Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

Trailblazer Looks Back Over 40 Years in Travel and Tourism

Even without the specter of a pandemic looming, much has changed in the past 40 years in the meetings and events industry.

“It was a different mindset back then,” said Larry Alexander (pictured, left), who will be retiring at the end of this year after a long career in hotel management and 22 years at the helm of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Then, it was all about quality and customer service.”

Now, he says, travelers are more focused on the bottom line and don’t put as much value on the high-end luxury elements as they once did.

“They want more technology. They are much more specific about what they’re willing to pay for,” he said. “Our industry has had to evolve with their changing expectations.”

MeetingMentor recently caught up with Alexander to talk about what’s changed — and what hasn’t — since he first started working in the hotel industry in the 1970s, and what he has learned along the way.

MM: What was it like for you when your first started out in the meetings and hospitality industry?
I started out as a hotel night auditor in the 1970s when I was in college, working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then going straight to classes. That was my first introduction to the hotel world.

Right out of school I joined Westin Hotels & Resorts and started working my way through the various departments. I remember working long hours, but it was exciting. We all were working toward one purpose: To run the best hotels we could. It was an opportunity to hone my skills and learn what I would need to know to take on the role of general manager one day.

MM: Which you did at the tender age of 29, becoming Westin’s first Black GM. What was that like?
For myself and a couple of other guys I knew, both within Westin and in other chains, our color was a secondary focus, not a primary one. The primary focus was on ensuring we knew how to implement standards and provide exceptional service to our customers.

Even though we were African American, we were on a track to learn everything we could about hospitality, taking on more responsibility as we moved up through the ranks. We wanted the fact that our skin was a different color from those around us to just be accepted. We didn’t want to be viewed as Black general managers. We wanted to be viewed as quality general managers.

MM: Is that still a strategy you would recommend for younger Black hoteliers now coming up through the ranks?
Cultural diversity has taken on a bigger footprint in our world now. I always say it’s important to reach out and do what we can to help minority individuals move forward.

We have to remember that the hospitality industry has grown tremendously. It’s now among the largest industries in the world, and encompasses many different segments, from hotels, restaurants and bars to cultural attractions, airlines, transportation companies — I could go on. All of those components make up what we now call “hospitality.”

Each of these segments is seeing a growth in diversity. It provides tremendous opportunities for people of color, or people with disabilities, or others to implement changes that are going to help the industry prosper, in spite of what we’re facing right now [with the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic fallout].

MM: DMCVB has been a longtime sponsor of the American Society for Association Executives’ Diversity Executive Leadership Program. Why has that been an important initiative for DMCVB to back?
That’s another way we have be able to help grow the diversity of people in the association community to help change the face of the industry. We signed onto it 19 years ago, and it has proven to be a success. We have individuals of non-majority races and cultures who just need an opportunity to show what they can do.

Every year we host a breakfast at the ASAE Annual Conference where they announce how participants in the program have gone on to leadership positions. Every DELP scholar has shown that, if given the chance, they can take the association community to a higher level. It’s something I look to with pride — it’s a way to help change the future.

MM: What can other aspiring young hoteliers learn from your experiences managing a large and diverse workforce?

No matter what segment of the industry you’re in, the most important thing to remember is this industry is about people — the people doing the work, the customers and clients. We don’t make widgets that can sit on a shelf until they’re sold. Our product is the services we provide and the people who provide those services, the interaction between staff and our customers.

We need to be able to inspire our staff to provide an excellent interaction, every single time, every single day. No matter who the leadership is, we have to tap into the abilities of the people doing the job, encourage them and build them up. When they do their jobs exceptionally well, then we all achieve success.

MM: What are some of career highlights of which you are most proud?
I was a young general manager, maybe 30 years old, when we opened the Westin Hotel at O’Hare Airport. We pulled together a team of people who were exceptional and had the skill set to make this hotel really shine. I will never forget going through the process of hiring the leadership team and staff and developing the services in conjunction with Westin’s standards.

It was pulling together that group of people who could bring the mission and culture of doing something better than had ever been done before for an airport hotel. I remember standing with pride as we opened the doors and threw away the key — because once you open the doors to a hotel, you never lock them again! I still stand in the lobby of that hotel and smile remembering how great that experience was.

MM: You have helped elevate Detroit’s profile as a meetings and events destination through initiatives to transform the COBO (now TCF) Center, bringing high-profile national and international events to the city, and other promotional efforts. To what do you credit the success of these efforts?
I have a great team that has been with me for a long time, and they have a passion and commitment to marketing the Detroit Metropolitan region. A lot of people have an outdated opinion about Detroit, and we work hard to convince them that the Detroit you may have heard about is not the reality of our destination now.

We’d been told we could never secure major events, but with the establishment of the Detroit Sports Commission, we got the Super Bowl XL in 2006, the 2009 NCAA Men’s Final Four and several other NCAA championships, and hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup. In addition to hosting the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Conference in 2015, we also won the bid for other major conventions and events, including FIRST Robotics World Championships for three years; the NAACP twice; the National Black MBA Association; the Evangelical Lutheran Youth Gathering; National Society of Black Engineers; and the National Guard Association of the United States.

The message is that you never want to count Detroit out!

MM: You have been a leader in this industry through many past crises, including 9/11 and the global economic recession of 2009. What have you learned through those experiences that we can all use to help navigate our way to a new post-pandemic normal?

We had to fight back after 9/11. We had to overcome the recession in 2009, and we’re going to fight through this pandemic and the economic crisis we’re facing now. A leader is only as good as their people, and we have some very smart individuals. I just have to give direction, then stand back and let them do what they do best.

The key, for our industry and for all of us moving forward, is to be willing to accept change and do things differently, to adapt, grow and develop. Leaders have to be able to tap into what individuals excel at, then let them excel at it.

MM: You have lived and worked through some historic times. How do you want to be remembered in history? What would you like your legacy to be?
I would hope that my legacy will be that the decisions I have made and the way have led organizations has had a positive impact on the lives, both personal and professional, of the individuals on my team.

I would hope that people will say the decisions I have made have helped them grow and develop and support their families. If I could be remembered for that, I’ll be a happy man. — Sue Pelletier


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MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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