We’ve all learned some hard lessons in 2020. Perhaps foremost among them is that our assumptions can be shaken—our bedrock can shift almost literally overnight. But times of great change and instability also highlight those pieces of our work and our lives that cannot be compromised and show themselves to be surprisingly durable.
Now, more than ever, we need to hold fast to those ideals that don’t change. The wisdom we have acquired during the course of our unique personal and professional paths. Because while no two hotel professionals share the same story, there are elements in everyone’s journey that led them to the same inescapable conclusions about what it takes to first survive—and then to thrive.
My own story begins in an unlikely place: embroiled in the turmoil and trauma of Iran’s bloody revolution in 1979. As a child of privilege, at 15 years old I faced the terrifying recognition that the country I’d known my entire life was changing—and was no longer a safe place for my family to be. I was determined to follow my sister to the United States, but I first needed to get my hands on a student visa. When my attempts to apply for a visa at the embassy were repeatedly denied, I took a bus to relocate to India with the goal of eventually getting to the US. Within six months I learned how to read and write in English and I learned how to speak Urdu. At age 16, I was enrolled in an Indian University, my head spinning as I worked every day to adapt to a new culture and move closer to my ultimate goal.
My journey to the U.S. would take years, and involve no small part of diligence, perseverance, flexibility—and yes, luck. Looking back now, I see where the seeds were planted that have blossomed into the principles and practices that define my work and my perspectives—about this country, this industry, and perhaps even the way forward during a time when we have all been forced to take stock of who and where we are.
Lesson #1: Hustle
With our family’s assets confiscated by the Ayatollahs, my financial support in India was nonexistent. As a teenage foreigner in India, I had to get creative to earn a living. Every day after class I would race over to the nearest airport and greet Iranian tourists. Often, they would bring goodies, such as pistachios and saffron, which I would then resell at local Indian markets. Later, after an embarrassing rejection when I attempted to apply at the United Nations for a job opening, I noticed a huge flood of people from all different nationalities gathered together in the U.N. parking lot trying to seek asylum. Thankfully, this is where my ability to read and write in English, Farsi, Urdu, and some Arabic came in handy. I soon became an unofficial parking lot translator for a few hundred individuals and families. I think of that “whatever it takes” attitude when I see how dedicated hotel professionals have stepped up in remarkable ways to take on new roles, learn new skills, and do whatever is needed to help keep hotels running during an unprecedented industry-wide disruption. Hustle helps.
Lesson #2: Never give up
Perseverance is not only the most powerful weapon against injustice, it’s also the key to finding a way forward—even when circumstances feel overwhelming. Once I recognized a U.N. ambassador who could potentially give me a permanent full-time position, I showed up at the back gates where his driver would drop him off every morning at 7:00 a.m. for a month straight—in the middle of winter. When he finally stopped ignoring me, it was only to scold me for harassing his security, and to threaten me with deportation. While there was no payoff for my persistence in the short term, my efforts ultimately led to a life-changing opportunity. I have no doubt that the parallels to the work that so many dedicated hotel owners, operators and hotel teams are putting in—with no immediate reward—will pay off in the long run.
Lesson #3: Treat everyone with compassion
I got my U.N. job because I was observed being compassionate to refugees. When that same ambassador who scolded me outside the U.N. called me into his office three weeks later, he gave me a job because he had witnessed how I charged families who didn’t have much money less of a fee than those who did, and charged nothing for children. Thanks to that compassion, at 17 years old I became the youngest translator in the United Nations. We talk a lot about service and the guest experience in the hotel business, but we sometimes lose sight of the fact that empathy and compassion are two traits that are critical prerequisites. And compassion doesn’t end with guests: the way we treat our team members is always critical, but it carries a special weight during these trying times. The best hotel management companies have always been those who operate with care and compassion and recognize a straight line correlation to performance output.
Lesson #4: Be flexible—adapt
From working at the U.N., to being selected as one of just seven accepted recipients of a pool of 900 applicants for a U.S. program for political refugees, to adjusting once again to a new culture in Dallas, TX, my life and career have been a story of fortune, flexibility and adaptation. I’ve worked in fast food, going from the backroom to the boardroom; in technology, as Director of Global Compensation at McAfee, a large division of Intel; and in hospitality—my true love. That flexibility—the willingness and ability to take on new challenges and embrace new opportunities—is exactly what is needed in an industry as dynamic and fast-changing as the hotel business. The more effectively we can adapt and evolve, the better we will able to navigate the current crisis and emerge, as I did, stronger and better prepared to flourish on the other side.