Crystal Vinisse Thomas wasn’t introduced to hospitality until she went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The college’s prestigious hotel program intrigued her. It revealed a world, she says, where she could travel and experience things through food, people, and design. From there, her journey took her to Brussels where she worked for the W brand, and eventually led her to Beats by Dre at Apple. Then, Hyatt came calling and Vinisse Thomas returned to the industry to help launch Caption by Hyatt. The new brand, which recently opened its first U.S. location in Memphis, thinks differently about hospitality by putting DEI front and center. It’s a brand, Vinisse Thomas says, that people can get behind.
How did you get involved in the hospitality industry?
I wasn’t introduced to hospitality until I went to Cornell University [in Ithaca, New York]. I didn’t go there for the hotel school. I had this grand idea of going into business, but I hated it and was trying to figure out what to do next. I was introduced and then transferred to the School of Hotel Administration. I was fascinated by this world I’d never heard of—one where I could travel and experience the world through the lens of food, hotels, people, and design.
First hospitality-related job?
One of my first internships was at the Breakers Palm Beach. I liked engaging with the guests, and I was inspired by the conversations I was having every day. What other world would I be able to have the breadth of connections with people on a daily basis?
Memorable career stops along the way?
My journey hasn’t exactly been a straight line. I started my career with Starwood in sales, but I’m a storyteller, which led me to my first brand role as a coordinator for W Hotels and Le Méridien. I learned how important it is to shape the hotel experience through the lens of a guest’s journey—crafting moments and experiences in a way that truly resonates.
What prompted your move abroad while you were with W?
After a few years in New York on the global brand team, I struggled with the idea that I was in a global role without having lived outside of the U.S. So, I moved to Brussels and took on a regional role as W brand lead in EAME (Europe, Africa, and the Middle East). The acquisition between Marriott and Starwood happened during my time in Europe. I decided to take a year off to travel and figure out what I wanted to do next. Seven months later, I moved to LA to work for Beats by Dre at Apple as a senior brand lead in sports. I got to push my creativity to a level I hadn’t yet in my career, all while working alongside some of the smartest folks in the game.
What brought you back to hospitality and to Hyatt?
I was happy at Apple but got excited about the prospect of putting my fingerprint on a new brand. As a storyteller and brand person, the idea that I could make an imprint on Caption by Hyatt based on my vision was compelling to me. On top of that, I oversee Park Hyatt, Alila, Andaz, Thompson, and Hyatt Centric.
What was it like launching a new brand?
When I sat in my first meeting [at the end of 2019] on Caption by Hyatt, it was already designed. Then the pandemic happened and around July, after George Floyd’s murder and the social unrest in the country, [we realized we had] an opportunity for Caption to mean something. We blew it up and started from scratch. A time of emotional distress and uncertainty ended up influencing and encouraging us to take a few more risks and push the limits of what we thought we could accomplish with this brand and make something that felt different but also substantive. It’s a brand people can get behind.
Greatest professional challenge?
This has been more frustration than challenge. For most of my career, I’ve been ‘the only’ or one of a few who look like me in the room and even more so now as an executive. The lack of representation and equity in our industry is significant and has been so for all of my career. When I walk into a room and see that it’s not reflective of me, I notice immediately because I’m usually the outlier. Unfortunately, when many think of roles and opportunities within hospitality, it’s often limited to service roles—this is especially true for people of color. This has lit a fire under me to educate budding leaders both in and outside of our industry that you can aspire to any role in hospitality. Now that I’m here, I’m passionate about giving that same energy to others by being visible and sharing my experience so they know they can be here, too.
Driving with the top down on my Mini Cooper convertible on a cool day (for LA) and having the heat on full blast. The juxtaposition of that sensation makes me happy, and it feels like a cheat code.
Favorite place to travel?
Barcelona. The weather is great, the architecture is great, and people love to hang out, party, and eat. Every time I go, I discover something new.
How do you define success?
It’s always been my intention to work in a space that doesn’t feel like work. I’m blessed that I’ve had opportunities within this role to work on things I’m passionate about. I put a lot of my love into what I do because I literally love it. That makes everything we do all the more powerful, and it allows people to connect with it in a way that feels real versus forced.
Check out Hyatt projects Vinisse Thomas has worked on, and get to know the rest of Hospitality Design’s 2022 Wave of the Future class.