Mar 7, 2023

Episode 104

Helen Jorgensen

Helen Jorgensen Host Hotels & Resorts


“You have to embrace change. Don’t doubt it,” says Helen Jorgensen, who would certainly know. Her unexpected career journey began with stints in government at the IRS and National Security Agency, until a pivot to the hospitality industry led to roles at Marriott and Disney.

Now, she’s the vice president of design and procurement at Maryland-based real estate investment trust Host Hotels & Resorts, where she works with a multitude of brands, including Four Seasons, Hyatt, and SH Hotels & Resorts. In her multilayered position, Jorgensen, who inducted into HD’s Platinum Circle in 2018, instills a strong sense of place into each property she works on, all while balancing Host’s LEED and ESG commitments.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi. I am here with Helen. Helen, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Helen Jorgensen: I’m great, and thank you so much, Stacy, for having me here today. I’m excited about this. This is something very new for me, so we’ll see how it goes.

SSR: I promise we’ll make it easy. We always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

HJ: I grew up in a really lovely middle-class, working neighborhood in Rosedale, Maryland, woo-hoo, where everybody knew your name, and you hung out with all the neighborhood friends and the parents were Miss Pat, Miss Nancy, Mr. John. It was awesome. You were gone all day long hanging out, and there were even woods behind the neighborhood, and you would hang out in the woods and have great adventures.

I mean, you can’t do that today, right? You’d kill your kid if they did that today. It was a lot of fun. It was a great, great experience.

SSR: What were you like as a kid?

HJ: As a kid, I guess I loved being outdoors. I mean, I was outside all the time. I loved bicycling. I mean, I still do that today. It’s how I met my husband. So from the beginning of time, I would just take off on my bike and go for miles and miles and miles. I just really enjoyed being outside.

SSR: Can we go over how you met your husband bicycling?

HJ: Yes. Yes. It’s a little bit of a funny story.

So many, many years ago, I decided… I belonged to the Baltimore Bicycling Club, and I wanted to go and meet guys because I was in between relationships. I’m telling the whole story. I said, “You know, I’m going to go on this trip to Cape Cod. I’m going to go by myself,” and I knew people in the bike club, “and just have a good time.”

So I go to the first intro meeting, and everybody’s around there, and I’m like, “There’s nobody here I’m that interested in, but I’m going to go anyway and have a great time,” and I ended up meeting my husband. I ended up meeting lots of great friends because I just did it, you know? And I’m so glad I did that. It was awesome. So, we met in Cape Cod on a week-long bicycling trip.

SSR: Amazing. I love that. I don’t think I ever knew that.

HJ: Yeah.

SSR: Okay, so going back to childhood, did you travel as a family? Were there any early memories of hospitality or design experiences that might hint to where you ended up today?

HJ: We did travel. We did a lot of beach vacations, get in the car and go to the beach for the weeks, and that was awesome, but we did one big adventure to Disney World. I know Mike Suomi mentioned this too, so I was laughing while I listened to his podcast. But we flew down to Disney World, and that was the big adventure. We stayed at The Polynesian hotel, which was amazing at that time. It was a whole new experience, visiting The Contemporary hotel, and all of that type of thing.

It was more of an adventure at that time, not necessarily a love of hospitality. It was more of an adventure at that point.

The Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort in Hawaii

The Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort in Hawaii

SSR: Right. And so what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up as a kid? Did you have any inkling, and then what did you end up going to college for?

HJ: To be honest, I never… When I was in high school, I was in the area, the group, the family that really, women didn’t go to college at that point, believe it or not, back in that age. So I was going to get a great government job, and I got a great government job. I realized that this was not for me.

I was taking some college courses at the community college, but I realized it would take eight to nine years to get a degree, so I literally went one day at lunch, went over to Towson University and applied for a scholarship, financial aid, applied for classes, I got a job, all this during a lunch hour one day because I said, “I got to get out of here.” And it all worked out great. And then I had to come home and tell my family this. And that was interesting. But I did it and it’s been amazing since, as you can say. Yeah.

SSR: Yeah. Wait, what was the reaction from your family?

HJ: It was disbelief that I would give up a great government job. There are a lot of great government jobs. I was just an admin. I was an admin. I just felt like I needed more at that point, yeah.

SSR: So you go to school. What did you end up majoring in?

HJ: I majored in business and communications. And I did communications because I thought that was really fun and interesting and a skillset that you could really learn, and business because it was a thing to get into and I was just trying to figure it out. And that brought me then into procurement and contracting, which then started building to where I’m at today. So it was a great move, yeah.

SSR: What was your first job out of college?

HJ: Well, in college, I did a work study program where you worked six months and I worked, I was a Revenue Officer for the Internal Revenue Service. You’re finding out a lot about my bad secrets here, Stacy.

SSR: I love it. What was that like? Was that interesting?

HJ: Actually, it was very interesting. The good thing was I did help people because a lot of people were really afraid to fill their tax. They’re afraid, they forgot to fill their taxes out for a couple of years, they think we’re going to throw them into jail, and innocent people are not… That doesn’t happen. So we would help those people out. And then we did other things that maybe weren’t so fun.

But anyway, it was interesting, but I knew that was not my career path. From there, I went into contracting with NSA. I worked for a spy agency. That was fun too. A lot of these weird things about me.

SSR: Yeah. What did you do for the spy agency?

HJ: I was in contracting. A contractor.

SSR: Got it.

HJ: So just procurement contracting for them.

SSR: Were you starting to like the idea of procurement?

HJ: Yes, and that’s where it started developing from there.

So from there, then that’s when I went to Marriott. I worked for Marriott for many years, and that’s when I really kind of started falling in love with hospitality. I’m like, “Oh, this is…” This was kind of like, I felt, my niche, you know what I mean? So I really loved working with the designers. I loved working with the projects, the project teams. The whole thing kind of started like, oh, this is where I should be at that point.

But then the late ’80s, the great first hospitality depression happened, and so I had to change a little bit of a course there. I felt like I needed to leave Marriott because they were laying off people. It was bad back then.

And I ended up going to a manufacturing company, which was great because I learned so much about manufacturing, from quality control and spec analysis. And that was a great skillset from there, which again, starting to build where I’m going. And at that time, I didn’t really know where it was going. Then I ended up at Disney and doing-

SSR: Full circle.

HJ: Yes, yes, full circle back at Disney. And again, from there’s where I really learned a lot about supplier management and processes and all of that really good skillsets, which are what I brought back to here to Host today. So it’s been interesting.

New York Marriott Marquis hotel near Times Square

The New York Marriott Marquis hotel near Times Square

SSR: And then when did you end up back at Host?

HJ: So at Host, I ended up… I’ve been here now 18 years.

SSR: Wow.

HJ: Yeah, a long time. And I started… Well, Pam Parsons was building a design and development department at Host. And back at the time, we were Host Marriott. And there was a position, brand-new procurement position to basically build procurement for Host Hotels in their construction design and development group.

And she took a chance on me because it’s been a while. And we went to various other places. I mean, I was at Disney for 10 years, but she took a chance on me and it’s been great. And my first task was really to build the department. I mean, back in the day, suppliers and manufacturers didn’t even know who Host was because everything was managed through the procurement agents. And so I had to introduce everybody to that.

And then that’s when the first strategic supplier program started back in that day. So that was 17 years ago, I guess, today. Yeah.

SSR: You said earlier that you mentioned you started to love hospitality. What was it about it that really, that caught your attention and then now has made you kind of stay with it for the last almost two decades?

HJ: Right, right. It was fun. I mean, it was really fun. The people were fun. People enjoyed their jobs. The construction, I love that whole idea of the creativity part of it from design, create, working with the suppliers to make these creations happen. Just the whole aspect of the creativity, the camaraderie, and the fun.

SSR: Yeah. Is there one part that you love the most, like a favorite part of the process? Is it the beginning? Is it the re-imagining? I mean, because you work on some amazing projects.

HJ: Yes. I would say that what gives me the greatest satisfaction today is the totally transformation of a hotel. And we’ve done a lot of that lately with… It kind of really started with that Marriott Capital Transformation Program. 16 properties where we were out of the renovation by piecemeal to renovation by transformation. Totally changed the property, make it a new hotel.

And we’ve done some amazing jobs. And that’s really what I love because your creativity now, you can do a lot and be very creative and get outside of the Host box, so to speak.

So one of the best projects, an example of that was their San Antonio Marriott River Center. We went in there and everybody’s been there. It was kind of, yeah. And the bar was behind a giant column in the corner in the back. And the lobby was kind of empty because everybody’s in this corner in the back. And the challenge was how to bring that bar out because there was an escalator right in the middle of the lobby.

SSR: Of course.

HJ: Yeah, of course. But what we did is we moved that escalator. I mean, that never would’ve happened years ago. And we moved the escalator, we brought the bar out and behind that is now the restaurant, the bar’s in the front. We made it very indigenous to the area. There’s famous local glass artist. We used her glass at the reception area, and totally, it’s a new hotel. It’s a brand-new hotel. We did the rooms, public space soup to nuts.

And that’s what’s fun. I mean, that’s what I really enjoy.

SSR: Is there one project, and I know it’s hard to name just one, but is there one that was probably your most challenging that you learned the most from?

HJ: Oh, well, that would definitely be that Ritz-Carlton. It would be Ritz-Carlton, Naples Beach. That was challenged from the very beginning. We had a tight timeline because that hotel does really well. Everybody’s very hesitant about doing the rooms and any type of downtime, but we saw a window. And we had a model room, and it was not successful. So we’re like, “Okay, what do we do?”

We decided to bring in a new design firm, but the schedule stayed the same. So that was fun. But everybody really rallied together. Everybody knew what had to be done. The procurement agent immediately brought in all of our suppliers, our strategic suppliers, and said, “This is what we have to do. You have ideas, how we can achieve this.” The design team, they threw everything they had at it.

And it wasn’t just like a regular renovation. We wanted this to be a flagship or a Host, as far as luxury. The detailing at this property, we did everything. We built a new tower of luxury suites. We have a brand-new Ritz Club that’s going to be probably the biggest in the brand. The detailing throughout the space from the ceilings to the floor is… It’s incredible. And it’s amazing.

And then let’s throw in the pandemic. Let’s throw in logistic problems, and let’s throw in a hurricane. Other than that, yeah, that was challenging, yes.

SSR: But it has opened, right, part of it, and there’s still more?

HJ: Not yet.

SSR: Not yet.

HJ: Because the hurricane had slowed that down, so we’re trying to wrap up, trying to wrap all that up, yes.

SSR: Got it. But the end is in sight?

HJ: Oh, the end is definitely in sight, yes. We’re very excited. I’m ready to have a glass of champagne at the champagne bar in the lobby, so we’re ready.

SSR: Perfect. And speaking of that, you work with a lot of different collaborators, designers, architects, consultants. What do you look for, as the client, in a collaborator?

HJ: I look for someone… A couple of things. Someone that will really listen, to listen to what we’re trying to achieve because each property has different challenges. We have different goals, and we’re a publicly traded company, so it has to be thoughtful as far as financially liable and design-wise. So, we need someone that can listen.

But I also like someone that’s going to push things a little bit. “Hey, have you thought of this? What about if we did something to it, like moving the elevator, the escalator?” Or at the New York Marriott Marquis, we wanted to open up in the Broadway lounge. The beautiful two-story windows were blocked by this walkway that they used up top. And what about if we just took that out and opened up that entire two-story window right onto Times Square? I mean, it’s amazing.

So we really, really like people that push. And some of the things that people might push, we’re like, “That’s great. We think it’s well-worth doing.” And sometimes it’s not. And if we say, “You know, we don’t think that’s worth it,” okay, back off and let’s continue on. I think that’s important Listening and then Host listening to them. It’s very… Collaboration, I think, is important.

The Ritz-Carlton Naples, Tiburon in Florida

The Ritz-Carlton Naples, Tiburon in Florida

SSR: Right. And keeping that open communication, right?

HJ: Yes, yes.

SSR:And it must be fun though, to kind of figure out who’s right for each project and make sure that you’re kind of moving this big ship, if you will.

HJ: Yes, yes. It’s a big ship, yes.

SSR: And just hearing all these stories of these old hotels that have bars hidden or things blocked, how have you seen, in your last two decades almost, how have you seen hotels change? What have been, I think, the most biggest change… What have been the biggest changes that you’ve seen that you’re excited about and are pushing those forward?

HJ: I think really being thoughtful of the environment, I think that’s been huge. I mean, Host has a huge LEED commitment, ESG commitment, and so we really are very thoughtful of that and that’s very exciting because that’s very important these days. That’s another layer in the whole design process. So that’s another challenge in the design process, which I think is great.

Also, I think having the guests feel like they’re part or sense of place, what’s going to make them excited about being there? It’s not just a bedroom. It’s like, what are the other experiences that you’re going to have? Is it great food, great cocktails, great design that makes them feel like they’ve arrived to their destination? I think that’s very important, and bringing that sense of place and vibrancy to the hotel.

SSR: And looking forward, is there one project that you’re excited about that you’re in the midst of, besides the Naples? I know that’s still new.

HJ: Yes. Oh, yeah. Well, I guess right now the big thing is the Four Seasons, Orlando. We have new development there. It’s going to be residences. So we’re building residences to be sold. So this is a new thing for us also. It’s going to be 31 condos, three to five bedrooms, super luxury, and nine villas right there at the Four Seasons property in Golden Oak.

So we’re very excited. We’ve been working on that right now. We might be trying some new process with FF&E because of this whole new residential. So it’s very exciting. It’s new, it’s ground-up, and a lot of collaboration here because we got a lot of people that are involved in this.

SSR: How do you stay on top of all the FF&E innovation? Because you have strategic partners, you’re always looking for new people. I mean, how do you keep up?

HJ: Yeah. I mean, a lot of new people come word of mouth. I really like it when people refer me, “Hey, I have great experience with so-and-so. They do new things. They’re very creative, they’re very strong partners.

Also, I keep up with some of the technology and stuff. Some people just… Like Dan Dobin. Oh, Dan Dobin. For years, he would just stop by and he would chat about new things and what’s going on in the industry. Curtis Breedlove does that also. Just always like, “What’s new? What’s happening?” And just really listening to people like that and I’ll find out what’s going on and what might be new. I think that’s important.

SSR: Yeah. And do you have a process, I guess, to share with others where you spend the money? I mean, I know it’s very project by project, but is it just looking at the overall and what’s going to make the most impact and what actually needs to be renovated?

HJ: Right, right. Well, that, when we look at the property, we see what operationally, first, what is needed. So operations is extremely important because if it’s not operating efficiently, you’re just really throwing money out the door, right? So that’s why some of the big moves make sense: bringing the bars out from behind out of the corners, making the bars kind of front and center because you want people to feel very easy to go up and get a drink, have something to eat. So that, even that’s a lot of money.

Sometimes that’s easy on some of these properties because it makes a lot of sense. Or also other areas, like we bring in the club lounges up on the higher floors down to the lobby because now we can turn in that space into guest rooms or suites.

So we really kind of look at a lot of it from either an ROI perspective, operational perspective. That really comes first. But you’d be surprised, if you really look at that, what you can do with that from a design perspective. That gives you a whole new set of opportunities there, and challenges, which are great.

SSR: Right. And I think it’s also being smart, right? Like editing, making the right choices because you can’t do everything, right?

HJ: No, you cannot do everything.

SSR: No.

HJ: Where are we going to get the biggest bang for the buck right away? What makes sense? And then we usually have 10-year plans. So what’s the plan for each property? Where do we see the next thing evolving to what we need to do? That’s very important.

SSR: Right. And it must be fun too, because you work with a bunch of different brands, so you get to see how each one works and what makes each one special. So you get to see a lot across your desk every day.

HJ: Yes. And that also helps. I mean, that helps you to learn when you see a bigger picture, you’re not in a little silo, which is really good. So I think that helps us a lot by working with so many brands from a Four Seasons to SH Hotels, to Marriott, Hyatt. You really see a different philosophy and it really helps you learn a lot, I think.

SSR: Right, and you could probably take, not take, but take inspiration from one to the other, like this works really well. How can we adapt it for this brand? Yeah.

HJ: That’s correct. Yeah, it’s great. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

SSR: What do you think has, with your longevity in the industry, what have been some of your secrets to success to get you to where you are today?

HJ: I think it’s being true to myself. I mean, really, I’ve kind of stayed with my values. And when I thought that wasn’t, the values were not meshing any longer, it was maybe time to move.

Also, not being afraid to ask questions and learn, not being afraid to, when a path takes you down, like from Marriott to manufacturing, totally different. Don’t be afraid of that. What can you learn from that? I mean, that was amazing experience for me. Absolutely amazing how much I learned there. And take that and ask a lot of questions. Ask to go and travel and see your suppliers that build the components.

Just be inquisitive, I think, is really helpful. Be true to yourself and don’t be afraid of change.

SSR: Right. And did you have a big break in your career, or was it just the right kind of steps that followed one to the other?

HJ: I think it was a series of steps. However, I think coming to Host was a break to get back into hospitality, and it was an amazing break because I was given the opportunity to build something, so that was amazing. And so that, I think, was a huge break from that perspective.

And then I think the next break from a design perspective was Host doing this Marriott Capital Transformation Program because it really got us out of the box and really transform our hotels to make them different and new and basically a new hotel. So that was amazing, yeah.

San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter on the River Walk in Texas

The San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter on the River Walk in Texas

SSR: Yeah. How would you describe yourself as a leader with your team?

HJ: I try to be really kind of, as a leader, giving people experiences and really let them come to me and say what do they need also. What do they feel like they’re lacking? I don’t want to say, “You should be doing this, you should be doing that.” What do you feel where you want to grow? Because I don’t know where their journey is taking them either, right?

And also, really when we have projects saying, “Hey, Jessica, she worked on that Boston Marriott. That was her job. Amber’s doing the Orlando World Center,” making sure people know that it’s a team effort with our group I think is very important.

SSR: Right. I mean, it has to be with all the collaboration that you all-

HJ: Right, right

SSR: All have to do. And what advice would you give your younger self or somebody new starting out in this industry?

HJ: I guess I would say that really try to take each step in your journey and learn and get the most you can out of it. Even if it seems like, why am I here type of thing. What are you going to get out of it? What are you going to learn from that?

Even when I was doing contracting for an SA, I learned a lot about contracting, which then built into this whole procurement, supplier, supplier partnership program. So you don’t know where this knowledge and skillsets that you’re learning along the way will lead.

SSR: Yeah. And have you had mentors along the way? Anyone that has helped you figure out that path and that career?

HJ: I would say my mentors were really more in the design area when I got to design because that was really out of my wheelhouse. And there were certain designers, Margaret McMahon was very instrumental, and Miriam Torres from Parker-Torres Design. I mean, I think both of them were very instrumental in helping me understand design, what’s important on our different projects and just in general, introductions to people, and just the growth in that whole area I thought was very important.

SSR: With Women’s History Month next year too, how are you hoping to advance as a prominent woman in this industry, to advance other women to see that this could be a career for them too?

HJ: Right. I think it’s really, I’ve been trying to… I do a lot of panels and a lot of people come and talk to me after the panels, which I think is really good. So just kind of really being out there and expose yourself.

Also, might be some work through Host with HLA. I was on that panel in the fall, I think it was now. And so we’re talking about how to maybe get more involved in that, which would be great with their women’s group. And also at Host, I’m heavily involved in the women’s network, what’s called WIN, which we have either speakers or we do learnings and people talk about their experiences there. That’s been really great too.

SSR: Oh, that’s awesome. So they bring in speakers to…

HJ: Yes, yes.

SSR:Oh, that’s amazing.

HJ: They bring in speakers that maybe they’ve accomplished things or how to do better things from your own personal growth to even personal experiences with people at Host, that they work with certain charities and what their experience was, to expose more people to different things. So it’s great So it’s a really nice women’s group. We have a lot of male allies that also join us, so it’s a very nice program there.

SSR: That’s awesome. All right, so tell us something that people might not know about you, minus the fact that you’re a biker, which we already figured out.

HJ: I’m a biker. Oh, something else? I feel like I said a lot today.I guess something else, I mean, I like to fly fish. That’s another thing. Yes, I like to fly fish, and that’s a nice family activity. My husband and my son, Matthew, they are obsessed with it. They’re obsessed and really good. But I enjoy fly-fishing on vacation. We go up to the Catskills and go fly-fishing, go down to Virginia. So that’s a nice family activity. We’ve been out to Yellowstone. Tim, Anna, my daughter and I, and Matthew, we all went fly-fishing out there. So that’s kind of like an odd thing, I guess, you might not know about.

SSR: Are any of your kids following your footsteps

HJ: No, they’re totally different. Totally different. Matthew, he’s a product manager, mechanical engineer by training for a 3D printing company up in Brooklyn, New York. And so he’s totally doing that. And my daughter, she just got her master’s degree in aquatic sciences with a sustainability background and is going to be working for a company in Copenhagen, Denmark.

SSR: Amazing.

HJ: Yep, yep.

SSR: And I know you love to travel. Is there somewhere on your bucket list?

HJ: Well, yes. We’re going… We have three trips lined up already. We’re going to go to Iceland in July and go hiking for a week, so I’m very excited about that. I’ve never been to Iceland and hiking, that’s kind of the thing to do. So I’m looking forward to that.

And then in the fall, we’re going to southern Spain and Lucia area. We’re just doing more touring there. I’ve never been there. It’s my daughter’s favorite area in Europe, so I’m very excited about going there. And probably in ’24, we’re going to go to Egypt and Petra. So I’ve never been there and that’s really outside of my box, so I’m excited about that.

SSR: That’s amazing. I love that you already have all this lined up.

HJ: Oh, you got to plan it, Stacy. You got to plan it or time flies, you know?

SSR: Exactly.

SSR: Yeah. No, I think it makes sense, especially with how busy you are to know there’s this coming up. And tell us about your style at home.

HJ: My home, my favorite place at home is my screened-in porch. We have this amazing screened-in porch. I live out there. I mean, it’s big enough. We have a dining for eight to 10 people, a beautiful sit lounge area around the fireplace. And as soon as the weather turns 50, I’m out there. I’m like out there. We have a koi pond and just a nice area of serenity.

Inside my home, it’s very comfortable. It’s more transitional because I love having pieces from our family. I have my grandmother’s armoire. It’s a mahogany, burl wood armoire that she had in her bedroom that I have in my living room. And it’s stunning. I get a lot of compliments on that. I love having that in there.

I have pieces. Tim’s aunts lived in Vietnam for many years. We have some pieces from Vietnam also in my living room, a beautiful elephant, ceramic elephant. And it sounds weird. It’s like a little side table that made it, fun fact, all the way from Vietnam without it even being cartoned because they were afraid that if they put it in a carton and it would get all… People would just throw the carton. They just basically put it on the plane as-is, and it came intact. It was amazing.

SSR: That’s crazy.

HJ: And so little things like that. We have a lot of fun things like that. In our family room, we have a wall that’s designed that has all fly reels that is on the wall. And one of them is a very special fly reel my husband found on an auction site that is one of the original Orvis fly reels. So that’s a little art display that we have there.

I like it to feel like it’s me, it’s our family.

SSR: That’s amazing. And you travel a lot. Is there one thing you… How often are you on the road, by the way?

HJ: A lot. Probably, I’d say, I don’t know, maybe… It goes in waves. At the beginning of the year, I was going away every week for three days every week. And now it’s kind of died down, it’s going to pick up again. So I’d probably say at least 50% of the time, I guess, if not more, but at least that, yeah.

SSR: Is there one thing you can’t live without when you travel?

HJ: Oh, when I travel, I can’t live without? Oh, a good glass of wine.

SSR: Love it.

HJ: Definitely a good glass of wine.

SSR: So I hate to end the podcast, but for the sake of time, we always ask the question of the podcast as our last question. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

HJ: I would say what kind of summed up a lot of the eclectic things I talked about today is I always go back to this quote from the Life of Pi, which I know you’ve heard before, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” And I think that just sums up what everybody should really try to learn is because you got to embrace change, don’t doubt it. Be confident, and just keep going forward.

SSR: Well, I love that. Thank you so much for all of your insight and for spending the last few minutes with me. It’s been such a pleasure, as always.