of brings it all together. And it's kind of fun to work on the other side of the table. And so at the time I lived in Chicago, so I talked to Hyatt.
I also talked to Marriott, but being in Chicago and Hyatt was that a moment of re-invention there, where they were rebuilding or kind of building from the ground up a new architecture and design team for north America. And. That was just one of those things where the timing just aligned. I, you know, was 20 some late 20 something year old.
I sent my resume into what I thought was like the black hole of, you know, a website and lo and behold got a call and I actually got a job and then worked there for over a decade. But it was because of John Mike star that I really looked seriously at the world of hospitality. And then fast forward a few years, I dunno, five or so years later, John Meiser ended up coming to Hyatt [00:40:00] from Marriott and John waster now leads the Hyatt place and Hyatt house teams, the select service team for Hyatt's.
Um, and Emily kype who worked with me at givens Fortman and Weber joined. My team on the north. America's I know she leads the she's kind of my counterpart, if you will, for the full service team at Hyatt. So this tiny little architecture firm in Chicago has, uh, has put out, you know, three of the hospitality design leaders in our industry.
Dan Ryan: And then if you throw in, I guess if you take that one and then you look at like a Jordan Mosher or someone like that, and all the people like, yeah. So
Kristen Conry: Jordan, right? So part of my time at Hyatt, Adam, Laura, who is still a dear friend, you should talk to him one day, if you haven't he's uh, uh, Katie G Y Simione.
Um, so he was, uh, and Larry, obviously Traxler, um, part of the [00:41:00] Jordan Mosher world,
Dan Ryan: unlike assuming
Kristen Conry: meeting with him later this week, we're doing a panel discussion together.
Dan Ryan: Oh good. Jay Pokot was there for a little bit too. Yeah. Wow. That's crazy. Yeah.
Kristen Conry: So our, yeah, our role of hospitality design is a close knit one.
We have, we have a lot of cross paths crossed paths.
Dan Ryan: And then,
Kristen Conry: so then I was at Hyatt. I worked in the, um, I worked in the north American kind of execution world working on new builds renovations. And it was really fun. It was so fun. It was so much work. I mean, Dan, this was when you and I. Hanging out and doing stuff together and you knew our crew there.
And it was just like a ton of crazy work. And I just learned a tremendous amount and it was one of those times similar to like the little from I joined out of college. But when you're in these places that are like small and you're, you're just sort of thrown into the deep end, whether you're ready for it or [00:42:00] not.
And they're like, well, it's swim, right? There's no one here to catch you. So just go and had so much fun learning. And that's where I, you know, just kind of fell in love with our world, got to know all of these wonderful people who inhabit this crazy world of ours. Um, how this whole thing works and found that I absolutely loved it and then moved into a global role at Hyatt and worked on the strategy side.
And the execution side went from full service to select service, a really broadened my exposure and experience in the world of hospitality got, you know, added more facets to what I knew. I went back to business school, which
Dan Ryan: if you also think about. Oh, yeah, you got your MBA too. But if you, if you think about, um, constraints and going full service to select, I mean, and then just
you work within those constraints from full service to select. And then if you think about the, all the select service and the [00:43:00] amazing options of select service that have come out in the past 10 to 15 years, whereas if you contrast what we have now and kind of all what those laboratories of constraints have come up with and contrast it to what was there 15 years ago, it's unreal.
And I think all that cool growth and progression and evolution came from really intense constraints.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. And there was, there's a lot of. There's a lot of competition. There's so much that happened in the select service world over the last, you know, 10, 15 years and the design sophistication, the expectations of guests and the brands responses.
And so you look at, you know, Marriott and then acquiring Starwood and the influence on the design world. Here you look at, um, I, I found it to be very encouraging and inspiring that from sort of the bottom of there was this, this like [00:44:00] elevation of design. And I think there's a lot of things that go into that of in here in the United States in particular.
I think that there's, um, very highly evolved design cultures in a lot of countries. And I think our country has its own sort of pace and ideas about design. And I, I feel like in our. Careers here in the duration of our careers. Dan, we've seen, we've seen that kind of, um, baseline elevate. And when you look at America in particular in the U S yes, and I think.
There's companies that obviously have influence on how we all look at and think about design. You look at apple and you know what they do. You can even look at like Ikea and what they've done. And you look at partnerships that target has. And you think of, you know, how design for the masses there's there are brands who have brought more design sensibility to, you know, broader consumer basis.
And I think [00:45:00] that's kind of exciting. And then you look at how our worlds in hospitality design. Has evolved and the sophistication and expectations of design and the innovation that have, there's a lot of innovation that happens in the select world and then moves out of it. A lot of the adoption of technology, um, happens in our select world.
Um, and talk about constraints, right? What's going on with, um, you know, how small can you get a room pod, hotels, and then the innovation and construction that happens with us with modular construction or other kind of semi modular things. And a lot of that starts happening because you've got product that can do it.
You've got owners who are open to it. You have timelines that are a bit more forgiven. So it's a really exciting. Space. Um, and I think there's a lot of innovation that can be exported from an experience and from a business perspective, like the business models are tight and there's a lot of [00:46:00] discipline in this world that is
Dan Ryan: incredible.
I totally agree. And again, from the, the business model, and that's kind of where I was thinking of the constraint on the select service. I mean, these development budgets are super tight, but the end results and the guest experience, and then that laboratory for technology, it's really created these really cool new directions that are influencing home technology and oh, other business technology and operational technologies.
That it's, it's pretty, I mean, it's, it's surprising to me that if I, if I was there 15 years ago, thinking that all the innovation that would come out of select service. If someone told me that, like Marty McFly came back from back to the teacher and told me that I wouldn't believe him, but it's crazy how, how it's done it.
And then, so, you know, we've been looking back a bunch and then thinking about where you are and kind of this whole transition that's [00:47:00] occurring within Marriott. Um, what's exciting. You most about the future right now?
Kristen Conry: Oh, I am. So I feel incredibly optimistic and I, um, what excites me most. So I have a lot of these things that we're talking about.
I think we're at this moment, like I said, where we are forced to think very critically about what matters, what matters as a company, what matters to our guests, what matters to our brands and to be part of. Creating those next generation experiences and processes that will deliver that. There's a, I like the sort of necessary rigor and discipline that is happening in this moment.
Some of it's painful, you know, like some of it is not, it's not fun, but I feel like we're all gonna learn a ton through it. We're going to adopt new technologies. We're going to rethink how we deliver [00:48:00] our services, both from a design perspective and from a in hotel experience perspective, how do you interact with people?
What are the expectations that people have of, of, um, of meaningful interactions? What are those needs that we are designing for? And. And satisfying and from the select segment all the way through lifestyle and through luxury there, they're evolving. So I am super excited about continuing on this kind of very data, rich, thoughtful, responsive journey with a new level of rigor and discipline built into our DNA.
Now, I
Dan Ryan: don't know assessing it, but yeah, I had to write that down because I'm going to type that up and send it to you. That was amazing [00:49:00] because again, you're, I also, you know, you're talking about this like data rich, thoughtful, responsive journey that if you think about, I can't even imagine, but I see all the work that Marriott did post acquisition of star wars of Starwood, and then it's 30 something brands, but all just how you, how.
Cattle categorized each brand experience. And I was like, I don't know how the hell they're going to differentiate all that stuff. But then really like after a year, year and a half of kind of really analyzing it and stepping out and this matrix and it like totally make sense.
Kristen Conry: It makes sense. And you have, you have sort of two dimensions to it from a service and then the kind of experience.
So from select through full and luxury, and then a sort of classic and distinctive, or kind of classic in lifestyle. And when you look at it in that way, it all starts to kind of fall into place and make it make sense. And you need [00:50:00] that sort of framework and discipline to make sense of 30 brands.
Dan Ryan: Yeah, totally agree.
And, and I remember as the, as Marriott was working through all of that and thinking about it, and then I was seeing the results, I was also just amazed in Austria. The skill and talent by which people can take ideas and turn them into words and actions, and then ultimately like a grid that totally makes sense.
And you can totally experience and, and I'm just glad, and
Kristen Conry: not just a grid, actual places out there that, that deliver on what these words are and what this is positioning. Yeah.
Dan Ryan: And, and, and I'm so glad that like that there are other people who are good at, like, because to me, I just, I wouldn't even know where to take step one, but to see that whole progression and to see, I guess there's never an end result cause we're always evolving.
But, um, to me it's [00:51:00] just really exciting to have seen people that I know, get that work done, get it to where it is. And then now you're, you're off on this journey of transitioning.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. Yeah, it is. So this part of the hospitality world, I am totally biased because it's the one I inhabit, but I think it is.
One of the most fascinating because it lives at this intersection of brand and development and operations. And in some ways it makes it a hard place to inhabit because you're being pulled in different directions and different priorities, but it's a, it's a kind of, uh, you can never, um, you will never not be challenged.
You will never not have something substantive to, to grapple with because what we do is find that balance and be in some ways, the ambassador for all of these important aspects of the business from a development standpoint, from a, you know, running an [00:52:00] operational business standpoint and from brand integrity and to have a design.
Solution that can deliver on all of those is not always easy, but it's a really cool puzzle to keep doing and different ways for different brands in different markets, with different owners and different personalities. I
Dan Ryan: totally agree. And like, again, going to look back again in that 10 or 15 years ago, it was so operations and development heavy.
Right. I guess there was kind of brand played it as like a tertiary role, but now I feel like they're all, they, they really managed to find this kind of,
Kristen Conry: um, it's definitely become, yeah, like definitely become very brand led. Um, and, and, and. Very focused on brand differentiation. And so the strength of Marriott and a sort of single hand of merit, I think that legacy is always there.
And as part of the sort of fundamental foundational [00:53:00] strength, um, of all of our brands, but that evolution, and I think a lot of it with the Starwood acquisition, um, and what that did for the portfolio, but also what it did in terms of, um, bringing in different perspectives and different voices into Marriott and pushed Marriott forward in a, in a, in a kind of stronger brand led, um, trajectory.
Dan Ryan: But then I also think if you look at the operational and the development side, right, there's a P and L is a balance sheet. Whatever you can tell if it's profitable, but the re I think the real value is. The real explosion of multiples on whatever the money being made is it comes from that brand. It's that voice it's that perspective, because then you're able to different that brand can differentiate a P and L and a balance sheet from just any [00:54:00] other business.
And to me, like, if you look at the most successful companies out there, they're all super strong brands with super strong perspectives in what they do and what they do is so good. And then you contrast that to err, and they're so good at what they do, but they're also so good at what they do, because they also know that they're not good at all those other things.
And like, let's focus on this thing that we do so well, and it's just inspiring. And it reminds me that like how important is brands are.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. So that's the whole, you know, if you try to be everything to everyone, you're going to end up being nothing. To nobody. And so the more you have to know who you are, what you're delivering, who you're doing it for.
And I think in our world, there is, there is that rigor and there is that focus, but when you have 30 brands, it does, you know, there is a level of complexity that comes with that [00:55:00] and a need for rigor and discipline. Um, and like I said, I, when you asked me what I'm excited about, I'm excited about this period of time where we are even more focused and more disciplined.
The other piece of it, Dan going in the sort of other direction of kind of bringing more into the fold, um, is where. We're looking for and doing things in these kinds of close, adjacent spaces, that'll continue to expand our platform of offerings to our guests. So you've, I'm sure read about our yacht that will set sail, right?
So there's, there is a new brand experience for Ritz-Carlton, um, that is not a hotel, but in, in the kind of world adjacent. And you can imagine what comes next after that, what are kind of more ways that these experiences can expand into other
Dan Ryan: well, as I hear it, I did read about the, uh, um, and to me, [00:56:00] what I thought of, and I didn't think about it when I read about it, but as you're at our conversation, and then you reminded me of that, it's almost as if, um, You know, are that NASA and the space program, like they would do all these things, like go to the moon or put, put a space station up there, but oftentimes, okay, that's cool.
We're doing that. But really the most useful things come out of the journey to get there and like all these new technologies and experiences and the end result is so I'm excited to see what comes out
Kristen Conry: of this, right? The things we learned along the way to launch that will find their way back into the other things that we are doing.
And, you know, I don't know yet how that will play out. Um, but I'm excited to see, and there's other exciting things. We've got a ton of traction in the residential world and branded residences, and we have more standalone branded residences being built than we ever have in the past. We opened, um, [00:57:00] I don't know the exact number.
I can't remember, but 10, 15 something branded residences in 2021 stand alone. And so you look at. People's relationship with brands, um, evolve and how they can become more a part of their lives in different ways. Well, here's one of them. So we're in a phase of, I think it's sort of that sense of people are always looking for that sense of belonging and I'm sure you see it, um, where you are.
If you see condos going up, they're not just condos. They're. But
Dan Ryan: whatever cents
Kristen Conry: they're named, they're branded there or the other, whatever, they're a lifestyle development they're generally mixed use. They have all of these amenities, rich components. Well, who has been doing that and doing it? Well, we have, you know, Marriott has the hotel world, has, we know how to run retail, to run, to incorporate food and beverage experiences, to incorporate wellness [00:58:00] experiences.
And we are a brand that people trust. So I think that it seems natural that there's a lot of traction that you would live in a Ritz Carlton residence in AJW residents. And we're seeing more and more of that. And I think that we're going to see more in the residential, um, and more kind of innovative new ways to kind of live our brands, um, in the future.
Dan Ryan: Well, I'm excited to see it. Um, And it is, I didn't think about that on the, even the standalone residences, single family multifamily, like it's all happening right now. And especially with this whole, with this whole baby boomer generation, like we're about to undergo a huge demographic shift as well. I mean, it's, uh, it's really exciting to see how all of this kind of plays together.
Um, so Chris and I want to go back, oh yeah, you
Kristen Conry: keep going. I was just going to say, and I think this is where you see, [00:59:00] um, some of the cross-pollination or the migration of, of things from one country to the other cultures, to others, branded residences perhaps had more traction outside of the U S maybe in the middle east or in Asia and are not gaining traction here.
And then you look at some of the experiences that had more traction here, like in the select service world that are now gaining more and more attraction outside of, of the us. Um, so I think that there's more of that, um, I guess migration and evolution of these things. So some of, some of the things that are already capabilities that we have, we're just finding new markets for them and people open to these, um, these experiences for the first time, even though it might not be the first time for us to be delivering it in other parts of the world.
Dan Ryan: love it. And then w what I wanted to do is I want to go back to. And I, you [01:00:00] worked as a t-shirt person for how long, like, was it a year? A couple of times a year,
Kristen Conry: a month? No, it was it in the summer. So I started at the end of August and I, and then I only, and then like my first job was it, it started in October, so it was all of like six weeks.
Dan Ryan: Great. Cause where I wanted to go was I wanted to go to a hot August night. You're you're you're selling t-shirts the Cardinals are in town at Wrigley. They're playing hubs. Right? Good rivalry.
Kristen Conry: That's going to be it. That's going to be the hot
Dan Ryan: August night. But the more of the point is I know it's heated.
It's all that like it's the crowds are out. And then you, the Kristin Connery that I'm talking to right now walk into that t-shirt shop and you see the younger version of you. What advice do you give yourself on that hot August?
Kristen Conry: Oh, that is a good question. Um, I, [01:01:00] I would tell myself to, to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, whether it's selling t-shirts or the equivalent of that in the, uh, you know, when you get into your professional career in the design world, there is the, uh, you know, metaphorical equivalent of selling t-shirts and I would say, do do it all and do it well, um, because the opportunity to learn, and then your ability to, I don't know, kind of the empathy, I think that you develop by kind of doing everything and then it's.
Go on and you're, you're, you know, I sometimes miss the days of, um, and this sounds crazy, but like intensive [01:02:00] code research or, you know, just like working the system down at city hall, getting permits and whatnot for clients, like it all was just, I took it all on as like a challenge, you know, and that's kind of what we do.
Like we are problem solvers, designers, architects. That's what we do. That's what we thrive on. Um, so I think I would just tell myself to, to, to put, pour yourself into every problem and challenge and new ones will continue to come and you will continue to be challenged. And you won't, you won't forget, never forget what it was like, kind of doing it all along the way.
Dan Ryan: I love that that grind develops empathy because it really does a hundred thousand percent. So thank you for sharing. Hey Kristen, where can people
Kristen Conry: connect with you? Oh, reach out to me on LinkedIn and for anyone who's around at our industry events, I tend to, I tend to be there and with gladly, gladly hear [01:03:00] from anyone
Dan Ryan: there. Awesome. And we'll put that in the show notes as well, Chris.
Kristen Conry: Yeah. Cause like I'll be at HD expo. I'll be at BDN Y like all those, you know. Great.
Dan Ryan: And we'll, we'll make sure we have a big sign for you. You'll walk around with
Kristen Conry: Marriott.
Dan Ryan: Come say hello.
Kristen Conry: Have you noticed, as we were talking that the sun has moved and has like. I, I, it kinda came up over the time that we've been talking and I am now like roasting.
Um, I'm roasting
Dan Ryan: as well. I'm like, I got the heat blowing down on me. The sun's beaming down from the west as it gets. So you have a westward facing
Kristen Conry: window? Ah, yes. We, for anyone who watches, they can like view the slow passage of time. My face
Dan Ryan: just lights, just like the days of our lives. Um, well, Kristen, I want to say thank you so much for your time.
I really been looking forward to this conversation. Um, I can't wait for many more and thank you so much for your time.
Kristen Conry: Oh, Zan. It is always such a pleasure to talk with you always so fun and [01:04:00] I'm sure we will have the opportunity to do it again.
Dan Ryan: We definitely will, for sure. And I don't want to forget our most of the most important part is our listeners.
I hope this conversation helped evolve your take on hospitality, what it means to both give and receive. Build a career out of it. So thank you all to the listeners and we will see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Tom Dufton
Tom Dufton
Podcast Producer for Defining Hospitality.
The Generosity of Hospitality - Kristen Conry - Episode # 050
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