Suite success: Michael Issenberg, Chairman, CEO and COO of AccorHotels for Asia Pacific, talks about his trip to the top
Like many athletically gifted teenagers in North America, Michael Issenberg had dreams of making a name for himself through sports. And though he may never have signed a pro contract or starred in the big leagues, in a sense that is exactly what he managed to do.
Admitted to Cornell University as a talented defensive end with good grades, he was unsure about a major, but took the advice of his American football coach and began a degree in hotel administration. It was a subject which looked interesting, was business-related and could offer a direct path to a good career. “The coach was a great guy, and I enjoyed the course from the outset, so it was very fortuitous,” says the chairman, chief executive and chief operating officer of AccorHotels for Asia Pacific, a French-based group with 675 properties around the region and a fast expanding portfolio. “I’ve been in the industry ever since.”
As it happened, Issenberg, who joined AccorHotels Pacific in 1994 as director of operations, had a fair idea of what he was getting into. From the age of 15 he had worked in hospitality part-time: first at a local tennis club in the Boston area helping out behind the scenes and, later, did stints in various bars and restaurants to earn a few extra dollars. But when, as a work/study option during the course, he landed a nine-month trainee role with Westin Hotels at the prestigious St Francis in San Francisco, any lingering doubts about career choice of degree and career were quickly banished. Having impressed, he was invited back after graduation to join a project management team overseeing renovations, with a lack of relevant experience seen as no particular barrier.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith on both sides, but it was something that interested me and I’ve never been afraid to take on a challenge,” he says.
Two years later, in 1983, that became clear when a friend from Cornell called out of the blue to offer Issenberg was offered a consultancy role with professional services firm Laventhol & Horwath. He was assigned to conduct feasibility studies for new hotels, mainly in Northern California, a project which was then extended to ski resorts in Utah, Colorado and Nevada.
“As a consultant, you are exposed to a lot of new ideas and so many different considerations, which made the work very interesting,” Issenberg says. “And I love skiing, so life was very good.”
Even so, when one of the firm’s partners almost casually suggested a move to Australia to help build the consultancy practice there, the opportunity seemed too good to resist. Admittedly, the business was in its infancy, which meant establishing a presence and identity. In due course, though, it was possible to take he took on a broader range of assignments. These included tourism studies in Southeast Asia and a project to set rents and recommend the best mix of F&B outlets for the Harbourside Festival Marketplace at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
“That project was especially memorable because a young lady who was at the meetings turned out to be my future wife,” Issenberg says. “By then, it was also obvious to me that the hotel and tourism industry in the Asia-Pacific region offered huge opportunities and that I didn’t want to stay a consultant all my life. You’re always advising, but ultimately not taking responsibility.”
For those reasons, a switch in 1988 to Mirvac, a residential property company with a few hotels and ambitions to grow, made perfect sense. By joining to develop the division, Issenberg essentially skipped the usual first step of managing an individual hotel and, in order to fill rooms when recession hit, signed a groundbreaking franchise agreement with the Marriott group.
“They gave me access to a lot of information and someone from HR to help develop resources and systems,” he says.
That period also taught the importance of having a general vision for the next five years, but specific strategies for the next two. Nowadays, with so much changing so quickly, the key to success is remaining flexible, focusing on recruitment and training, and not putting “all eggs in the China basket”. Rather, the goal is to build a stronger presence in mainland China and other fast-developing countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
“Asia presents the biggest opportunities for growth, as well as all the challenges that go with managing that,” says Singapore-based Issenberg, who oversees around 70,000 staff.
The current target is to open between 60 and 70 hotels a year, either by taking over existing properties or agreeing terms for new developments, which will operate under one of the group’s four main brands: Ibis, Novotel, Sofitel and Pullman. That can mean looking at up to 1,500 proposals a year before signing up perhaps 100 of them, with due consideration of guest expectations and changing travel trends.
“For example, we are sensitive to the fact that hotels, particularly resorts, should be as environmentally sustainable as possible,” Issenberg says. “Globally, the biggest issue for us is [sales and] distribution. The influence of online travel agents has grown significantly over the last decade, which brings the challenge of maintaining control of our inventory [of rooms].”
Outside work, his main priority is to maximise family time, though, as a self-confessed sports fanatic, he also enjoys watching high-profile events around the world – Olympics, rugby, basketball, even cricket – whenever other commitments allow.
“In general, I believe that everyone has some lucky breaks in life; the important thing is what you make of them,” he says. “If you’re doing well at what you do, other opportunities will arise.”
THE HEIGHTS OF HOSPITALITY
Track down talent “In the hotel sector, you must have the right people and train them well. In the final analysis, everything comes down to that.”
Get the right mix “Our strategy in Asia is to build up local talent. We want Chinese managers running hotels in China, but you also need diversity and the scope to move people around.”
Have no fear “Your executive team must be willing to take tough decisions, and not be afraid to make mistakes.”
Align ideas “To achieve steady growth and keep things on the right track, there should be consistency of strategy and vision.”
Do your homework “You must be knowledgeable about your own business, the economic developments in this part of the world, and the latest trends in technology.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Talent and teamwork.