The students in The School of Hospitality Business received a real-time lesson in hotel transactions when Mark Lauer, general manager of the 1,214-room Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, came to the MSU campus to speak in classes on Monday, November 16. Before he spoke to the first class, Mark learned the breaking news that Marriott International had arranged to purchase Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, owner of the Sheraton brand.

Mark had additional breaking news to share with the students. The very next day, Sheraton Hotels and Resorts would announce the designation of both the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel and the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers as Sheraton Grand properties. Both hotels would join the brand’s new premier tier of exceptional Sheraton hotels and resorts recognized for their enticing destinations, distinguished designs and excellence in service and guest experiences.

Mark is familiar with School graduates, having mentored many of them when he served from 2001 – 2010 as director of marketing and later as hotel manager for The Waldorf=Astoria in New York and from 2010 – 2014 as GM of the nearly 2,000-room New York Hilton. They know him as a great leader, a talent developer, and an individual drawn to hospitality for its service to others. In a hotel “circle of life,” Mark actually began his career in 1980 with Marriott, working in four different Marriott locations from 1981 – 1995.

Speaking in both sections of HB 489 – Hospitality Business Strategy, taught by Professor Mike Rice (BA ’76) and Professor Ron Cichy (BA ’72, MBA ’77), Mark provided a real-life food and beverage case study from the New York Hilton. Between 2011 and 2013, the hotel implemented a grand strategy to fundamentally change its foodservice offerings. Customers had “voted with their feet,” using the hotel’s restaurant and room service options with decreasing frequency. So, using a methodical and inclusive process, the switch was made to a single “Herb n Kitchen Restaurant” on the lobby level with one kitchen and 7,500 square feet, offering a breakfast buffet, grab-n-go retail, and room delivery options.   Throughout the transition, corporate and property food and beverage staff were included, and affected staff were treated with dignity and respect. In the end, Mark said, “We provided what the customer wants” and the hotel’s revenues increased.

“It’s about getting all the stakeholders to align with a shared vision,” he said. “Senior leaders have to communicate their excitement to everyone on the staff and manage change effectively.”

In Dr. Cichy’s HB 451 – Your Emerging Leadership Journey, Mark recounted some of the milestones in his career, noting that in 35 years, he has lived in six cities; been with nine hotels; and worked in 13 positions, three times as GM, with six different brands and companies.

He told the students that the root of his love for the hotel industry is his passion to be of service to others. He said, “Our communities entrust our industry with the special moments of their lives — bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, celebrations.”

Mark reinforced the idea that good leadership requires self-knowledge and awareness, and he described for the students his own leadership style. He discussed the important distinctions between leadership and management. And for success in the hotel industry, he said, “Do the job you are doing right now very well. Be intellectually curious. Be driven by ‘team wins,’ not individual success. Be willing to work. And remember that you are judged by the team you build.”

To become a GM, he advised that the students learn revenue management and sales skills, operations, owner relations, and talent management. “Create a brand for yourself,” he said, “and build demand for it.” Truly successful people, he said, are able to manage. “They are effective at organizing, planning, budgeting, staffing, and problem solving. But they are also great leaders, able to align people, motivate and inspire, embrace change, and set direction.”

Mark asked the students to think about the next five years in their leadership journey. “Don’t worry about what your business card says. Think about what you are contributing to the organization and what you are learning.” Learn about your style, and find the kind of work culture in which you can thrive and manage yourself, he urged.

In Joel Heberlein’s HB 237 – Management of Lodging Systems, Mark also discussed what is required for success in the hotel industry, as well as the skills, knowledge, and attitude necessary to be a GM leader. He described what is on the minds of GM’s on any given day: people, product, and profit. He also noted some of the latest trends and disruptors in the industry, including the “trust” economy, the “shared” economy, Airbnb, and secure personal data.

In all, Mark addressed nearly 350 students during his visit, providing detailed presentations to almost a third of the entire School student population! And he did this while managing two milestone changes in his property. Perhaps this was the greatest lesson of all.

“Mark Lauer is a true partner to our School and our graduates,” says Dr. Ron Cichy. “He is the quintessential leader, driving success in his hotels, but also developing emerging leaders, mentoring and guiding rising talent. We deeply appreciate his sharing this wisdom with us.”