In March, Wyndham Worldwide announced that Eric Danziger was stepping down from his position as president and CEO of the company’s hotel division. Stepping into his shoes is Geoff Ballotti, former president and CEO of Wyndham’s timeshare exchange and vacation rental division. Despite his youthful looks, Ballotti is a seasoned veteran of the lodging industry with plenty of energy and expertise to keep moving the hotel group forward.
Could you share the story of how Wyndham Chairman and CEO Steve Holmes recruited you?
I had been at Starwood for 20 years when I got a call from Steve to see if I was interested in talking about leading the timeshare division. And the more I talked to Steve, the more I liked him and yet he never would make an offer. Finally, after a long casual dinner at a New York City restaurant, we stepped outside to find the snow coming down hard. It was 10 p.m., and I had to wait a couple of hours for the car service to pick me up. He said, “Get in my car, and I’ll take you to my house.”
So I’m standing there in his kitchen when Steve’s wife Bonnie comes down in her nightgown and asks me a hundred questions about myself, my kids, and my wife. Meanwhile, Steve made some calls and got another car service to come out with an SUV. It took me three-and-a-half hours to get home that night. When I finally climbed into bed, my wife asked if Steve had offered me the job. I said no, but if he ever did, I knew he was the guy I wanted to work for.
How did the move to the hotel group come about?
Although Steve told me that he likes to move his executives around, I never expected that this would have come as quickly as it did. I was ready because Steve gets the divisional presidents together every other week to collaborate and exchange ideas. So for the past six years, I’ve gotten to know the hotel group pretty well.
You’ve been away from the hotel industry for six years. What do you think now that you’re back?
Things are much more upbeat now than they were six years ago. When I left Starwood, we knew we had to batten down the hatches because 2008 and 2009 were going to be rough years. But for Wyndham, not being a real estate owner at that time presented tremendous opportunities to Steve and Eric [Danziger] because they weren’t saddled with debt service payments. They had established a fee-for-service model and had a brand for every market out there. When I joined the company, we didn’t have a single managed hotel, now we have 60. And we have a much larger global footprint than we did back then. So for me to step back into this industry at this point in time is great.
What was your first hotel job?
I worked my way up from dishwasher to waiter at the Hotel Le Méridien in Boston. One day, I was asked to wait on Le Méridien’s assistant VP of food and beverage who was visiting from France. He asked me for a bottle of wine, but since I had never opened one, I screwed up and pulled out only half of the cork. The man fired me on the spot. Bernard Lambert, the hotel’s general manager, found me afterward and told me I could stay on.
I’ll never forget that moment of kindness. Bernard had such a gift for leading and connecting with others, which is probably why he went on to become the CEO of Le Méridien Hotels and Resorts. And 20 years later, I was sitting across the table from him as Starwood CEO Barry Sternlicht was negotiating to buy Le Méridien. What are the odds that a general manager and his former employee would be in that situation?