By Francine Silverman
Rebecca Sinn has managed to balance family, job and even a bone marrow transplant and mastectomy with equanimity. She's been general manager of Loews New York since March, 1992. This was after the hotel's $30 million renovation and name change from Loews Summit, and a year before she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, which she nonchalantly depicts as "not a good kind of cancer to have."
Having survived with the help of a "supportive husband and great staff," Sinn now speaks on behalf of the American Cancer Society on the importance of self-examination and mammograms. "I feel strongly you should give back," she says. "I think with my experience I can stand up and make a difference."
Outreach is also the credo of Sinn's boss, Jonathan Tisch, president and CEO of Loews Hotels, who, she says, "encouraged us to work in our communities." In 1991 he launched the Good Neighbor Policy, the hospitality industry's first comprehensive community outreach program. In 1996 the company received the President's Service Award from the Points of Light Foundation, the highest honor given by a U.S. President for social responsibility.
In New York City, the Loews chain donates excess food, furniture, and soft goods like bedspreads and pillows to homeless shelters. Loews New York has a special arrangement with nearby St. Bart's Church, where Sinn worships. "We send stuff over every month," she says. In addition to food, the hotel donates "anything in a bottle, soap not used but packaged. A lot of hotels donate food. I think we're fairly unusual to be donating that."
According to the literature, each property adapts the program to its own needs. For example, at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in Coronado, Ca., employees formed a group called "beach busters" that regularly cleans and beautifies neighboring Silver Strand State Beach.
Sinn was born in Detroit and reared in Minneapolis. She planned to become a teacher but fell into the hotel field while at the University of Denver. During college she worked as a waitress at a local Holiday Inn, and after graduation married her college sweetheart and worked as a bartender and hostess at a New Jersey yacht club near her in-law's summer home.
Like her two older brothers, Sinn acceded to her father's wishes by earning part of her education, and she's not sorry. "When I was interviewed for jobs in my senior year and they asked how much of your college education did you pay, I was able to feel good that I really earned this," she says.
One of only five female hotel managers in New York City, Sinn began as a corporate trainee at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco in 1977. She did the usual rotations but earned the distinction of becoming the city's first (assistant) female bell captain and the hotel's first female beverage manager. The latter position was the result of her interest in food and beverage. "I was so tenacious," she says, describing her climb from assistant manager in the coffee shop to restaurant manager and bartender. At some point, she changed direction to rooms. Stewarding and housekeeping, she discovered, are the "best areas to learn how to be a manager. Most staff have families and come from different backgrounds. Once you prove yourself they are very supportive. More so than other areas of the hotel."
Sinn is the type of person who has no compunction about answering her own phone or telling strangers about her cancer. She's been described as dedicated, a penultimate professional, and efficient. "She's dynamite," says her friend and colleague, Bunny Grossinger. "She's not only efficient but she's a wonderful person."
As a troubleshooter at nine hotels around the country, Sinn has experienced it all. After 4-1/2 years in San Francisco, she was promoted to executive assistant manager of rooms at the Hyatt Islandia in San Diego. When the hotel decided to gut 100 of them, it lacked the budget to hire an outside agency. So it fell in her hands "to purchase everything, which is not usual," she explains. "Ordering the carpeting was easy but the furniture was another story." The wallpaper was not being replaced and the furniture had to cover the cleats that held the old furniture to the walls. "I had to make sure in every room they were covered. I walked every single room with a measuring stick. It helped me understand what goes into a renovation."
That hotel was on the ocean and had flea and termite problems. In Manhattan, there are watermain breaks. During the early 1980s when she moved from San Diego to Buffalo in upstate New York, she found a shell of a building. The Hyatt there had a cement floor and an open pit for an atrium. "We opened in February. Whoever chose that date I will never know," she says, laughing.
That was followed by the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, which had different problems. It was overselling its 2000 rooms. "The day I arrived they had just walked 150 people. I went there to make sure reservations and front office were done properly. My goal was to maximize occupancy but not tick off a lot of people."
In 1987, she first held the title of general manager while at the Adam's Mark in Kansas City. After a promotion to its sister hotel in Philadelphia, Pa., she was approached by Loews. Why did she decide to leave Hyatt after 11 years? "It was the right moment to leave a company I had grown up with - they gave me great learning experience," she says. "Loews had been around for 50 years and is a great company to work for. They look at you as an individual. And it's a great company for women."
In the Loews galaxy of 14 properties, many are 4 Diamond or 4 Star. "Our hotel is unique among Loews," says Sinn. "It's the oldest and biggest. It was built as a mid-level (in 1961). We don't have space to meet the standards for 4 Star and 4 Diamond, but we try to strive for the same kind of service."
Her recipe for stellar service includes a 425-member staff that's sensitive to guests' needs and able to make its own decisions. Her job is to keep cool.
"If I come in today and we're oversold, I have to know how to whittle," Sinn says. "Instead of getting excited about what the situation is, I face it and work on fixing it for the future." Describing herself as a calm, positive person, she adds, "People who yell or scream don't work well with me. I think that makes the staff crazy. If you can remain calm, the rest of the staff will follow suit."
This doesn't mean leading them by the nose. "As a manager, I don't want to make all their decisions," Sinn says. "I'm a hands-on person. I want to know things but I don't want to do things. If they have a problem, I want them to come with solutions because that's how they learn. We try to get them to think about how to fix things on their own."
What's more, "if a guest has a problem they need to fix it," she states. "Find what will make the guest happy. A lot of times a guest just wants an apology. Sometimes it's not a matter of totally screwing up. You can really win a guest over by the right response."
Loews has a training program called "Star Service," which Sinn describes as "excellent." She says it stresses basic courtesies like using the guest's name, making eye contact and keeping calm. "If your chef yells at your waiters, how can your waiter go out and be nice to the guest?," she says. "Our big push is training for new employees, to get them started on the right foot."
There are no monetary incentives for good employees, only self-satisfaction. "Our perks are recognition" Sinn says. "We buy them t-shirts, we take them to dinner now and then. If we have tickets for the circus, the staff will take homeless children." In addition, volunteers from each department help plan employee picnics and general meetings.
Sinn also believes in maintaining pleasant surroundings. "We used to have cement floors," she says. "Now we have tiles. What's the difference?" For $10,000, the floor is non-skid and safe, waxed and polished, she says. The same goes for uniforms. If employees wear dirty uniforms, she asks, "how can they feel good about their work?"
Married 20 years, Sinn shares her life with son Joshua, 6, and husband Chris, a fiction writer not yet published. "He is Mr. Mom," she says. "It's nice to have somebody home when I am not home much. It's worked really well."
Laughing at her circumscribed world, she says, "Everything in my life is within a 12-block radius. I live in the hotel in an apartment upstairs. The corporate office is on 61st and Madison, the regional vice president is on 61st and Park and my son goes to school on 62nd and Park. I work meetings around taking my son to school."
She does leave the area, however, to pursue her extracurricular activities. Her pet project is the Academy of Travel & Tourism, a national training program for high school students started by American Express in 1987. Her partner is Grossinger, daughter-in-law of Jenny Grossinger, the late proprietor of the famous Catskills resort. The duo are the most active members of the advisory board, according to Joan Hazzard, director of the Academy. Before their involvement, she says, the New York board was inactive and "they have made all the difference in the world." She adds that Sinn "has been absolutely wonderful. She has been the main support for keeping this board active - and she runs a wonderful hotel."
It was Sinn's idea to provide overnights for students at Loews hotels. While other New York hotels are active in the Academy, Loews is the only group involved in the overnight familiarization program. For two years in a row selected students from six New York City high schools have stayed at the four Loews hotels, rotating departments.
This year, Loews hosted 110 students. Hazzard participated as a teacher and was awed by Sinn's effectiveness. "She was able to get her staff to support this, so kids were assigned to every department within the hotel," Hazzard recalls. "They bought refreshments and videos for the kids in the evening, and staff members of the hotel came on their days off and helped the kids prepare presentations about what they had learned. She got all the other general managers from all the other Loews hotels to help her. I couldn't believe it."
Last May, Sinn and Grossinger hosted a luncheon at the famed "21" Club to raise money for the Academy. "We sold out," says Grossinger. "We filled the restaurant with 200 people at $250 a ticket and raised $45,000. Every major hotel person showed up." A subsequent golf tournament raised another $9,000. Says Sinn, "She makes all the calls. I am the person who coordinates and knows where to go if we need fund raising, signage, table settings."
The two first met when Grossinger called Sinn during her illness. She'd heard good things about her and asked her to lunch. "From that point on we started a working relationship and friendship," Grossinger says.
Another admirer is Lalai Rach, dean of the Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Travel at New York University. Noting that Sinn has been on the advisory board since its founding in 1992 and is on the executive committee, she says, "If I could clone Rebecca Sinn, I would have the world's perfect board."
Sinn is involved with the students as well, says Rach. "She's been instrumental in getting our students internships and in developing a mentor program. She has talked to our students for two hours about becoming a manager, how to develop one's career, what are the things you need to do. She brings in other people during her presentation about the importance of professional comportment, why you have to be involved in associations, what makes a successful professional. Many people talk about what they would do - Rebecca does it. She's a tremendous role model for my students."
When Rach arrived in New York three years ago, she stayed at Loews New York. "She has a very nice hotel and she runs a lovely property," is her assessment. "Sit in the lobby. It's never a dull place. It's a very busy hotel."
She's so right, except that the long narrow lobby has no seating area...only the hustle and bustle of guests checking in and out or having a quick drink at the open Lexington Avenue Grill. Like the GM, these people are on the move.
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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