Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Marriot MD Craig Smith’s multinational experience has provided him with a competitive advantage

When asked a while back to name the nationality with which he most identifies, Craig Smith answered “expat”, and it’s easy to see why. In an almost 30-year career with hotel group Marriott International, he has circled the globe and in the process, become entirely at ease with the idea of moving between different countries and cultures, adapting as necessary to get the job done, making new friends along the way, and heading on to the next location when the company calls. 

That motive force has recently brought him back to Hong Kong as the group’s Asia-Pacific president and managing director, overseeing more than 180 hotels with close to 50,000 employees in 15 countries. And, as elsewhere, He will be looking to ‘move the needle’ by making each team under his remit more effective and better attuned to guest expectations. 

“In this business, anybody can be successful for a short time [by] focusing on one or two issues like increasing sales or cutting costs,” says Smith, who was previously president of the Caribbean and Latin American region, “but if you set goals, measure results progress and hold people accountable, you can achieve lasting improvements wherever you are.” 

As the son of an American diplomat who had postings in Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and mid-70s Hungary, where Cold War surveillance was the norm, Smith got used to the expat lifestyle younger than most. 

“For a kid, it was a great experience,” he says. “But, when I went back to the US for high school, it meant I was a fish out of water. I couldn’t play baseball, couldn’t talk about American football. Later on, about five years after joining Marriott, I realised I just fit in better with the multicultural ‘gypsy’ group of expats wherever I am rather than with my own people. But, in the arena of international business, that has also become one of my competitive advantages.” 

Having considered the option of being a property developer or an oral surgeon, he settled on a BSc in city planning at Brigham Young University and, while there, made ends meet by working as a desk clerk at a local hotel owned by his uncle, a successful businessman and president of a paint company. 

“My father was a believer in paying your way through college,” says Smith, who has now lived or worked in 13 countries. “By the time I graduated, I was a front-desk manager and had fallen in love with the hotel business,” says Smith, who has now lived or worked in 13 countries. 

He joined Marriott and, following his uncle’s advice about taking responsibility for your own career development, asked for a job as housekeeping manager, seeing it as a chance to make his mark. 

“By the second week, I thought that was a really dumb idea” says Smith who, by then, was experiencing the daily crises of behind the scenes life at a property in Newport Beach, California. “The company believed in starting us all at the bottom, so I walked in – a university graduate in a beautiful suit – to lead a department of 80 housekeepers who all knew their jobs better than I did.” 

Inevitably, it was a sharp learning curve. The staff basically did the same things every day, with little prospect of a promotion or pay rise and little motivation. In due course, though, Smith found the secret was to apply an extremely simple principle of leadership: take care of the people who work for you and find ways to help them. 

“There was a sit-down protest my first day but, later on, I was invited to baptisms and weddings and experienced things which tug on your heart-strings. I still say everything I’ve learned about leadership, I learned in housekeeping.” 

That put him on course for general manager jobs in five different locations and area vice president and operations roles, where the emphasis switched from day-to-day to more strategic issues. 

To keep ahead, Smith goes ‘back to school’ on a regular basis. Over the years, he has completed an MBA at the University of Toronto, international EMBAs at St Gallen in Switzerland and Sao Paulo in Brazil and, this year, the advanced management programme at Harvard Business School. 

“The world is changing and, as an executive, you have to keep learning. The skill set that makes you good at the job now will not make you good at the job tomorrow. That’s why I have a personal learning plan every year which, at the moment, involves getting up to date with the macroeconomic situation in the region.” 

In his approach to management, he focuses on four key measures — guest satisfaction, employee satisfaction, top-line revenue and profit. He aims to find the right balance, so all four improve in parallel. All too easily, a hotel general manager can score high on guest satisfaction but be losing money, or push through budget cuts to the detriment of staff morale. 

“The number one goal for the region is growth, which means more hotels and revenue, as well as more jobs and opportunities to advance,” Smith says. “Personally, I am still ambitious, and want to lift standards and raise market share, so we are seen as the best in the region.” 

With the youngest of his five children just off to university, Smith hopes to have more time for two passions – playing soccer and riding his motorcycle – and to take on the challenge of learning Putonghua. 

“All the kids are keen scuba divers so, for us, that is a great family thing.” 

Step up your service

Five essentials for meeting changing guest needs 

Stay ahead You have to listen to the client and, in today’s world, that means being in touch through social media and staying relevant to the next generation of travellers. 

Evolve with the times Our hotels used to be the same everywhere, but travellers now want different experiences. 

Switch screens To be at home away from home, guests want to be connected and have faster internet links in their rooms, not bigger TVs. 

Know your guest’s needs Most business travellers now prefer to sit in public areas with a laptop and their headphones on, not somewhere private — as in the past.

Connect the dots To keep improving, you have to leverage who you are, register where you are, and recognise there is something to work on every day. 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as World class host.