Flying High in Corporate Travel & Hospitality

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Hoyt H. Harper II sealed his fate in the travel and hospitality industry when, at 24, he chose to go to Jamaica with a travel company rather than be a sales rep for IBM. Today, Harper, 48, is senior vice president at Four Points by Sheraton, the country’s top mid-priced hotel brand in the global empire of Starwood Hotel & Resorts Worldwide Inc. of White Plains, N.Y. Responsible for all operational aspects of the brand, including standards, product development and relations with franchise owners, he is one of the highest ranking African-Americans in the corporate travel and hospitality industry.

How did Harper climb so high when, as he himself acknowledges, “there are not very many African-Americans in the travel industry in general and in the hospitality industry specifically”?

Aside from family-instilled values and support—“I was blessed to have a solid family background, a professional father and mother [from whom] I garnered a lot of support”—passion and ambition had a lot to do with it, Harper says. “It was a combination of my desire to move up and my enjoying what I did. I enjoyed the customer interaction. I enjoyed the company.”

After seven years with Thomson Vacations Inc., Harper realized he wanted to be in marketing. “For a brief year, halfway through my career with them, I switched from operations to sales, then they moved me back to operations. I realized that to go into marketing, I had to leave the company,” he says.
He joined Avis Rent A Car in Garden City, N.Y., where he soon became director of leisure marketing. Thomson brought him back as vice president of sales and marketing in their Canadian division, but he left them again, and, shortly after, met the man he considers a mentor. “[Robert F. Cotter] hired me to be vice president of product development for a travel firm he was the CEO of at the time,” Harper says.

Cotter subsequently became senior vice president of sales and marketing at ITT Sheraton and took Harper with him.

Is it necessary to have a mentor to rise through the corporate ranks? Yes and no, says Harper. “It certainly has been a positive impact on my career, having access to someone in a senior position who can provide direction, support and leadership,” he says. It was Cotter who saw the opportunity to expand the company’s global marketing and brand awareness through partnership marketing and assigned the task to Harper. Cotter also assigned him the responsibility of fixing ITT Sheraton’s underperforming frequent-guest program. And, when Starwood emerged in the late 1990s from mergers and acquisitions that included ITT Sheraton, Cotter gave Harper the opportunity to move into brand management.

But a mentor is not always around. “There was a time when Cotter was in Europe and Asia for eight years. So there have been periods in my career when I did not have that mentor—like when we created the Starwood frequent-guest program,” Harper says. When Starwood came together, he explains, there was need for a frequent-guest program that represented all of the Starwood brands, which include St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin, The Luxury Collection and W. “My team and I jumped in with both feet and were successful in creating what is now considered the best frequent-guest program in the world,” Harper says.

On his own, Harper learned the importance of measuring his own performance. “If you can’t define your contribution to an organization, you’re probably expendable. I’ve always tried to focus on understanding what I bring to the table. It’s important to know and it’s important to let others know,” he says.

He has another goal. “One thing I hope to do for the rest of my career is to help provide and strengthen mentoring programs to young African-Americans coming up in our company and in our business. I would like to do more in providing support, encouragement and insights to younger African-Americans, starting here within Starwood,” he says. “We are looking for people who are not necessarily hospitality experts for a number of strategic roles—revenue management, sales, marketing expertise, IT, the list goes on.”