Born in Limerick, Ireland, Bill Walshe’s passion for design has taken him all over the world—from Dubai, working for the Jumeirah Group to sunny Los Angeles, California where he serves as the CEO of Viceroy Hotel Group. No matter where he is working, Walshe’s approach to hospitality stays the same. As he says: “My fundamental essence of hospitality is very simple. We’re human beings who make other human beings happy.”
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, Bill. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Bill Walshe: Thank you. I’m thrilled and honored to be here.
SSR: Love it. So, all right, we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
BW: I am Irish by nationality, Irish by birth. So, I was born in Dublin, but grew up a little bit down further south in the country, in a town called Limerick. Not everything there rhymes, it’s just a different type of Limerick, relatively small town, couple a hundred thousand people, and lots of family in the city, but also very close to the West Coast of Ireland, which I grew to love from a nature, from a ruggedness, from an open space point of view. And I think a lot of what I think about today and the approach that I take in hospitality and design, I can kind of look back to those formative years in wild, rural Ireland, and how that shaped me.
SSR: Yeah. What type of kid were you?
BW: I was one that wanted to make money from an early age. I was curious, My mom once described me as a kid, she said that I never met a microphone I didn’t like. So, I put myself out there in front of people, from a relatively early age. I started DJing at about 12, and I would do tennis club discos, people’s engagement parties, weddings, that sort of stuff, did a stint for a few years on commercial radio, which back then in Ireland, was illegal.
SSR: Oh, wow.
BW: So, I had a pretty successful show for a number of years, but I’ve never broadcast under my own name, because it would’ve gotten me into too much trouble. Did a little bit of stand-up comedy, and in order to kind of fuel all those things, I realized I needed a little bit of money in my pocket. I needed to buy the records to play as a DJ, and I kind of needed something to do. And my uncle owned a guest house in Limerick, and at about the age of 14, he mentioned in passing one day that he needed somebody to take out the trash twice a week. So, I volunteered and twice a week, I’d get on my bicycle, I’d I’d cycle two miles, wheel out the trash cans, go back the following day, and put them back in the trash room. So, that was my first encounter with hospitality, and it’s kind of been trash room to boardroom since then.
SSR: So was that experience with the guest house, is that what propelled you? Because you went to school for hotel management, basically, right?
BW: Yes, I did, and it was indeed that it was going to the guest house, and in between wheeling in or wheeling out the trash cans, kind of peeking through the window. And I can still remember vividly, I would come back from a visit to the guest house, and I’d realize that the people I had seen were happier than the people that I would normally see, because they were on a vacation, they were on a leisure weekend, they were doing something that was enjoyable. And I thought, “Wow, these are spaces that can have an effect on people, that can change the way people think, that can change the way people feel,” and I thought that was pretty cool.
And I looked into it a little bit more, and there was a hotel in Limerick called the Royal George Hotel. So, I took my way into a position there I was a waiter, I was a bartender, worked in the kitchen briefly, but that became evident it wasn’t going to be my calling.
And at one stage, I was working, I’d go in the morning, I’d do breakfast shift, I’d work in reception for a little bit, I’d take a couple of hours off, I’d go back, be in charge of dinner service, and then I would go open the nightclub, set up the bars, and DJ for the first hour and a half until the main act came on, and then I’d go home thinking, “It can’t get better than this.”
SSR: That’s amazing. So, was that during college or after college, or?
BW: That was leading up to college. In this particular hotel, the general manager said to me, “You seem to like this,” and I went, “Yeah, I’d love to pursue it, and I don’t know how,” and he recommended that I go to hotel school. I was a little bit kind of freaked out by the idea of going to college, because I was always very active. I liked making money, as I said, I had all these interests, and the thought of then going and spending seven of the 12 months of the year sitting in a classroom, sort of terrified me a little bit.
And I found in this particular hotel school that I went to in Galway in Ireland, a course that they called the Block Release, and what it meant is that you would go and you’d do three months, and then you’d be out working for three months, then you’d go back. So, it was much more integrated between the academic element of hotelkeeping, but then getting out there and having feet on the ground and working. And that took me to many different hotels in Ireland, in London. I did a year in Lausanne in Switzerland, and there was no looking back from that point. I knew this is what I always wanted to do.
SSR: Was there one memory or job during that time that really sticks with you?
BW: No, I think it was the diversity. It really was, it was the fact that, and I think it’s something that we’ve kind of lost a little bit in the hospitality industry today, is not only that we don’t multi-skill people, but I think some people aren’t prepared to be multi-skilled. I would literally walk in to the hotel in the morning, and I’d present myself at the general manager’s office, and I’d say, “What needs to be done?” And then I would find out if I was working in front office, if I was working in food and beverage, if I was going to be doing laundry, whatever it may be, and I was up for it ,because I was working in the hotel, and I think that variety is something that is wonderful about the business that we’re in, and makes it very unique. Our skills are extremely transferable, and yeah, it was just that kind of never knowing what was coming next, that I recall quite vividly.
SSR: So what was your first job out of school?
BW: My first job out of school was at what was then called a Heathrow Penta hotel, and I believe it’s the Renaissance. It’s just off one of the main runways at Heathrow Airport. Giant hotel, I think it was 600 rooms, did an enormous amount of convention and conference business, and I was a conference and banqueting coordinator, which was great for a few reasons. So, when somebody wanted to book an event in the hotel, I was one of the coordinators who would take the original inquiry. I would check the diary, do the proposal, and then see the event through to conclusion, and because every department in the hotel was involved in delivering to the expectation of that client, it gave me the chance to interact as a coordinator with the front office team, with food and beverage, with valet parking, with literally everybody. So, again, the variety, which is kind of a recurring theme, I enjoyed very much.
I also enjoyed the fact that I had a uniform, and as conference and banqueting coordinator, I hadn’t thought of this in years. We used to have to wear a morning suit. So, we had the stripe trousers, the black jacket, and the waistcoat, and the great thing was I was living in a bedsit in London, I had one room, and the fact that I wore a waistcoat meant that there was two-thirds of the shirt that I didn’t have to iron every morning. So, efficiency right?
SSR: And made it easier.
BW: And made it easier. And I was there for a couple of years, and one of the things that I noticed in that experience, was one of my favorite parts was meeting the client who was considering holding the event at the hotel, and walking them around the venue, pointing out the facilities, pointing out the advantages and the benefits of those facilities, and convincing them that of the three hotels they were going to visit that day, ours was the one that they should book their event in.
So, I didn’t know there was a function called sales and marketing at that time, but I ended up doing it without knowing it, and really enjoying it. I enjoyed the operational components as well, and then I thought, “Yeah, no, I could do this again, interacting with…” My fundamental essence of hospitality is very simple. We’re human beings who make other human beings happy. That’s what we do, and that’s why we do it, and I think being involved in sales and interacting with guests considering to hold events, was an early kind of experience for me of interacting with other human beings, and trying to understand what their objectives were, and trying to make them happy by doing my part, to make those objectives a reality.
SSR: Looking back, did you ever think what you started at would lead you to where you are today?
BW: No, for sure not. I’ve always been ambitious, and I thought I might do okay in the business, but I thought I’d do okay in the business in Ireland, and maybe in England. London’s a great market, and it was Gerald Lawless, the former executive chairman of Jumeirah Group in Dubai, who really changed my whole trajectory. So, I had gone from Conrad to work for Kempinski, back when Kempinski was relatively small, running the London international sales office. Started to travel a little bit more, enjoyed that, but it was still very European-focused. Knew nothing about Dubai, knew nothing about the UAE, knew nothing about Jumeirah.
I remember before my first conversation with Gerald, my first interview, sitting in front of a mirror for about 15 minutes, trying to not call it Jeremiah, and the conversation went well and he said, “Look, let’s do this. Come to Jumeirah, come to Dubai, and be our head of sales and marketing.” I thought, “This is fantastic. I’d love to do that,” and we kind of came to that conclusion together in, I think it was late July, early August of 2001, and then September 11 happened. And I remember calling him and saying, “Well, I guess it’s off now, because of the impact of September 11th,” and I remember his response, which is, “We’ve never needed you more,” because coming back from the situation that the global tourism and hospitality market was in a particularly, with I guess the distrust of all things Middle Eastern, because of the reaction to September 11, we knew there was a job to do. So, I landed in Dubai on December the 29th, 2001, and was there for seven extraordinarily happy years.
SSR: Was Dubai everything you thought it would be, or more?
BW: I think it was more, because I didn’t have any preconception of what it would be, and to get there and realize the speed with which things happen, the commitment to excellence, and above all, I remember the tagline for Dubai at the time was, “Where imagination becomes reality,” and wow, was that true. And to be part of Jumeirah, which was a commitment to creating a hospitality power hub for the world, and to be there at that time to see what we achieved in creating hotels like Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, the extraordinary Burj Al Arab, but also to be part of a community of like-minded individuals, we all believed, and to watch what the guys at Emirates were doing in creating an airline of not only such scale, but such quality in such a short period of time, to interact with the tourism board who had a very clear vision of success. They knew what sort of numbers that they wanted, and we all worked together.
There was no ego in the room, and we all loved Dubai, and we did it for Dubai, and we did it faster, I think, than we could’ve done it anywhere else. I remember thinking at the time, and certainly thinking when I left Dubai, as a business leader, there are distinct advantages to not being in a democracy, when it comes to getting stuff done, as long as you’re in a benign sort of environment, and it’s peace and love, as Dubai was. But if an idea was put to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and it was endorsed, it got done, obstacles got removed. We were given the authority, the autonomy, and the resources necessary to get stuff done, and there’s been on occasion, pretty frequent occasions since then, when I might be in my 11th month of planning permission, or my 15th appearance at a city council meeting thinking, “God, it used to be one phone call to one guy.”
SSR: Yeah, no, back in the good old days. So, there were some amazing properties that Jumeirah opened during those times, and really kind of changed the face of hospitality over there. You’re the CMO, right?
SSR: What was it like marketing those, bringing those to the world, and creating these campaigns around these kind of amazing properties?
BW: I think there were a number of messages that we needed to deliver concurrently. The quality of the properties was never in doubt, and a lot of that was working with the travel trade, and shout out to tour operators, travel agents, people like Signature, Virtuoso, American Express, Fine Hotels, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Tablet, all of whom took the leap of faith and came to see for themselves, and were wowed by what they experienced, and then went out as ambassadors for Dubai, with the credibility that their brands had and said, “This is the real deal.” So, I think getting messaging out about product positioning was relatively easy. Also, Emirates were increasing their routes on a weekly basis, and flying people in who were experiencing the destination, I guess as influencers, before we ever used the word “influencer,” and we called them FAM trips back in the day. Now it’s influencers, and that all went very easily.
BW: I think the greater issue was for people for whom the prospect of traveling to the Middle East was quite frankly, scary, it’s like, “Is it a one-way trip? Am I going to come back? Am I going to be allowed to have a beer? Am I going to have to cover my head, my face, whatever it may be?” It was more about getting those messages out there that this is a safe place, this is a fun place, and in many respects, safer and more fun than a lot of the places that people were coming from, and we came up with some really unique and compelling and far-reaching ideas to convey that message.
I mean, the moment that I’m proudest of, I think in terms of marketing, certainly PR in my career, was the moment that I walked Tiger Woods onto the helipad of Burj Al Arab, which we had set up as a driving range, and Dave Cannon from Getty Images was up in the spire of the hotel, and just took pictures of him, just Tiger on the helipad, 320 meters up on, on Burj Al Arab, hitting golf balls into the golf, and Dave released the image that night at about 8:00 PM, and within 24 hours, it had been reprinted on half the planet.
BW: But it wasn’t about, “Hey, this is Tiger in the world’s most luxurious hotel,” the message was, “If it’s safe enough for him, it’s safe enough for you,” and the fact that he then went on to participate in and win the Dubai Desert Classic, and we followed that up a year later by converting this circular helipad, which literally just looks terribly dangerous and sticks off the edge of the hotel into a tennis court, and to mark the Dubai Duty Free Open Tennis, we convinced Andre Agassi and Roger Federer to go up and play a match, which this time, we had still images and video, and again, owned the front and back pages for the next week.
BW: So, one of the things I remember about Dubai that I’ve tried to keep with me in my career and to convey to people that I work with here, Dubai taught me if you use the same amount of energy to talk yourself into success, as people usually do talking themselves out of success, and I’ll take the Tiger example, a friend of mine and I were talking about, had the idea one night, and what should’ve happened and we should’ve said, “Look, there’s no way we’re going to be able to get in touch with Tiger, and even if we can, we won’t get through to his people, and even if we do, he won’t want to do it, and even if he does, it’s going to be $10 million, and blah blah, so let’s not bother. Let’s just order another round of Sauvignon Blancs,” but we didn’t.
We said, “All right, let’s ask him,” and we did, and it happened with Dubai Tourism, and with the Golf Federation, and everybody coming together to make it happen, and it was a moment. But when we were there, we believed that those moments could be created and executed, and if it didn’t work, nobody to you, you got complimented for effort. So, one of the things that I’ve tried to bring into companies I’ve run, and certainly is very evident here at Viceroy, is a mandate to the leaders within our company, that we celebrate the intention of an action, as vigorously as we celebrate the outcome of the action, because sometimes intention is pure, energy is evident, commitment is there, but life gets in the way, or circumstances change. And some of the effort that I’m proudest of that I’ve seen from my colleagues across this portfolio has resulted in what other small -minded people might consider failure, in execution of an idea, and I think it’s made us the company that we are today.
SSR: That’s amazing. So, before we get there, you went on to become the CEO of Doyle.
SSR: And that changed your role, right? You went from sales to marketing, to CMO to now CEO. I mean, obviously that was a huge opportunity. Is that why you took it? Did you want to try your hand at something different? What enticed you, I guess, to kind of jump ship and go?
BW: I think it was yes, the desire for absolute leadership, which hearing myself use those words makes me sound like a control freak. I wanted to rule the world, Stacy.
SSR: One hotel company at a time.
BW: But I’ve been fortunate to throughout my career be surrounded by people who not only inspire me, but the level of inspiration was overwhelming, working for folks like Reto Wittwer back in the early days of Kempinski, working for Gerald at Jumeirah, and seeing how they and their approach, and although it was again, a word we didn’t use at the time, but I’m passionate about now, the ideologies that they created and activated in their businesses, changed people’s lives for the better, I thought, “Yeah. I’d like a bit of that. I’d like to be the person who’s at the helm who can make decisions, who can create culture, and who can try to drive things forward.”
And I realized that I love Gerald, but he wasn’t going to go anywhere, and if I needed to go up, I needed to go out, and to that stage, having been in Dubai for a process of say, about seven, eight years, every moment of which I adored, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life in an expatriate environment. And I got a call, and it kind of was an alignment of the stars at the right time, because I felt I was ready to be a CEO. Very proud to be Irish, had grown up in Ireland. I got a call to come in and be CEO for an amazing family, the Doyle family and the extended Doyle clan, and to take what was then called the Jurys Doyle Hotel Group. It had just been privatized, delisted from The Stock Exchange. The family wanted to get back to what their dad, the late great P.V. Doyle had created in this family-owned, family run, private, quality focused hotel company, but they needed a catalyst to help get there, and I came in for a few years to do that, and had a blast.
So, we had 12 hotels, we renovated every single one top to bottom. We renamed every hotel, we rebranded the corporate company, we set up a new corporate infrastructure. I’ve always loved design, which I know is why we’re here and what we’re going to come on to talk about, but to be at the heart of a design process that was going on for that many hotels all at the same time, and with a commitment to individuality, and to see Bernie Gallagher, who was P.V. Doyle’s youngest daughter, and who led the design process, juggling so many projects with such incredible clarity of vision was amazing, and I learned so much, and was able to contribute.
And what we should’ve done back then, what Bernie should’ve done, arguably, was to say, “Look, let’s go to George Smith, choose a sofa style and a chair style, and let’s put it everywhere, because we’re renovating so many hotels. It’ll make it easier. We’ll make one decision, and we’ll get great purchasing,” and instead, Bernie’s mantra was, “Look, if there’s a lighting sconce, if there’s a wall fabric, if there’s a sofa, if there’s a chair, if there’s a carpet and that we’ve used in any one design project, it is simply not available for consideration in the next one, because we don’t do cookie cutter, and luxury is not about cookie cutter.”
And it was at that time that another phrase which has kind of become my roadmap to hospitality struck me, and I’ve always loved contradictions and oxymorons, and I think what luxury hospitality is, is an oxymoron, and it is this consistent individuality. It’s finding that I’m curating a sweet spot and a business where you have a sufficient degree of consistency of process to allow you to do things right repeatedly. But the job of a CEO is to make sure that that focus on consistency stops before it is in danger of suffocating spontaneity, individuality, authenticity, making mistakes, trying, because it’s the right thing to do, and Doyle was all about that, and that’s what we do here at Viceroy as well.
SSR: That’s amazing. And what is it that you love about the design? I know you do love it. Is it the process? Is it the end space results? Is it seeing people in the space? What is it about the design and the process that you love?
BW: It’s probably a strange answer, but the words sort of just come into my mind, are behavioral manipulation, because I think great design can change a mood. It can change an outlook, it can change a behavior in people, and I’ve seen it, having been fortunate to work in so many hotels that have had incredible design. I mean, stand for a day in the lobby of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, allegedly the world’s only seven star hotel, which is very creative marketing, and watch the faces of people who’ve never been in the building before, the instant they walk through the doors. I mean, you could just record 10,000 people, clip them together, and you’ve got a TV show. I mean it, the facial expressions, the intake of breath, the gasp of output of breath. I mean, that used to make me so happy. I’d sometimes just kill 15, 20 minutes hiding off to the side of the lobby, watching the effect that that and other hotels I was connected with could have on people.
So, I think great design can do that. Great design can lift spirit, great design can be transformative, it can take people to another place emotionally, as well as physically, and poor design does exactly the opposite. I mean, it can be so underwhelmingly disappointing, and lazy design is the worst thing of all. So, I think we have an obligation as hospitality professionals to put as much, if not more effort into the design components of what we are creating, as we do creating the operational functionality of the business.
But the mistake that I see made on a repeated basis is that people design against the sake of designing, and I think that the first step is creating the narrative because as hoteliers, we are storytellers, and the story might be the story of the destination in which we are operating, in order to connect people visiting destination with the authenticity of community, and all the other things that are happening, or it might be whimsical. I mean, go to Vegas, it could be crazy, but I don’t understand how people can design a space without understanding why that space exists, and how that space is expected to make people feel, but I see it happen. I see people coming in saying, “Oh my God, I’ve just seen this new design feature. We need to put it into Viceroy Santa Monica.” Well, why? Does it fit the narrative? Is it appropriate for a place? Is that what our guests are going to react to? So yeah, starting in the right place.
SSR: Got it. And so, you joined Viceroy 10 years ago.
SSR: What drew you to that brand, to this company?
BW: I’ve always loved the idea of America. I’d spend time in the United States when I was working in other hotels, and I like it here. It was a continent that I didn’t have on the resume. I’d done the Middle East, and Africa, I did Europe, had spent quite a bit of time through, at one point, Kempinski and [inaudible] were partner organizations, so I spent a lot of time out in Asia doing that, and I thought, “I’d love to see if what I’ve done successfully elsewhere will work over here.” I also loved the idea of Viceroy as a brand. Brad Korzen had created it, what now, 21 years ago, Brad and Kelly Wearstler, achieved something really quite amazing, and it still had this sense of courageousness, it still had a sense of independence, almost a sense of last man standing, because you look at 20 years ago when Brad created Viceroy and over the next decade, how many design conscious, quality focused, independent hospitality brands had been created and had changed the luxury landscape, and one by one, got swallowed up by the big boys.
So, I liked the idea of coming in and kind of fighting for the independence of Viceroy, and keeping us focused on who we were, keeping that DNA alive, but also using the experience I’d had and putting a little bit of evolving the corporate structure, and that journey of consistent individuality, and building on what Brad and Kelly had done, and there weren’t a lot of those opportunities. I mean, this is not intended to sound in any way, brash or arrogant, but I was doing okay in the industry. I’m, as we say in Ireland, I’m not backward in coming forward. I do love to be on stage. So, kind of people knew who I was, and the phone would ring, and with no disrespect, I had many great friends who worked for companies like Starwood, and Intercontinental, and Accor, and I adore them and I respect so much what they do, but I always knew that that was probably not going to be the environment for me.
So, when the opportunity to come to a new continent, a new city, a new brand that spoke to my love of modernity, of contemporary outlook, of being design focused, but not at the expense of quality of experience, it just pretty much ticked every box. Also, Viceroy being owned by Mubadala, which is the investment entity of the government of Abu Dhabi, it was comfortable for me, having worked for UAE entities in the past, and that was actually how we knew of each other. So, it all seemed to be the right thing at the right time.
SSR: And how have you evolved it since starting there? What have been some of your contributions that you’ve helped, especially on the corporate structure? I know there’s been a few.
BW: I think looking back on the past 10 years, what I’m proudest of that we have achieved as a team together that I had the easy part, I had the idea, and an incredibly talented team of people activated is our ideology. I mean, the culture of this organization is something, particularly over the last few years of turmoil, I mean, we’ve had pandemic turmoil, we’ve had some other peripheral kind of, let’s call it background noise going on in Viceroy, and I think that in times of turmoil, but also in just smooth sailing, putting emphasis on the ideology of an organization, and activating that ideology to create an environment where we are putting as much emphasis on the why, as we do the how, and historically, hospitality companies haven’t been great about that.
We’re fantastic at skills training. I mean, we could teach a zebra how to serve coffee from the left, and not from the right. We could have chimpanzees making beds, we could do anything, because our skills training capability is incredible, but that’s not enough, because human beings also need to understand, or at least flourish, when they do understand the purpose of an action, and not just the process of an action. So, Viceroy’s ideology is a series of challenge statements and commitment statements, which speak to why we do what we do, and not just how we do what we do. The first line being we are hosts first and always, and it is about, yeah, we’re modern, we have a contemporary interpretation of what hospitality is, but we’re innkeepers, and that is our primary obligation.
BW: Our industry’s obligation from the first time somebody stayed for paying somebody to have a room in their house, the obligation of that innkeeper, that hotelier is to keep our guests and our colleagues safe, warm, and nourished. Now, that obligation hasn’t changed in centuries, and that is Viceroy’s primary obligation. Our interpretation and activation of that obligation is very different from what it would’ve been, but we must never lose sight of where we as a company, and we as an industry have come from. And when your emphasis is on design and when it’s on modernity, it’s easy to do that, and I talk about ideology when I do orientation, which I love doing for new colleagues joining the company, and we have a conversation about each line of ideology, and it’s like an hour and a half conversation, minimum. There’s no script, and we go wherever the energy takes us.
But talking about that obligation to hospitality, one of the things I often do is to say to the folks in the room, “Okay, so you’ve joined Viceroy. How many of you think we’re cool?” And the hands go up and they say, “Oh, it’s such a cool brand.” And I remind them at that point that if you go to a party, typically, the least cool person at the party is the person at the party trying to be the coolest person at the party, and hospitality brands in the late ’80s, through ’90s, early noughties, I think were guilty of that, because it was about being cool, as opposed to it being about being great. And actually, one of the coolest things you can do is to be great, is to simplify, is to deliver on your promises, it’s to underpromise and overdeliver to expectation.
And our ideology is there through all 20 something lines of it, to remind us of what we should be focused on, and one of the things that we do is an exercise called stop, continue, start, where we’ll step back from the business, and we will catalog all of the actions that are taking our time, taking money, taking people’s focus, and we just categorize them under those three headings. “Okay, we’ve been doing this, do we stop doing it because it no longer has merit or it’s no longer creating value? Do we continue doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s part of the DNA and the brand?” And in order to start doing new stuff that we’ve seen maybe competitors do, or that our customers are asking us to do, inevitably, we have to stop doing something else to free up the time, to free up the resorts. But when we do stop, continue, start, everything that we do, if we can’t link it back to one line, any line of our ideology, it’s automatically a stop.
SSR: I love that. And you guys also just launched part of what you’ve done last year and a half is the Viceroy for Everyone campaign. Can you talk a little bit about that too?
BW: Yeah, I’m very proud of that, and that was driven by Viceroy’s ideology, and actually, for the first time in 10 years, we changed ideology, because I launched it in my first sort of six months here, and it was really a combination of everything that I’ve seen, everything I felt, everything emotionally I was connecting to the company that I was now lucky enough to lead, and it talks to we believe in authenticity, we believe in individuality, we create wealth, all the stuff that we’re here to do. And then we saw a couple of years ago that society was changing very, very quickly, and I looked at the organization and I realized that we were not where we needed to be in our commitment to inclusivity, in our commitment to diversity, to inclusion, to freedom of expression, and Viceroy for Everyone came out of that, and it is that statement of intent that we will do better.
Back to my Dubai days, one of the phrases that Sheikh Mohammed was famous for using was that, “In the race for quality, there will never be a finishing line,” and I think in the race for equality, the same applies. So, we wanted Viceroy for Everyone to be this commitment program that allowed us to have meaningful dialogue, interaction, and create opportunity for everybody who is in our Viceroy family, or anyone who is contemplating joining, to know that how they identify, who they love, what they look like, where they were born, what they believe will be celebrated, and that that difference is cherished.
So, we introduced into our ideology a line about celebrating our differences, and cherishing who other people are, and making it clear to people that no one has to stay silent in this company, and that’s taken us down a wonderful path, and one of the things that I always say to our leaders is that in my view, the greatest demonstration of courage and leadership that you can have, it’s to ask other people for help. It’s to admit you don’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do. I had a great idea for Viceroy for Everyone, a cool logo, and I knew the effect I wanted it to have on the company, but I didn’t know how to start, and quite frankly, if I’m honest, looking back, I was terrified, because it’s easy to get canceled for doing the wrong thing. You don’t get canceled if you do nothing, but if you do nothing, change doesn’t happen.
And I was really worried, here’s this middle aged white guy talking about changing the world for the better, and setting out on this journey, and I would talk to people about it, and I’d be careful verbally of what landmine could I stand on? And then I thought, “Just grow up.” Again, it’s about intention. Celebrate the intention of your activity as vigorously as you will celebrate the outcome, and if you get it wrong, say, “I got it wrong, and I’m sorry, because that wasn’t my intention,” and move on.
So, we reached out to people who were much more experienced in introducing diversity programs and helping company cultures evolve towards a commitment to respect, which ultimately is what Viceroy for Everyone is about, in other companies. And we didn’t know them, we just called them up and we said, “Look, it seems to us that you guys have an amazing culture. You’re head of diversity, we’re starting on this path. We don’t know what to do. Would you come and help us?” And they all said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And we had then this series of amazing video guest speakers from different organizations who talked very openly, honestly, and transparently about what they had done well, and the mistakes that they had made on their journey.
And I look forward, when I believe that Viceroy for Everyone is at a point that I should go out and start talking more about it externally, to passing that forward, and maybe helping smaller organizations learn from the ideological journey that Viceroy has been on, to help them fast track to a more positive culture by not making the mistakes we made, by telling them what those mistakes were and helping them to avoid them.
SSR: Right. And what kind of organizations did you reach out to? Were they all hospitality, or just different ones?
BW: No, no, no, no. The first one was Netflix, and from there, it was for the most part, LA-based organizations, and then we found some specialist organizations that we have partnered with. So, we just, for example, signed an agreement and we’re partnering with an organization called Out & Equal. I believe there’s a lot more that we, as a business, and we as a sector should be doing for LGBTQ+ travelers. Again, it’s not my specialist area of knowledge, and there are folks out there who know a lot more than I do. And in fact, on Thursday of this week, we have six of the leading travel companies in the United States who have a proportion, a meaningful proportion of their travelers being from the LGBTQ+ community, coming in to spend the day with me, so I can ask them questions and say, “But how does it work? How do people feel? What can we do?” And there’s so much that we can, and hopefully we get more right than we get wrong, but we’re going to give it a go anyway.
SSR: Do you think your secret to your success has been this openness to learn and ask questions?
BW: I think it was probably the secret to my annoyance when I was much younger. Maybe it started with that sort of quintessential, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”, in the back of the car on a journey, but yeah, I guess I never used this phrase before, but I’m going to use it again, I’m fascinated without a filter, and I think that’s possibly a good thing to be. We joked before you started recording that in this conversation, I’ll be hearing my words, as you hear my words. I don’t script. I’ve no idea what’s going to come out, and I love that, and there are occasions when it doesn’t always work.
BW: There are occasions when I find myself on stage speaking at an event, and there are two conversations going on. There’s my conversation with the audience, and then there’s my conversation with me, which would be, “Excuse me, Bill. If I could step in for a moment, where are we going with this? We’ve never talked about this in this way before, and 400 people are expecting a punchline at the end, or some form of conclusion to this point,” and I say to myself, “I don’t know, we’re making it up as we go along, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get there eventually.”
BW: And I think that one of the elements of hospitality needs to be spontaneity. With no, again, disrespect to any company who’s chosen to do this in the past, the prospect, for me, of equipping every member of staff across the organization with a laminated card that has a phrase they have to use, that’s just my idea of hell. I think we want to recruit people who have personality, we want to set parameters obviously, but even working in some of the most amazing hotels that I have done throughout my career, people rarely wrote. They might’ve appreciated the design, they didn’t typically write to me to say, “Oh my God, the gold leaf on the interior of the elevator cab was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
I know they loved it, but man, did I get a lot of letters saying, “Manuel, the concierge on my floor, is now like family.” We had Bashir, the doorman at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and families would come back year after year for their vacations, because he was still there, and he became part of their families. And that, again, is back to the human beings making human beings happy, and you don’t do that by being scripted, I think you do that by being spontaneous, by being authentic, and yeah, it’s its just who I’ve always been.
SSR: Yeah. Was there one project recently that you’ve learned a lot on, or learned something new that will be a key takeaway?
BW: Yeah. I think one that I’ve thought about in my mind on a couple of occasions while we’ve been talking, and certainly from a design point of view, and going back to what I spoke about at the beginning about having a narrative, having the ability to articulate purpose, was the renovation of Viceroy Santa Monica. Viceroy Santa Monica is sacrosanct, it’s where it all began. It was the first Viceroy branded hotel, it was the first modern luxury hotel in Los Angeles. It was a great property acquisition by Brad, and it was an unbelievable design journey that Kelly took the building on, which stood the test of time for 20 years, and suddenly, it’s like the hotel needed renovation. For sure, we were getting to the point, and it’s the best time to renovate is when it’s not needed, but it’s about to be. But going in and renovating a hotel with that emotional connection to its audience, with the reach that it has and with the quality of Kelly’s work, it’s like someone saying, “Hey, paint over the Mona Lisa, but don’t screw it up,” and it was like, “Wow.”
So, what we did, rather than just say, “What design should we put in? How do we evolve the spirit of Viceroy Santa Monica to make it kind a 2.0 version of itself?” We came up with this narrative and we created a character, and we created a character who had, in our minds, inherited the hotel from his grandmother. There’s a portrait that Kelly had put it up, it wasn’t of anyone, back in the day. So, we’ve hung that in the new library, and that’s grandma, and her grandson inherited the hotel, and he’s Millennial, but he was so passionate about her legacy and what she had created, it wasn’t about necessarily reinvention, it was about reinterpretation. And we said, “What would he do to try to take this journey into a Millennial version, something that would speak to people with the same credibility and integrity that the hotel had originally, but would be more of his age and his era?”
So, we kind of did a baton pass for these two characters that we just completely created, and then every time we were looking at a design choice, looking at what to do with the space, how to program, we’d ask ourselves, “What would he do?” So, that was a fun project to be part of, and it kind of pulled a lot of what we at Viceroy, what I believe in, in terms of creative approach together, and allowed us to achieve something that I was there for brunch on Sunday, and I was like, “Yeah, this works. This is great.”
SSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay, little quick answer, question time.
SSR: Okay. How would you describe your personal style?
BW: Modern in an age appropriate way.
SSR: Okay. What do you do to relax on weekends?
BW: Cook and golf, two things that I think I’m really good at, until I watch the professionals do it.
SSR: Don’t we all? What’s your biggest pet peeve in a design solution?
BW: Poor lighting.
BW: Yeah, poor lighting. Ick.
SSR: Definitely. Definitely a good one. What is the thing you like most about your job?
BW: Not knowing what I will like most about it tomorrow, the variety and the unexpected nature of either challenges that pop up, or opportunities that come our way, but I’ve referenced a few times, I’m an unscripted guy. This is an unscripted business. We’re not rolling photocopier printers off a production line in a factory. Human beings, being around them all the time and being so engaged with them in a business like hospitality, yeah, it is inspirational. They surprise you a lot, and usually, not always well, but it’s the unexpected nature of it, which was not a fast snappy answer to your question. Sorry.
SSR: No, I love it. Thing you like the least?
BW: Oh, the word “fine.”
SSR: Oh, I say that to my father all the time. He uses the word “fine” for everything.
SSR: I’m like, “It’s not fine.”
BW: No, it’s not, and again, I use this when I’m speaking, about what I have termed “prideology.” So it’s having a business ideology that has the intention of making people proud. That’s it, that’s the outcome, and I asked the audience to join me in agreeing that we will never want again, use the F word, the profanity. And they all go for one word, and it’s not the one I had in mind, and I’m saying, “Guys, if we accept the feedback from a customer that an experience has been fine, that means we’re striving for mediocrity, because we want fantastic. We want memorable. We want phenomenal. We want incredible. It blew my mind,” but if someone says, “Oh, you stayed with us for 10 nights in Sugar Beach, a Viceroy Resort in Saint Lucia, you’re in a villa, it’s $100,000, how was your stay?” “Oh, it was fine.” “Oh, okay. Great.” No,
SSR: No, not fine.
BW: It’s a failure. Fine means failure.
SSR: Oh, I love that. Okay. I’ll tell that to my father after we hang up. All right. So, tell me something about yourself that most people don’t know?
BW: Oh God, what’s left? I mean, usually if I ever get this question, it’s like, well, I was a DJ once or-
SSR: Oh, good point.
BW:… I did some stand-up comedy. I think I can sing, and I’ve never done karaoke, but I’ve committed to do it in about a month from now.
SSR: Ooh, I might have to come. Is California everything you thought it would be?
BW: Yeah. Maybe it’s the Irishman in me, but having grown up where if the rain was warm, it meant it was summer, living in sunshine is something I’ve come to enjoy, appreciate, and will probably never not do again. So, between Dubai and here, I love the climate in California. I love the cuisine and the variety, because it’s all very different. LA is not California, and when people come to visit and they say, “Look, we’ll just hang out with you for a week in LA.” No, no, no, no. Get out of here, go to Santa Barbara, go to San Diego, go up to Napa. Northern California’s got this whole other personality and spirit, and yeah, the variety here is great.
SSR: Amazing. And I hate to end the conversation, but considering the time, we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast. So, what has been your greatest lesson, or lessons learned along the way?
BW: Consistent individuality, not only from a design point of view, not only from an operations point of view, but in a human to human point of view. Let’s consistently commit to express our individuality, to do so honestly and with authenticity, and if we all together make that commitment, there isn’t a circumstance that will ever beat us.
SSR: Well, amazing and insightful as always, Bill. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Such a pleasure.
BW: Thank you, it’s been a joy.