During a family camping and fly-fishing trip in the Colorado Rockies, Terri Haack remembers how it rained for 14 days in a row. Frustrated, her mother declared, “I’m done. Let’s go somewhere warm,” rounded up her husband and kids, and booked a room at a little motel alongside the road. Haack was 12, and it was her first time staying anywhere besides her bedroom or a tent. Curious about the motel, she peppered the proprietor with questions and learned about rates, competition, customer service, and even the importance of maintaining clean spaces, she recalls. “It impacted me. I went back to our room and told my mom, ‘I’m going to be in the hotel business, and I’m going to be the boss.’”
For more than three decades, Haack has done just that. As executive vice president and managing director of Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California, she has succeeded largely due to her caring nature, strategic business savvy, and ability to empower employees while catering to guest needs. Haack engages with her associates at various levels with the objective of finding out what’s important to her employees and customers—and then she delivers it. “I’m a naturally competitive person, and I play to win,” she says. “I believe in delivering results for ownership, my associates, and the people who are working with me.”
Haack, one of nine children, landed her first hospitality job at age 15. She worked at a concourse snack bar at the old Denver Stapleton Airport in Colorado, and “I just thought I was the coolest thing since sliced bread,” she says. “My interest in hotels, my entire life actually, has been about making others feel comfortable. It seemed natural for me.” After graduating from high school, she worked at a new construction property in Denver called Inn at the Mart. Her passion, drive, and all-hands-on deck attitude made her a standout employee. By age 22, she earned the position of general manager. “At the time, I didn’t really think of it as significant. I was doing my job. Now, looking back, I understand the importance,” she says. “What helped me the most was being able to set my ego aside and say, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know.’ Just because I had a title didn’t mean that I had all the answers.”
Haack has crisscrossed the country since then, working at hotels and gated communities in such locations as Seattle, Delaware, South Carolina, and Williamsburg, Va. In 2011, she received AH&LA’s General Manager of the Year (Large Property) award and was the first woman to receive the association’s coveted Resort Executive of the Year award in 2007. Haack is a strong advocate of enabling women into senior leadership roles. “Women play a great part in hospitality, and we shape the best practices in services,” says Haack, a founding member and vice chairman of AH&LA’s Women in Lodging Executive Council. “The hospitality business has always been welcoming to women and recognized their talent, though not always at the senior or executive level. I want to help women get out of middle management and into positions of influence.”
Today, Haack is gearing up to celebrate Terranea’s fifth anniversary in June. The 102-acre, 582-unit luxury resort “feels like her baby,” she says, and she’s proud of the accomplishment, particularly since the project’s construction bank went bankrupt in 2009, four months before the planned opening. “When we started, life was good, real estate was good. And then the bottom fell out of the economy,” she says. “We just had to hang on. There were times I didn’t think we were going to make it, and I’m so proud that Lowe Enterprises stayed in there when many people would have left the keys and walked away.”
Managed by Destination Hotels and Resorts, the property was recapitalized in 2010 after partnering with JC Resorts of San Diego and was able to refinance a $220 million loan three years ahead of schedule in early 2013, Haack says. The sheer gut determination it took to make Terranea profitable has created a special culture at the resort, which employs 1,250 associates who receive a complimentary meal each day and are encouraged to take advantage of a program called “Talk to Terri,” where they use computers in the dining room to email questions and suggestions directly to Haack. The resort was named a top employer in Los Angeles County, continually receives high guest satisfaction scores, and has garnered numerous recognitions, including earning a spot on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2014 Gold List and being named one of Travel + Leisure’s 500 Best Hotels in the World for 2013.
Haack’s secret to success is staying optimistic and reminding herself that, no matter the situation, “This too shall pass.” Something good is always on the other side of any problem, a mantra she often repeats to her employees. “I learned the days you are most afraid are the days that you make the best decisions because you know you aren’t going to give up,” she says. “We have a great team, and we really pull together. I believe we can accomplish anything.”