Food for thought with Susan Santiago of Hyatt Hotels Corporation

ON A MISSION “When I started with Hyatt 20 years ago, we had three female general managers. We’ve now grown that to about 15. It’s not where we should be, but I’m out there leading the cause within Hyatt,” says Susan Santiago, vice president of food and beverage for Hyatt. PHOTO: RUSS COOVER

Because she’s moved 12 times in 20 years, Susan Santiago likens a career in the hospitality industry to one in the armed forces. Instead of military bases, however, her tours of duty have taken her to top-tier destinations like Orlando, Florida, New York, Phoenix, and the Caribbean, among others. Perhaps the most important place they’ve taken her, however, is up: Santiago began working for Hyatt as a server at the former Hyatt Regency Westshore in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1992. Since then, she’s worked at several of Hyatt’s 456 properties worldwide in progressively senior positions, eventually rising to her current position as vice president of food and beverage for Hyatt, based at its corporate headquarters in Chicago.

How did you end up in the hospitality industry?
I grew up in a modest financial household and certainly didn’t have the finer things in life, thus I made the decision at an early age that I wanted to become successful. Eventually, I decided to be an elementary school teacher. After graduating from college, I taught elementary school for two years and decided to get my master’s degree. I moved to Tampa and worked at Hyatt Regency Westshore as a server in their restaurant, just to put myself through school. Unfortunately, I had a tragedy in my family when my younger brother was killed. I decided life was way too short and I was just going to quit everything and live a life without responsibilities. The only thing I didn’t quit was my job at the Hyatt because it was paying my bills. Three months later it was clear I needed to begin a career, I decided I needed to do something I was passionate about, and my passion has always been and always will be food and beverage.

What do you enjoy most about food and beverage?
As vice president of food and beverage, I’m responsible for the financial and service success of all our food-and-beverage operations in North America, Canada, and the Caribbean. My mother owned restaurants all her life but was an accountant by trade, so that gave me an appreciation for the business side of food and beverage. Food and beverage is the division that’s the hardest to make a profit in, and I really enjoy that challenge. What I enjoy most about food and beverage, however, is that it also allows me to be creative. I’m a Pisces, so I’m a very creative person and I have to have the ability to use that creativity, but also to balance it with the business side. Food and beverage gives you the best of both worlds.

Has succeeding in the hospitality industry been difficult as a Latina?
This is a very male-dominated industry. There’s no doubt about it. That’s changing, though. When I started with Hyatt 20 years ago, we had three female general managers. We’ve now grown that to about 15. It’s not where we should be, but I’m out there leading the cause within Hyatt. For instance, we have an organization we’re just kicking off—an employee network group called Women@Hyatt—that’s going to focus on addressing the challenges for females in our industry. It’s the same for Latinos and Latinas: You don’t see many minorities in senior-level leadership positions in the industry overall. This is an issue we focus on within Hyatt.

What’s the most challenging part of your career?
The biggest challenge for upcoming managers in the industry is time management. I’ve taken time-management classes because it’s a learned skill. When I first started, I had no life outside of Hyatt. Over the years, I’ve developed those time-management skills and now have a much better balance between personal and professional life. I love to work out, for instance—I’m up at 5 a.m. every morning; I do at least 35 minutes of cardio and then I do weight training—and I love to go to the spa. Those things keep me energized so when I do come into work I’m giving 200 percent.

What’s your advice to young Latinos and Latinas working in the hospitality industry?
I’ve never looked at my ethnicity or my gender as an obstacle. I’ve always just worked really hard to earn what that next position is. That’s what success comes down to: working hard, being genuine, and being very honest. That’s how you get the support of the teams around you, and working with teams is critical. Lastly, you have to have fun. At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it. This isn’t a job for me. It’s what I love to do. I couldn’t picture myself being anywhere else.

Get to know all of Hispanic Executive‘s “Best Of 2012” Recipients here.