About 25 years ago, Maria Razumich-Zec responded to an ad for an assistant hotel manager at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Hospitality experience was not a prerequisite, but management experience was. Trying for the spot was a no-brainer for Razumich-Zec, who had held a variety of management positions since high school. Thinking she was going in for a one-hour interview, she emerged eight hours later as an employee of the iconic Michigan Avenue property, which was reopening following one of the most expensive renovations in the history of the hotel industry to date.
That day, a career was launched for Razumich-Zec, who is now the general manager of The Peninsula Chicago and the regional vice president–East Coast, for The Peninsula Hotels.
It wasn’t an easy launch: The fledgling hotelier had a desk in the lobby of the Hilton where she handled customer complaints, medical emergencies and the unenviable task of “relocating” guests to other hotels. For a while, she even worked in the night shift.
“Quite frankly, I initially hated being in the hotel industry,” she told Luxury Travel Advisor. It wasn’t just the job, it was the hours and working holidays, which meant she was missing celebrations and special occasions with her family, she said.
Luckily, job promotions brought her to the Hilton at Short Hills in New Jersey as the assistant director of the front office. Another move up brought her to Hilton’s The Waldorf=Astoria in New York, and another took her back to the Chicago Hilton and Towers as the executive assistant manager before going to Hilton’s Palmer House as resident manager.
Razumich-Zec’s upward ride with Hilton lasted nine years, until Richard Cotter, with whom she had worked at The Waldorf=Astoria, convinced her to come work with him at The New York Palace. She turned him down at least three or four times. She said, “I was in a good career path with Hilton; I was given assurances that I would be put into a nice hotel as a general manager.” Those were good promises; back then, added Razumich-Zec, women GMs were usually given airport hotels or properties in less popular destinations.
Cotter was persistent, however, and flew her to London to interview with the Royal Family of Brunei. She joined The New York Palace as hotel manager; when Cotter left, she became the managing director.
Life was good, but after 9/11, she and her husband decided to return to their roots. The Peninsula Chicago, which had just opened in 2001, was looking for a leader. Razumich-Zec applied, was flown to Hong Kong for an interview and was offered the general manager’s job. It wasn’t her first time at The Peninsula Hong Kong: her boss at The New York Palace had flown her there so she would know what it was like to stay at the nicest hotel in the world.
And so, Razumich-Zec already had a sense of what Asian service was about, and she was happy to combine it with what Chicago could offer in terms of luxury. “Here, we talk about combining eastern graciousness with Midwestern hospitality because, in my opinion, the best service in the world is in Asia. People in Asia are very much there to take care of the guest, and they hurry. That—coupled with the fact that Midwesterners are, by nature, nice, friendly people—has been a winning combination at this hotel,” she said. Indeed, The Peninsula Chicago has won numerous awards and earned the highest ratings possible over its 10-year history.
When we asked Razumich-Zec how she has honed her management philosophy over the years, she said she has learned well from several managers along the way, but that ultimately, her gut feeling is always to take care of her staff.
“It’s really important that we listen especially to the line staff because they are the ones who are working with the guests,” she added. She has an open-door policy and always follows up with staff requests so that they know they can count on her. “It’s important that we interact that way with our staff so they understand that that’s how we have to interact with our guests, that we don’t let things fall through the cracks,” she said.
On a more formal basis, she, together with the director of human resources, holds weekly roundtables with 10 to 12 people from select departments so they can ask questions about anything they like.
“This has served me really well,” she said.
Now that she’s heading one of the top hotels in the world, Razumich-Zec seems to be practicing some of the basics she learned in that first job with Hilton: She’s often in the hotel’s public spaces, interacting with guests and staff members. A typical day sees her move from the front to the back of the house to greet everyone; she’ll then move back up front to the concierge’s area so she can engage with her guests.
At 9 a.m., she holds an operations meeting to discuss in-house groups and VIPs and arrivals for that day and the next. This is always followed by another meeting to discuss issues such as purchasing or marketing, and then she’s likely back out on the floor. Outside duties also beckon: Razumich-Zec is involved in several organizations in the city, such as the Chicago Convention Tourist Board and the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. She feels, as well, that it’s important to be a good corporate citizen. “We are involved in a lot of charities and it’s important that we give back to our community,” she told Luxury Travel Advisor.
There’s no doubt that all of this fills Razumich-Zec’s daily calendar quite fully, but she is also Peninsula’s regional VP for the East Coast, which gives her oversight for The Peninsula New York, which she visits every six to eight weeks. That property, which has undergone a renovation over the past five years, has achieved a five-star rating for the hotel and its spa.
These days, however, Razumich-Zec sees her success measured when her managers rise up to be promoted to higher levels.
“The big thing for me right now is to help develop future leaders for Peninsula, whether it’s people who want to become general managers or directors of food and beverage,” she said, noting that The Peninsula Hotels like to promote from within. At the Chicago hotel, 55 percent of the staff has been there for five years or more; 20 percent has been there for 10 years—the life span of the hotel.
“I am very proud that people seem to be happy and want to work here. It hasn’t always been easy with what’s happened over the 10 years, as far as the economy has gone and 9/11 and everything else, but I think people have really persevered and are very passionate about the hotel. We have staff that really cares about taking care of the customer,” she said.