OYW Media Q&A: David Bowd, CEO of Salt Hotels

Learn how a poor student became a brilliant hotelier working in and opening some of the world’s most renowned properties. Don’t miss David Bowd’s hospitality career must-dos and his predictions for the future of the industry he loves.

How did you get started in Hospitality Sales, Marketing and Revenue Management?

I actually left high school when I was 16-years-old in the UK. I was not a good scholar in any way at all. I was the bad boy in class and I didn’t enjoy school in any way at all. And when I was 16 I had the opportunity to go on and do further education, but I also went for an interview to be a management trainee in a hotel in Worcestershire in England and I got that job, which is quite amazing now when I look back on it. But the worst part of that interview was my mum went into the interview with me because they wanted to make sure that they understood my parents understood sort of what the industry was about. I started soon after that as a bellman, that was my first position. And from day one I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I knew that being in a hotel environment really suited my personality; looking after guests, helping people. I decided that I was going to forge my own management trainee path and work in every department in a hotel. I was a team manager for a couple of years. I always had an idea and a fantasy of becoming a chef. When I was 17 years old, I got into the kitchen and at the end of day one I realized just how much I hated being back of house and how much more I would be fit to a front of house environment. I moved to London when I was 17. I joined the White House Hotel in Regent’s Park, London, a large 600-bedroom hotel. Then I really started to understand and get a real buzz from the revenue side of things. We had a big board in the office of how many rooms we had every day to sell and what rates we were selling at. And nothing computerized. I spent 10 or 12 years at the White House working in all different departments and ultimately becoming the Deputy General Manager. I felt that at that point this was a good time to travel. So, I decided to take a year out go and travel. I went to Australia. I got a job in a hotel and I became a Director of Rooms in two hotels in Melbourne, Australia, and I did that for a couple of years. I really enjoyed that and learning a different culture and a different environment of which to work in and in which to lead people.

And then I came back to went back to England. Eventually, I joined Thistle Hotels as General Manager. At the time they were the biggest hotelier in London with about 30 hotels and I was General Manager with them for three or four years. I joined Schrager after St. Martin’s Lane Hotel had just opened in London. It was one of the first boutique hotels to make it to the UK. Obviously, I knew all about Ian [Schrager]. I read a lot about him. I’d seen what he had created in his other hotels and was very interested. I then flew to America and met with Ian and I was sold. I would make a lot less money than I was earning at the time, but I thought it was a good opportunity to learn a different element and to see the industry. So, I worked with Ian as the general manager for Martins Lane and then shortly after took over as Regional General Manager. I absolutely loved the lifestyle of boutique market segment. I realized that it was exactly where I was supposed to be. Ian convinced me to move to America and I moved to New York to take over operations for all of the hotels. That was 12 years ago that I had my first real US hotel operations experience. After running operations as Morgans Hotel Group I actually went back to work for Ian. I left Ian to work for Andre Balaz as Chief Operating Officer to open the Chiltern Firehouse in London. After four years with Andre, I thought it was it was maybe time to again take a take a different route. I bought a small inn on Cape Cod, got a dog, and had a bit of a life. So, Kevin [O’Shea] who is co-founder of Salt Hotels and I bought the Salt House and renovated and opened that and it was an incredible success from day one. And we were like, “Oh, this is interesting. You know, maybe we’ll do a second one.  And so, we bought a second hotel and opened that. Then we were approached to operate the Chique Hotel on Shelter Island. While we were opening that I was approached by iStar which had 34 acres of waterfront space in Asbury Park, New Jersey, to create a working with Anda Andrei, who was the design lead for Ian Schrager for almost 30 years. We did that and then here we are. We just opened our fifth hotel. We have we have a few more to open over the next few years, including London in 2020.

What advice would you give other looking to start a career in hospitality?

I think it depends where you are in in your career and in and in your life. I think the most interesting thing about hospitality is it is it’s an industry that anyone can join in any part of their life. Four years ago we launched a school in Asbury Park teaching the business of hospitality. When you have an opportunity to see inside and get a glimpse of what hotel life is about. I think that spending time in hotels or hospitality or sales functions is really important to see if this is something that matches what you’re looking for. And then I always say be prepared that it is incredibly hard work. It’s wonderful for me. It’s certainly the best career I could ever have, but it is seven days a week, 365 days a year. You never close a hotel door. So, it is a full on job, but one where you’ll meet the most interesting people both working with and looking at it from a guest point of view.

What might surprise people about what you do as a hospitality CEO on a day to day basis?

What would surprise people about my role I think is how I opine over every small detail of everything within our hotels. I get up very early in the morning. I am a very early riser and from that moment I’m thinking about every experience. I write to every single guest on the morning after that first night stay to ask, “Is there anything we can do to make it better for you or is there anything that I need to know?” When you get to be CEO I think it’s really important to stay connected and to understand what the guest is hearing seeing and doing.

For those who may be considering transitioning from another industry over to hospitality, what kinds of personality traits and talents lend themselves to a second career in hospitality?

To me it’s all about attitude. We have a company motto that is, “hire the attitude and train the skill.” I think in hospitality we can train almost anything, but you have to have the right attitude. We can’t train people to smile. We can’t train people to inherently open the door and let somebody else go in front of them. It’s all about that real passion for wanting to look after people. And I think that comes from growing up. I think it comes from experiences in life. It’s all about energy and smiling and fun and a genuine care of other people.

What should young people be doing to get their foot in the door in a way that might eventually lead to a career in the Sales, Marketing, and Revenue Management side of the business?

Getting into the industry is really important. It’s really important I think that people take time and read look at what has hotel companies are doing, sales companies are doing, revenue operations are doing. Learn as much as you possibly can from as many people as you can out there. Don’t expect to come into the industry and everyone’s going to give you all of the knowledge you need. Go out there and work to find that knowledge yourself to make you better.

Do you have any predictions about the future of the hospitality industry?

I’ve seen health and wellness becoming more and more prominent throughout the industry and I think that will only continue. And I think that will continue from an employer point of view, as well. One of the things that we did a couple of years ago was we brought a wellness coach into the organization who confidentially meets with all of our employees and talks to them about mental health, physical health, sleep, and addresses all different aspects that affect different people in different ways. I think health and wellness is really something that will continue to be prevalent in our industry.

And truly local hotels that are not just in the community, but lifting a community, helping a community whether that’s through local employment or local purchases or collaborations with local artists or musicians. A hotel is such an important part of the community and, to me, should be a part of the fabric of the community. I think not paying lip service to the word “local” but really meaning it.

And from the insider’s point of view, we’re really learning through technology the movements, the habits of our guests. I’ve always felt that hospitality is behind the rest of the world when it comes to technology. We’re all about guest experience, but I think we can use technology to better understand what our guests want. What is the trend? How do they feel? I hope that the industry will be better through learning from our guests.