“All my life, my dream was to come to the States,” recalls Pierre-Louis Giacotto. “It was a country that we dreamed of every day.” Though the 51-year-old grew up in Lyon, France, like many of his peers, he had visions of heading west, which was further stirred by an early interest in hospitality and hearing about an explosion of possibilities in America. “Even at the age of 11, I knew I wanted to be in the hotel and restaurant field,” says Giacotto, who started his journey after high school by enrolling in catering schools in Grenoble and Paris before getting the rare chance to apply his knowledge while enlisted in the French Army by operating a 40-room hotel and restaurant for officers and generals.
It was Giacotto’s first taste of being a GM, and it soon led him to his dream job when Sofitel started expanding to the United States in the late ‘80s. Given that Sofitel was a French brand, Giacotto was a shoo-in and was hired in 1987 to work at the Chicago O’Hare branch, where he moved up the ranks, met his wife (who worked in sales for the property) and made a life for his growing family. Thirty years later, they are settled in Chicago, where Giacotto now works as the general manager for the country’s first Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel that opened in 2011.
“I really feel at home here,” he admits. “There’s such a great melting pot in Chicago, and it works well in all aspects.”
Unique as Giacotto’s story sounds, it’s fast becoming the norm in 2015. As Chicago strives to set itself apart as a world-class destination— fueled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of attracting 55 million visitors a year by 2020 and the increasing entrance of international brands—hotel groups are, more than ever, hiring and promoting general managers from abroad to keep up with the times. And the payoff is unparalleled.
Coming to America
“The world is turning into one big global environment and, especially in the hotel industry, if we are not able to adjust ourselves and understand all cultures, it isn’t doing anyone any service,” says Onal Kucuk, who just celebrated one year as general manager of the boutique Hotel Lincoln, showing that more than international chains are catching on to the trend.
Like Giacotto, Kucuk was raised overseas in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. Yet unlike his peer, hospitality wasn’t Kucuk’s first choice. “I always thought I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer working for the defense department,” he recalls. But with the way placement exams for post-studies are scored in Turkey, Kucuk defaulted to a hospitality management program—his third choice behind business administration and economics. “I have no regrets,” he admits. “Actually, I think I got lucky because this is such a good fit for me and my personality. Now I’m very attached to this business.”
Kucuk found himself in Chicago in 1999 after enrolling at the Illinois Institute of Technology for his MBA, and after graduating, was grateful to find early work at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers’ front office before moving on to leadership roles within Starwood and eventually landing at Hotel Lincoln. “It was right after 9/11 and it was a hard time for an international person to find work with the way the economy was,” he says.
It was a similar scenario for Patrick Donelly, the current general manager for the Hyatt Regency Chicago, who was enthralled with the idea of being in hospitality since staying at his first five-star hotel in Mozambique, Africa, when he was 8. He had enrolled for a summer school program at Cornell University in the mid-1980s, yet faced with the growing apartheid in his home of South Africa and a mounting recession in the States, he struggled to find any kind of work in the beginning. “The day before I was going to return to Johannesburg, I landed three jobs. One with a CVB in Phoenix, one with a CVB in Reno and one with Hyatt, which was opening a hotel at the San Francisco airport,” he says. He settled on Hyatt and has been with the brand ever since, notching nine years as GM of the just-renovated Hyatt Regency Chicago.
For others like Simon A. Fricker, general manager of Le Méridien Chicago - Oakbrook Center, and Stefan Mühle, general manager of Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, it was about being in the right place at the right time. “I won the green card lottery,” says Fricker. He moved to the States from Switzerland and worked with hotelier Ian Schrager at Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. He was part of the preopening team the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, then moved onto the Mandarin Oriental Miami before coming on board to Le Méridien in September 2013.
German-born Mühle says he got lucky with a certain “sponsor” in Chicago who helped him break into the American hospitality market. Victor T. Burt, once legendary general manager of The Drake Hotel, recruited the budding talent from Berlin who had been trying to find a way to work in the U.S. ever since he was an exchange student in high school.
“Mr. Burt’s sons were graduates of Washington State, like I was, and so he always took pride in taking on one individual from there,” says Mühle, who learned the ropes in the luxury hotel’s management program in the ‘90s. He stayed there for seven years before moving on to various wineries, resorts, boutique properties and coming back to open Hilton’s newest resort and conference center in Oakbrook a year ago.
A Worldly Perspective
Though the motives and tales behind how the five men arrived here are different, they can all agree on one thing—being in their respective roles brings a great deal of perspective to the industry.
“There’s the simple fact that if you grow up in a different country, you bring a different perspective to everything you do,” says Mühle. “In Europe, especially, you are exposed to so many different cultures because you have 30 countries you can travel to in just a few hours.”
That is essential to the job of a hotel manager because it provides the ability to be more understanding, says Kucuk. “Because I’m from a different culture, and I have traveled the world and met different people, I find it easy to adjust myself and be empathetic to every individual’s needs who comes through my hotel,” he says. “It gives us an advantage as hotel operators, and you can filter that through teams and make sure it becomes part of the hotel culture.” He points out that his workforce, too, is a diversified group with a lot of employees from different backgrounds and countries, “so it enhances the work environment.”
Giacotto agrees and is consistent with hiring interns from Europe for similar reasons. “Our clientele is not just American anymore, especially with the way Chicago has turned into a destination for international travelers, so we can’t be just living in our little world,” he says. “Now the world is traveling, so you have to adapt to this and use it as a point to engage and connect with customers.” He has gone so far as to create organizational charts and new positions that cater to the cultural clientele, such as hiring a guest experience manager who speaks different languages and can provide for the special needs any traveler might have. “Coming from Europe, that is what we do. People don’t like cookie-cutter,” Giacotto admits.
Much of it has to do with the great traditions of hospitality in foreign countries and the way training is acquired, according to Fricker. “Switzerland has centuries-old traditions in hospitality,” he says, referencing César Ritz, the man behind the famous same-named luxury chain and several high-profile trade schools. “Of the top five schools in the world, three of them are in Switzerland, and people from around the world send their children there.”
Giacotto also points to France’s culinary prowess as an example (“we have a different view on what a meal is and the importance of it”), but also says a huge distinction is the perception of what the job is when you are trained overseas. “In Europe we look at this work as a lifelong career and a passion, and when you think of it that way, you put heart and soul into it,” he says. “The catering schools in the U.S. still have business-driven programs. In Europe the catering school is all about hospitality—how you dress, how you approach the guest, the service. That is the base of everything.”
There’s a reason the often-stringent international trade schools and apprenticeship programs are popular—because they really hone in on the full picture, adds Donelly. “Typically an international person is more well-rounded when it comes to rooms, sales and the food and beverage businesses, whereas in America a lot of people strictly come up in one division. Overseas you cannot be a GM unless you’ve done all three sides.”
Mühle agrees. “It makes a big difference when you have that one-to-three years of training under your belt. To this day, I can still set and clear tables and provide service in multiple departments,” he says, referencing his training at Berlin’s Hotel Schweizerhof, where he learned “from the ground up” before coming to America. “It’s ingrained in me, and I’ll never forget it, having gone through the rigorous training of an international program.”
In Mühle’s case there are also ways he uses his background as leverage to continue creating unique experiences for his guests, such as leaving notes in German when he identifies guests from his homeland and recently reaching out to the local German Consulate to be introduced to business travelers who are looking for a sense of familiarity.
Something particularly important to him is the idea of environmentally friendly hotels—“a way of life in Europe,” he says— and Mühle has worked to create special sustainable touches at his property including farm-to-table gardens and hiring an executive chef who also happens to be a beekeeper to harvest honey on-site (to date, they’ve already produced close to 200 pounds). “You won’t find that at a regular Hilton,” he says. “I learned early in my career to create points of distinction. Hilton is a commodity just from the name, and I don’t want this hotel to be yet another Hilton. I want people to come here and experience something they won’t experience anywhere else in the world.”
Fricker also takes advantage of Le Méridien’s stature as an international brand—it was founded by Air France in the ‘70s—as a platform for imparting European touches. “What really interested me in joining the group is that they started to go back to the roots of the hotel and put a lot of European influences in the brand,” he says of a conscious revamp two years ago, noting a partnership with Illy coffee and a Euro-style café in the lobby as examples. There’s also the emphasis on art and cuisine that feels like home. “What I like so much working in the U.S. is that hotels are now taking those traditions, using them and bringing them to a new level that is unique and innovative,” he says. “There are so many new trends forming here that I am excited to be part of.”
Fricker talks specifically of Chicago, which has become a desired travel hub in recent years. “Chicago is becoming more attractive for international expats and especially now with very exciting brands emerging here. This country has always had a great relationship with the Hyatts and Marriotts, but lacking over years was top high luxury hotels that are starting to build,” he says. “There truly is a global attraction for world travelers to come here; I identify with it.”
It was something Mühle noticed upon moving back to Chicago, too. “The city had added so much mileage to its livability and business perspectives, and I was impressed to see how it had developed,” he notes. “When I left in the ‘90s, the hotel and restaurant landscape was dominated by larger brands, but the chains have started to realize that one size does not fit all. Now we have this movement with places like The Thompson, Dana, Felix, The James, Kinzie and more inventory in the next year that have carved out target markets in what used to be a meat-and-potatoes town, but it’s so much more than that. It’s what attracted me to the city again because it’s worked on itself to become a destination, and now you have this unique combination of both worlds: business during the week and resort on the weekends.”
One of the greatest benefactors of this growing international trend is the convention and group market, says Giacotto. “What’s fantastic is that now you have more international groups coming to Chicago for conventions and meetings,” he says. “Chicago has done a good job in the last four to five years promoting itself around the globe.”
Donelly adds, “Overseas we never knew of group business like this. It was always shortterm meetings. I didn’t even know what a convention was when I came to America. But it’s a great thing we do because it does generate business and stimulate the economy.”
A Look at the Future
And the trend only continues to grow in vast ways. “In the old days, the foreign GMs were French or German, mostly European; now it’s nice that you see them from very different countries,” says Giacotto. “People are traveling more and able to move more, and also catering schools in Asia have developed so much, they are able to deliver really good candidates.”
Many of the interviewees profiled say they are still very active, traveling to stay on top of trends and networking with other diverse hotel managers to find new ways of doing business. Donelly references the general manager of Chicago’s Park Hyatt, who is of German descent and born in Ecuador, that he regularly fraternizes with. “I enjoy talking to him because he has different ways to tackle problems,” he says. “When you think you know everything, that’s the day you need to pack your bags and go home.”
Mühle, who also has recently joined the Westmont Chamber of Commerce to stay enmeshed in the community, couldn’t agree more. “This is what we do as GMs and as Europeans,” he says. “I have that flexibility in me to go through the motions of accepting new opportunities as they arise. My philosophy in life has always been to be an international citizen.”