How Vera Manoukian is turning the art of hospitality into a science
After a long flight, longer lines, luggage delays, and ground traffic, the element of surprise may well be the last thing on the weary traveler’s itinerary. But from the moment one steps through the doors of a Hilton Hotels & Resorts establishment, it’s up to hospitality visionary Vera Manoukian to surprise and delight her guests in ways that she herself couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago—when she first stumbled into a hotel with a Help Wanted sign and found herself hired as a concierge.
Thanks to “smart” hospitality, this high-powered Senior Vice President and Global Brand Head of Hilton Hotels & Resorts is giving new definition to the word accommodating. In Manoukian’s world, hospitality means bypassing the front desk altogether and scanning the digital key on your phone to enter a room you selected in advance, with the room temperature pre-set to your exact preference, and a full stock of your favorite amenities. A freshly-prepared dinner is promptly delivered by room service, and the next episode of your favorite streaming mini-series is all queued up on a flat screen. Arising refreshed and rested, you can head for the customized fitness equipment, situated a mere five feet from the bed.
Before Manoukian’s illustrious career took off, she may well have dreamed of using such advanced technology in a very different setting—perhaps a medical lab. Just a few years before taking the concierge position, she had studied biology, chemistry, and mathematics in preparation for fulfilling her parents’ dream of her becoming a doctor.
“There was just one minor detail we had neglected to consider,” quips Manoukian, “ I got really sick at the sight of blood.”
Following her undergraduate studies, the resourceful Manoukian pivoted to concentrate on marketing in her MBA program, and upon graduation, was seeking a way to utilize both her science and business background. The hotel business, not surprisingly, had never been in the plan.
“Thirty years ago, being in the hospitality business wasn’t necessarily the first choice for a girl from the Middle East,” Manoukian states matter-of-factly. But while her parents may have at first been disappointed not to have a doctor in the family, it soon became apparent that they had inadvertently prepared their analytically-minded daughter for a career in an industry that prized the global outlook the family’s circumstances had necessitated.
Manoukian grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, attending an Arabic school until eighth grade. When the family decided it was time for Vera to grow closer to her Armenian heritage, they transferred her to AGBU Tarouhy-Hovagimian School, whereupon the young Armenian teen, despite her cultural background, felt instantly alienated.
“Here I was in a brand new school and realized I didn’t know Armenian very well at all. I could speak it but didn’t read or write. So of course I thought this was the worst thing my mother ever did to me. In hindsight, however, it was one of the best things: it taught me resilience, and showed me how to find opportunity in every situation.”
Thrown into the unfamiliar environment, Manoukian learned that the way to survive was to quickly connect with her new peers. Not only did she end up making lifetime friends with whom she is still close, but also she expanded her foreign language facility (she now speaks five languages) and experienced the life-changing gift of having her innate talents recognized and encouraged by a perceptive teacher, Mania Kaffesian. The lively Manoukian drew Kaffesian’s attention not because she was a star student, but, ironically, because she was quite the opposite.
“I was more interested in learning about life than about books, which manifested in my being very distracted in the classroom, to the point of sheer boredom. Somehow Mania saw me as a diamond in the rough. Unlike other teachers, she didn’t give up on me. She pushed and inspired me in a way that has carried me throughout my career.
“As I’ve moved through leadership roles in my industry, I’ve often thought of that experience at Tarouhy, and have sought to identify others who are diamonds in the rough. They may have a spark, but maybe aren’t trying hard enough and others’ need to be pushed and polished so they may shine. I was taught that there’s always potential to be better, regardless of what others’ impressions may be. ”
Following her academic and cultural assi-milation at AGBU Tarouhy-Hovagimian, there was, however, another move in the offing for Manoukian, perhaps the most jarring of all. After living amidst the disruption of the Lebanese Civil War for five years, her parents understood that their way of life in the “Paris of the Middle East” was forever changed. Like so many others during that time, they made the difficult decision to send their children from Beirut to the U.S. to finish their education. Arriving in Waltham, Massachusetts to complete her senior year of high school, Manoukian was once again faced with a staggering cultural rupture. Her sheltered life in a small, private all-girls Armenian high school was over—suddenly she found herself one of more than a thousand students in a large, co-ed urban Northeast high school. Once again, Manoukian’s resiliency kicked in. She perfected her English, quickly assimilating to the late 70’s American culture and eagerly made her way to university to begin the journey into medicine that never was.
From the outset of that earliest, almost-accidental role as concierge, Manoukian found that continually applying both her analytic training and acumen, along with her innate creativity, propelled her to succeed in the always-evolving, margin-driven hospitality industry. Catering to shifting cultural trends, changing demographics, evolving consumer tastes and preferences, economic downturns, and global dynamics, the hospitality industry is one that rewards innovation tempered with fiscal realities, a true balancing act between art and science.
Promoted to be the first female and youngest-ever General Manager at Sheraton Corporation before the age of 30, Manoukian’s work ethic and management talents saw her eventual rise to Senior Vice President of Operations at Starwood. She ran operations of hundreds of properties in the largest region of the global hospitality giant. Operations at this scale represent thousands of processes and procedures, all of which must be executed flawlessly, efficiently, and cost-effectively.
At Starwood, she developed Starwood University, a comprehensive training system that began at one hotel and was adapted across the organization. The program features three pillars that closely mirror Manoukian’s professional strengths, values, and experience: fundamental hotel business management P&L; a corporate responsibility track that focuses on how the industry can give back to the communities in which it operates; and a mentoring track for identifying, developing, and promoting talent. “I made it a mission of mine to help young people, particularly young women in the industry,” says Manoukian.
From Starwood, Manoukian moved to Denihan Hospitality Group, a U.S.-based operator of boutique hotels, as President and Chief Operator Officer, and then to her current role at Hilton managing the iconic Hilton Hotels & Resorts brand at more than 575 hotels across six continents. Manoukian, who had stayed at only one hotel before accepting that first concierge job, is responsible for ensuring that on any given day, hundreds of thousands of guests across the world experience a level of hospitality that reflects the Hilton Hotels & Resorts brand promise.
To ensure their guests’ loyalty, Hilton Hotels & Resorts must anticipate and fulfill the needs of a traveling public whose expectations have been escalated by the pace of technology. It is one thing to adapt and incorporate the latest smart-technology efficiencies in your home or office; quite another to extrapolate those technologies by a factor of tens of thousands of guest room functions, food and beverage operations and outdoor amenities. For Manoukian, that daunting challenge translates as “fun.”
“It is hard work. But it is also a lot of fun. The Hilton brand always has been a pioneer in innovation,” Manoukian points out, “Not only in terms of hotel industry firsts, for example, we offered the first airport hotels for convenience and the first individual air conditioning units in hotel rooms. Hilton chefs introduced Eggs Benedict and the Brownie. A Hilton bartender invented some of the most popular cocktails, like the Piña Colada!”
To ensure its legacy endures for the newest generation of travelers, Hilton recently opened a product and experiential design incubator next to its global headquarters in McLean, Virginia, the Innovation Gallery, where a variety of new and emerging technologies, architectural and design elements, and dining concepts are tested and displayed. Featuring state-of-the-art functional and sustainable innovations, the lab allows visitors to experience everything from the latest noise-cancellation materials and smart bedding to in-room vertical wall gardens and micronutrient-based meal concepts. As Manoukian tells it, “Innovation is in my DNA. I’m constantly in discovery mode. Traveling on my own is my way of relaxing.”
However, finding an undiscovered corner of the world has become virtually impossible due to the advent of travel blogging, rating apps, and the power of social media to both make or break a destination, restaurant or hotel. The power of the post—whether Instagram influencer, Yelp or TripAdvisor review— is yet another front those in the industry must address. But true to form, Manoukian sees the positive: “Social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) have inspired and motivated more people to travel. In the U.S. alone, the number of people who hold a passport has more than doubled in the last 20 years. And with social media, more than ever, we in the industry have to be on our game, and be prepared for the instant feedback—whether good or bad. To me, it’s just one more way our industry has been revolutionized.”
The exhausted business traveler who enters a boutique hotel in Toyko to find a curated sleep kit on his pillow, the devoted pet-owner delighted by the perfect gift bag for her puppy upon check-in, the retirees looking for the grandeur of white-glove service on their 50th anniversary vacation, cannot imagine the myriad details, research, and calculations that go into every part of their stay. But Vera Manoukian does. And much as a chemist, biologist, or mathematician
calculates a successful outcome to an experiment, Manoukian has devoted her career to ensuring each stay is as memorable as her first one was.
“The hospitality industry is a lot of work. It’s 24/7 because hotels never close their doors. But once you catch that bug, you can’t get rid of it. It became my passion. I want to make everyone feel at home in the world—just as I do.”