"Are we as an industry and organization doing what we should to prepare and shape our future in a positive way?” That’s a question Nancy Johnson, executive vice president of development at Carlson Hotels, the Americas, asked the ballroom full of hotel industry luminaries at the Mandarin Oriental New York during her inauguration as 2012 chair of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA). It was a poignant question considering the state of affairs concerning the economy, the transition of next generation leaders into the industry, and the ever-important political landscape that increasingly affects the business opportunities for the travel sector. But, it’s not a new question for Johnson to ask. She’s been asking it for decades.
A more than 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Johnson has not only been instrumental to the success of Carlson Hotels—a point emphatically made by Marilyn Carlson Nelson in her introduction of Johnson at the inaugural gala— but also to the success of the industry as a whole. “We’re excited to share our Nancy with the industry,” Carlson Nelson told the audience.
Johnson has been active in industry issues throughout her career. She’s been a staple on Capitol Hill and a leading advocate to get industry members involved in voicing their opinions to legislators on a range of issues, from fighting Card Check to fighting OTA occupancy tax legislation to promoting the benefits of visa waivers to the creation of international promotion for increasing visitors to the United States.
She’s also very active in the political landscape of her native Minnesota. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also presented the St. Cloud resident for inauguration. Johnson, a devoted mother and grandmother, was also presented for inauguration by her daughter, Heather. In an interesting and entertaining switch to past inaugural addresses, Johnson invited the Young People’s Chorus of New York City to sing to the audience. She even gave her young grandchildren a thrill when she asked the chorus members if they minded her grandchildren having the opportunity to sing as well.
Johnson has been instrumental in positioning the industry to build its future leaders, especially from diverse groups of people and, in particular, women in the industry. Johnson is founder of Women in Lodging (WIL), which seeks to promote and develop women for management roles within the industry. During her inaugural address, Johnson said of the creation of WIL, “When I looked at the hotel industry, I knew there were many accomplished women executives; the problem was they were not visible. I believed if we did not set up role models for our women employees and hospitality students, they would not look at the hotel industry as having potential for a long-term career and the industry would be deprived of valuable intellectual capital.”
Johnson, herself, is a role model for women in the industry. She becomes only the third woman to serve as chair of the association in its 101-year history. AH&LA President and CEO Joe McInerney says although it’s significant that Johnson is the third woman to serve as chair, the more important fact is that with her experience and record, she is simply the best person for the job.
It’s something Johnson says she’s glad to hear, because she feels the same way, not only about her current role at AH&LA but also in terms of all women and positions within the industry. “I was speaking to a group in Ohio and I told them that their predecessors have already done the extreme activism,” she says. “This isn’t about being male or female. This is about understanding what you want to achieve and how you are going to get there.
“It’s also about team building and mentoring—from woman to woman—to be more effective. I think that is a train that needs to happen,” she continues. “It’s still a little bit of a glass ceiling when it comes to higher-level positions. When you go to the executive conferences, it’s gotten better but it is still male dominated. I think it is an opportunity that I am the third woman in 100 years, but it’s more of an opportunity that I have a great deal of passion for this industry, and I’m used to playing in this field.”
WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE
Indeed, Johnson brings a wealth of ideas and experience to her role with the association. It is her experience within her career, particularly at Carlson Hotels working in development, which she feels will be vital to the position of AH&LA chair.
“I bring 40-plus years in the hotel industry, but I also bring a perspective of a privately held company,” Johnson says.
Johnson oversees business development efforts for Carlson Hotels’ select-service hotel brands in the Americas, including Country Inns & Suites By Carlson and Park Inn by Radisson. She previously led franchise operations for full-service hotels and has served as executive vice president and brand leader for the company’s select-service brands. Carlson’s other lodging brands include Radisson and Park Plaza.
Before joining Carlson, Johnson was vice president and chief operating officer at Hospitality Development Corporation, and was employed with Brutger Companies Inc., where she held various leadership positions.
Johnson is a member of several AH&LA committees, including the Economy Lodging Council, the Governmental Affairs/HotelPAC Committee, and the Women in Lodging Executive Council, as well as the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation board of trustees. Johnson also serves on the board of directors of the International Hotel & Restaurant Association and on the board of directors for The Travel Partnership Corporation (TTPC), a consortium of travel industry organizations representing all key segments of the industry.
“Now is an opportunity to give back and to shine the light on the opportunities that are in the hotel industry for young people to make their career,” Johnson says. “I think it’s essential for us to have new and young people who bring different ideas and ways of thinking to bring us into the future.”
In fact, she’d like her term to be about putting programs in place for growth and opportunity for young people about to begin their careers and those who will soon be seeking careers. Another key item on her platform is the importance of industry involvement on Capitol Hill.
“A big key for 2012 is obviously that it is an election year, and we need to make sure our voice is heard in every little area of the country,” Johnson says. “We need to make known what we need to have done from a job creation and an economic recovery standpoint not only in our industry but also throughout the United States.”
She says getting people to take part in the democracy of the United States is a big message for the upcoming year. As she told the audience during her inauguration, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you need to get out and vote.”
Johnson’s call to action is what she calls getting from apathy to activity. “Since 2004, 2005, and 2006, when everything was great and we were oblivious to what was happening, we’re now where people are probably shocked at the debt situation we’re in,” she says. “It’s time to say, ‘All of you who are in this industry should care deeply about debt issues, about visa issues, about what’s happening with government oversight.’ It doesn’t matter which party you’re for, just care, and as I said at the inaugural, give a damn.”
One of the current issues in the industry is the creation of Brand USA, and the effort to settle the visa waiver program. “I think it’s critical for our economic recovery and for job creation,” she says. “The fastest way to create sustained economic growth is to invite international travelers into America. I think we have gained some opportunities through the help of bipartisan support from Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. [Roy] Blunt (R-Mo.) and a few others who have identified it as low-hanging fruit. This is an easy fix.
“Put more consulate offices, put more counselors in those offices,” she continues. “In China, for instance, where there are millions of people who want to come to the United States, put the consulates where those people are located and allow them to travel to our country. I think if we all stay on this topic we can really make a difference.”
Over the next year, as she takes over as chair of AH&LA, Johnson plans to continue making a difference. And, she hopes to get the industry as a whole to join her.