The Brilliance of Observation

  While airline services and hotel openings make news all the time, we believe that our readers’ stories and opinions provide a powerful connection between the powers that be and those they are elected to serve.

With that in mind, there are some female executives who caught our attention, and not only because of their success within their companies and industries. However, they are not moving ahead in a divide-and-conquer way, or with a laser focus on the bottom line; they are reaching out to people that will be affected by their decisions.
We will introduce you to four incredible women who have had great success at their respective companies in executive roles. Rather than fight the battle of the sexes or attempt a top-down extreme corporate makeover, they have taken the high road. To push their companies to new heights of success, they put themselves at the ground level with the people who truly drive the businesses and consistently find ways to keep those valuable lines of communication open.

Karin Timpone, the Global Marketing Officer for Marriott Hotels, has engaged her team in the conversation of sharing their own travel experiences to anticipate how they can best shape their branding messages and social media agenda. The goal is to get a fix on how they can constantly improve their products and assess customer feedback in campaigns like their #LoveTravels program. Joanna Geraghty, Executive Vice President of Customer Experience at JetBlue, helped launch an initiative called “Keyboard to Curb,” which enlists customers and crew members to voice their problems and concerns with their respective experiences with the airline to make needed improvements. Gail Grimmett, Senior Vice President of New York operations for Delta Air Lines, puts a high priority on philanthropic involvement, which not only connects the company to communities, but also makes employees feel good about their affiliation with Delta. Katherine Melchior Ray, Vice President of Luxury Brands at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, has made her natural qualities work for her professionally and personally, paying attention to details that can make or break an experience for global travelers or determine the health of a work place environment.

Karin Timpone - Global Marketing Officer, Marriott

We have put together a dream team of marketing leaders whose teams are breaking new ground in brand marketing, technology, content business, and other new opportunities that unfold every day. One example is our Marriott Rewards loyalty program—we see the evolution of travelers’ changing habits and how digital is really a part of their experience. So we mapped out a strategy and released it last year containing several significant new features that would be of value to our loyalty program members. The “PlusPoints” feature is social in nature and requires Facebook likes, Twitter Tweets or re-Tweets, Instagram posts, or Foursquare check-ins which could instantly result in up to 2,000 PlusPoints per month. Another new feature, “FlashPerks,” sends out 10–15 FlashPerks per week such as luxury Hertz car rentals for 200,000 Marriott Rewards points or 50 percent off accommodations at JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai. “LocalPerks” is a downloadable app that sends offers based on a guest’s location within the hotel. All of these great new features display the incredible evolution that is happening in the world of digital technology and connect those technologies to our most valued loyalty member guests.

Recently, my creative team hit on a powerful and emotionally resonant idea about what unifies travelers—their personal stories and reasons why they are traveling. So, combining great story-telling with technology through #LoveTravels brought together a string of inspiring stories from around the world illustrating how people, comfortable in being who they are, bring their passion with them wherever they travel. We tapped into stories from influential people across diverse communities, and then invited other travelers to do the same.

The world is undergoing a significant marketing revolution wherein we are able to innovate in numerous areas—whether it’s pulling together new marketing campaigns that reach across our portfolio or messaging about our new brands using digital marketing. The two new areas we’ve focused on and brought together in recent months are “Buzz Marketing” and “Creative & Content Marketing.” For Buzz Marketing, we’re talking with our marketing partners and identifying how our goals can be amplified. This creates an environment which enables us to talk about partnership beyond an agreement and do what I call “co-marketing,” namely discovering what we have in common so we can grow and build on it together for the purpose of getting the word out to our target consumer.

For example, we have a great partnership with Hertz car rental which we coupled with our “FlashPerks,” putting together some exclusive rental offers for a limited period of time. This, in turn, built a bond between ourselves, our marketing partner, and our mutual clients. On the Creative & Content Marketing side, we are the first hospitality company to launch a global content studio. I know firsthand that the world is fundamentally changing in terms of how communications reach consumers, so we created a studio here where we work with many designers on content that tells the story of our portfolio, our brands, our rewards program, and our new digital platforms. There is more to come on the loyalty front that will continue to innovate our program overall, and also some new things the industry hasn’t yet seen. This all goes to cultivating a great relationship with our guests—before, during, and after their stay.

I’ve traveled around the world and experienced the passionate culture of my colleagues who are all interconnected with others and serving our guests in a genuine way. It comes through in the way we work together.

I’m really interested in the personal enrichment and connections of travel, discovering new cultures, and looking at the world from a different perspective. I am fascinated with every part of the world and enjoy the newness of it all; the delicious food, the fascinating cultures, the amazing sights and experiences—taking it all in with big gulps. It connects back to my job and keeps things fresh. Now that’s what I call a collision of my passions!

Joanna Geraghty - Executive Vice President of Customer Experience, JetBlue

Joanna Geraghty is a long-distance racer—on the track, on the job, and in her life. “I was never a great runner,” laughed Geraghty, now Executive Vice President of Customer Experience at JetBlue, “but one of my proudest personal achievements is having completed the New York City Marathon several times. I discovered that it has less to with athleticism and much more to do with perseverance, commitment, and mental agility. I’m not fast,” she admitted, “but the sense of finishing was really great.”

In preparing for this grueling endeavor, Geraghty learned that there are many routes to success. “For my first marathon, I followed all the steps: Got the book, ate the gels, wore the water belt, and trained hard.” For her most recent marathon, however, Geraghty just did some light running and a 17-miler the week before. “I still finished the race, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” she confessed, as “I haven’t run a marathon since! I think I still have one marathon left in me, but I’d like my six-year-old son to see me do it and actually remember it.”

Arduous as that long trail through the New York boroughs may be, Joanna’s day-to-day job looks to be equally demanding. Responsible for airports, customer support, reservations, and in-flight services, Geraghty oversees about 12,000 of JetBlue’s 16,000 crewmembers, giving them the tools to deliver optimum service.

Geraghty shot out of the starting gate as a lawyer. “I felt that having a legal degree would allow me to give back to others in a more meaningful way,” said Joanna, who found that her law background helped develop many essential skills. “Managing complex litigation, you’re exposed to unique challenges that need to be considered from multiple angles and through different lenses,” she explained. “You have to be precise and deliberate and make sure to clearly deliver your message.”

The billable hour was another valuable concept for Joanna, as it helped her to see “the literal value time has to a business, and the importance of efficiency”—something especially crucial to airlines, “where minutes matter to our operations and to our customers.”

Yet it wasn’t until Geraghty worked for a law firm and counseled a number of airline clients that she truly understood the power of that industry. “We take it for granted now,” Geraghty asserted, “but just think about it: We give people the ability to travel thousands of miles for reasons that are important in their lives, in a relatively short period of time. And with JetBlue’s reasonable fares, which make this travel accessible to so many, it’s a powerful thing to do.”

Still, Geraghty acknowledges that “the airline business is extremely complex, and there are many moving parts, which could be weather, air traffic, an airport or security issue, or just someone having a bad day.” This brings an inherent tension “between the JetBlue experience we want to deliver every single time and the number of uncontrollable factors that can get in our way,” and confronting these issues can call for the kind of persistence, dedication, and imagination it takes to run 26.2 miles.

“I like to see customers who are having a travel experience they love, even though love is not something often associated with airline travel today,” Geraghty admitted. She is decidedly unhappy, however, when she finds things that detract from this optimum experience: “It could be as simple as a dirty seat or spotted carpeting on an aircraft. These small details matter, and it bothers me just as much when I see it on competitor airlines,” she maintained, since “we as an industry have to treat people right in order to bring back the love for air travel.”

To help solve some of these problems, JetBlue is embarking upon a major initiative called “Keyboard to Curb,” nothing less than a deconstruction of the entire JetBlue travel experience to identify its “pain points,” from both the customers’ and the crewmembers’ perspectives. “The goal is to better understand what really matters to the JetBlue customer,” Geraghty explained, “and what gets in the way of delivering a great experience every day.”

Moreover, Geraghty pointed out that “any airline could buy modern aircraft, gorgeous cabins, and state-of-the-art technology if it wanted to. At JetBlue, we have those things, but the ‘secret sauce’ is our people.” Geraghty’s mission is to create tools that inspire those people to deliver. It’s an enormous task, but she is energized by feedback from both sides, like “when a customer calls out a crewmember for providing great hospitality, or seeing our crewmembers respond when they hear that they’ve made a personal connection.”

Does being female play a role in Geraghty’s decidedly humanistic outlook? “Who we are shapes our unique perspective and, to that end, gender plays a role,” Geraghty reflected. “I feel that my background as a mother, wife, and daughter definitely influences how I see our crewmembers and customers, and the challenges they face in their lives or travel. My son is certainly my pride and joy,” she declared, “but, as a working mom, when I sit in an airplane seat, it’s almost like a little spa; a moment where my Blackberry’s not going off and my child is not tugging at my sleeve. It would be a mistake, though, to say that a man—as a father, husband, and son—couldn’t do the job just as well and with just as much empathy.”

Indeed, the rising number of women in senior management positions like Geraghty’s may be driving a larger cultural shift. “One of the biggest changes is that young people entering our industry today don’t arrive with the same predisposed views on gender,” Geraghty observed. “Many young women don’t let traditional gender barriers stop them.” While Geraghty feels that there is still much work to be done in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, there is also enormous opportunity there for women and girls. Women today “know that they can balance a lot of different things and accomplish what they set their sights on.”

What advice would Joanna give a young woman entering the workforce today? “I’d tell her that she could do anything. She shouldn’t limit herself,” Geraghty counseled, “and she should be comfortable with taking chances even if she fails. Every experience is a learning experience. I’d tell her to try a lot of different things before ruling out a career path or exploring a potential field. Even if you decide that it’s not for you, experiencing many things will help build perspectives, connections, and ideas.”

On a personal level, “having a rich tapestry of experiences will make you a more interesting person,” Geraghty advised, “which makes you a more valuable player in the workplace.”

Gail Grimmett - Senior Vice President  - Delta Air Lines

“Senior Vice President, New York—pretty generic title, isn’t it?” laughed Gail Grimmett when I inquired about her actual job description. “We didn’t know what to call me when I started this job, because we weren’t sure what I was actually going to be doing,” she explained. “I’d ask our CEO and he’d have one idea; then I’d ask my boss, the President, and he’d have another idea.”

In fact, Grimmett has the massive responsibility of keeping all of Delta’s New York routes profitable, but must accomplish the task in a manner that’s completely new for the airline. The idea was to create a “matrix” or business unit that works across Delta’s traditional functional areas, giving Grimmett a wide lens on this vital hub. This means that she’s involved in a broad swathe of departments, from operations and commercial affairs to customer experience at the airport to philanthropy and community giving.

It’s a delicate management position that has local employees reporting to two people: Grimmett and her functional boss in Atlanta. The challenge is being assertive enough to manage people in a tough town like New York without stepping on anyone’s toes. It can be ticklish, Grimmett observed, since “I’m standing where everyone else is standing, influencing decisions that people were used to making on their own.”

Grimmett admitted that, at first, the prospect was daunting. “I really did kick and scream my whole way up to New York,” she laughed. “(But now) going into year seven of my two-year temporary assignment, I’m thrilled with the diversity of the job. I give our CEO full credit for placing me here—sometimes people see things in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

This step out of her comfort zone may feel like a double triumph for Grimmett, who recalled being the kind of child that took a lot of time to define her goals. “I never said ‘I want to be a fireman or a nurse,’” she remembered. “I just lived in the moment.” But once she did know what she wanted to be, nothing could stop her.

“I had a degree in economics and was studying for an MBA at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,” she shared, “when I suddenly just knew I had to be a regulatory economist,” a very specific government advisory position. There weren’t many openings when Grimmett graduated during a recession, so she worked three jobs to stay afloat until she could enter her dream field.

A few years later, Grimmett was lured to Delta—not by the promise of travel, but for another highly analytical position on a revenue management strategy team, using volatile variables to make crucial decisions like the number of seats to sell at each fare level and how far to overbook planes. “It’s a very humbling job,” admitted Grimmett, “because you can never really be ‘right.’ You might have sold one seat for a little bit more, or not overbooked the plane enough and it went out empty. You have to be willing to understand how you were wrong, so that next time you can be ‘righter.’”

Grimmett brings that same open-minded enthusiasm to her own travels. While her feet left the ground early in life—her pharmacist dad was also a private pilot who flew the family around the Midwest—after joining Delta in 1994, Grimmett began traveling worldwide.

“I research each destination thoroughly, and each time it turns out to be nothing like I thought,” she confessed. “When I went to Budapest and Bucharest in 2006, I thought they would be the same, but found they were very different. And I was amazed that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were so eclectic. I guess I should just stop being surprised that I’m surprised.”

Another surprise since coming to New York has been the tremendous pleasure Grimmett receives from working with local charities. “Delta has a great sense of social responsibility to the places we serve,” she stated, “and we have 10,000 New York-based employees.” Indeed, Grimmett’s involvement goes far beyond just raising money. She chops vegetables in soup kitchens, sits down for heart-to-heart talks with teenagers at risk, and has even slept on the freezing streets to truly understand being homeless.

“I’m incredibly passionate about the Food Bank for New York City,” Grimmett declared. “Hunger exists all over New York, not just among the homeless. There are those whose jobs cover their bills but who can’t afford to eat, and most people don’t realize that 90 percent of shelters don’t provide food. If you work even once in a soup kitchen”—each month, a different Delta division does this, Grimmett told us—“you see how much need there is.”

After hearing about two women and their children who had mistakenly hiked several hours from the South Bronx to a central food bank warehouse that couldn’t actually dispense food (workers had driven the group to a pantry in Harlem), Grimmett realized that this poverty-stricken part of town had a dearth of free food dispensaries because its churches were too poor to support them. So, she has decided to chair an initiative to fill this need. “We will make it happen,” she vowed.

Grimmett’s other passion project is Covenant House, which provides shelter, food, crisis care, and other services to homeless and runaway youth. When the organization asked its executive supporters to spend a night on the street to fully understand the plight of these teenagers, Grimmett willingly shivered in her sleeping bag on the below-freezing sidewalk. “It was cold,” she remembered of that weekend before Thanksgiving. “They don’t pick a warm month to do this! But then I realized: I had the luxury of going back to a cozy apartment, drinking hot cocoa, and sleeping for a couple of hours, which these kids don’t have.”

Grimmett was also surprised to learn that most Covenant House teens were not from homeless families. “These are kids with the fortitude and courage to know that they have a better chance of making it on the streets on their own than dealing with whatever they have going on at home.” Grimmett was so impressed that she organized a T-shirt-making benefit and rallied several dozen JFK and LaGuardia employees to help.

After a briefing on the organization and the youngsters they would meet, one JFK ramp worker stood up to say: “I lived here. I was one of those kids from 1999 to 2002. Covenant House found me living in Central Park. I had no place to go. They brought me in, helped me get my GED, my first apartment, my first job. Ten years later, I’m married, I have three kids, and I work for Delta.”
The group sat stunned, gratified to hear the real-life results of these ongoing efforts. “It’s hard to render me speechless,” Grimmett admitted, “but I was caught between speechlessness and wanting to cry. We gave, and we got twice back in return. Beyond being a testament to Covenant House, this bolstered my conviction that it’s crucial to be part of the community, because in the end the community becomes part of you.”

Katherine Melchior Ray - Vice President of Luxury Brands, Hyatt Hotels Corporation
Even though Katherine Melchior Ray regularly circles the globe as Hyatt’s Vice President of Luxury Brands, “the sensation of barreling down the runway, feeling the ground give way, and suddenly being hundreds and thousands of feet up—it still amazes me,” she declared. “I feel like a kid every single time.”

“I ride horses; I drive cars fast; I like that sense of forward momentum,” revealed Melchior Ray, who came to Hyatt directly from a career in high fashion. It was there that she experienced Hyatt firsthand as a client and a guest, staying as a business traveler and hosting events. She also understood these properties through her expertise in branding. “High fashion marketing can sometimes border on the irrational,” she explained, “but in a fun, creative way. In the luxury sector, I like to say that you can’t be completely rational. If you live in the land of reason, you’ll stay in the land of reason, because rational people are just going to go to price: ‘What am I getting for this?’ But if you get into the land of dreams, then there’s no rational way to judge it. People believe in it, they want it, and who can tell you if it’s worth $1,000 or $2,000 or $3,000? So I encourage Hyatt to use reason, but not be hamstrung by it.”

Melchior Ray expounded further: “Luxury is an emotional experience, and the concept has been changing for a while. At Gucci, I saw that our best clients not only wanted the hard-to-find bag, they wanted the experience. So we started taking them to the origin: to Florence, where Gucci is headquartered, to fashion shows, to see how the brand comes to life.”

“Park Hyatt’s expression of this is ‘luxury is personal,’” Melchior Ray noted, based on founder Jay Pritzker’s own passions for great art, great food, and people who would care for him like friends and family. “To get in the game, you have to have beautiful design, great locations, and really good personal interactions with guests, but ultimately what people are looking for is this insider experience that not everyone can get.”

“One of the things our guests crave is authenticity of place,” observed Melchior Ray, “and when you travel as frequently as I do for work, you see things from a different perspective; you develop a sense of how things happen differently in different cultures.”
Yet, if globetrotting is crucial to Melchior Ray’s worldview, it also places her on a personal balance beam. While her two children, ages 18 and 21, may no longer need her on a daily basis, they still seek support for emotional issues like boyfriends and job hunts. “It’s not an everyday thing, but it can be a much more dramatic and emotional need,” she admitted, and family issues can be hard to manage “when my daughter is in Paris, my son is in New York, my husband is in California, and I’m in Tokyo.”

Difficult as communication may be from halfway across the planet, Melchior Ray feels that this international experience is crucial. “I’ve always mixed my personal and professional life, because I find that each inspires and informs the other,” she revealed. In the South of France, for example, she was puzzled when her team asked her to decide the smallest matters—such as choosing between teal or cyan blues—until she saw her children’s homework instructions, which could read, “Underline this with two lines in red with the date directly underneath.” The directions were far more detailed than they would have been in the U.S. “When I saw how my children were being educated, I suddenly understood what the adults were expecting from me.”

Still, it’s hard for Melchior Ray to judge how much of this cultural sensitivity is due to her unique experience of motherhood: “I don’t think people can separate themselves from their gender,” she stated. “We’re all a part of everything we are; a combination of all those wonderful, myriad, mysterious, powerful, frustrating things that people bring to the way they do their jobs.” In her work at Nike, for example, focus groups revealed that young female athletes identified differently with their heroes than boys: While girls favored WNBA star Lisa Leslie’s sneakers on the basketball court, they wanted to wear something “girly-er” after school. To reach women, this told Melchior Ray, she “had to go through a different door.”

“I started my career in an extremely conservative environment in Japan,” Melchior Ray told us. Even there, female roles are changing. “A woman who was my peer when I started—at a time when women really did just pour tea—is now a director at the same TV network where she began.” Melchior Ray was thrilled to see the woman recently at the Park Hyatt New York, “leading her team of all men.” Yet, Melchior Ray feels that the notion of sexuality in business culture is still very awkward, especially for Americans. “In Europe, the interrelationship between men and women is much more acknowledged,” she observed, adding that there’s a sense of play between the sexes, akin to the French love of intellectual banter, that brings out the differences between men and women without diminishing respect. “I think our American culture is so concerned about impropriety—there are all these hidden codes of what you can and cannot do—that it becomes very subtle and very complicated.” Even a kiss on the cheek can be suspect, and some foreigners can be baffled.

“My career path was crooked,” smiled Melchior Ray, “which I think was good. I personally think people should have two timelines in their brain: one for the big goals—to live in this or that place, to be known for this or that accomplishment— then let that go, to focus on three- to five-year goals,” because those big goals can change, particularly for women.

“Women have this incredible opportunity to be mothers, and that creates biological change; it creates emotional and professional desires, so I think it’s impossible to know what you want long- term until you get there. I think it scares young people because it’s the unknown. But we’re all still trying to figure it out. The truth is, the end of the story is never written until you write it.”
Karin Timpone , Joanna Geraghty , Gail Grimmett , Premier Traveler , Most Compelling Women , Katherine Melchior Ray
Posted On: 01 June 2015    Print    Email
Author: Janet Forman

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