Zec Helps Take Peninsula Chicago to the Top

It was 10 years late, but the Chicago Peninsula finally got to have its big party. The luxury hotel opened on June 1 in 2001, but the grand-opening celebration was canceled after 9/11. The hotel didn’t hold back this June 1 when it held what General Manager Maria Razumich-Zec says locals called the “party of the year, the party of the decade and the party of their lives.”

“Coming out of a recession, it was kind of a bold statement to throw a party like that,” she says of the event that drew more than 1,300 people, including the chairman and other top executives from Peninsula corporate offices in Hong Kong and many of the guests staying at the hotel that day who enjoyed the Asian-inspired bash.

Razumich-Zec didn’t open the hotel, but she’s been the GM since March of 2002. In 2007, she was promoted to regional vice president and also oversees operations at the New York Peninsula in addition to her role at the Chicago property. Not only did she lead the fledgling property through the challenges after 9/11, but she helped take the Mobil Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond property to awards like Zagat’s top U.S. hotel in 2003 and every year since, Condé Nast Traveler’s top U.S. hotel in 2006 and 2008 and Travel + Leisure’s number-one hotel in North America in 2004.

Rooms at the Chicago Peninsula range from $395 to $8,000 for three-bedroom suites with wraparound terraces. Razumich-Zec says the hotel has been running between the mid-70s and low-80s in occupancy rate through the summer and fall. The mix of business is roughly 70% business, 30% leisure (and more on weekends).

Razumich-Zec recently chatted about the property’s success and her thoughts on the recent recession and ongoing rebound.

How has business been this year?
We started the year off better than expected, then had a tough couple months in between. The biggest thing for us, and in Chicago, with occupancy back, is getting rate.

How do you do that?
Doing value adds, like maybe offering a continental breakfast or parking. You have to get creative. We ran a special for our 10-year anniversary — one night at rack rate and the second for $10 — that did extremely well. People traded up and booked suites and that helped push our average rate.

What makes the Peninsula Chicago so successful?
I think it’s two things. It always comes down to the staff. We talk a lot about roots: our Asian roots combined with our Midwestern hospitality. The people in the Midwest, and I’m one, are for the most part nice people, very helpful and warm. If you look like you need help, someone will ask if they can help you. And you find the best service in the world in Asia, and for us, the two have been a winning combination.

The other critical thing is attention to detail. We do regular walkthroughs. We have a team (Zec, the head of housekeeping, engineering and food & beverage, and the hotel manager) that once a week walks the front and back of house to make sure the hotel is in pristine condition. People are shocked we’ve been around 10 years because the hotel is in such great condition. Plus we do guestroom walkthroughs Monday through Friday. We do it for 30 minutes to an hour a day, just walking through rooms at random to see what type of condition they’re in.

How challenging was it through the recent downturn?
It was very difficult. There was a lot of rhetoric about staying in luxury hotels. Five-star hotels really suffered. Our rates were very competitive, but some groups couldn’t stay with us and some who did we couldn’t publicize. Everyone was pulling back. The good thing with our company, our chairman takes a very long-term view of things and we don’t change like the stock market does. After 9/11, after the swine flu scare and epidemic and after the latest recession, we never laid staff off.

How did you do that?
We encouraged more vacation and reduced hours, but people had jobs and benefits and knew they weren’t going to be laid off — at the hotel and company wide.

After some bumps on Wall Street earlier, the idea of a double-dip recession seemed to re-enter the conversation. Have those concerns and the global economy affected your approach?
It’s certainly a concern. I think you have to keep moving forward, but also be cognizant of what we just went through. You just have to really prioritize where you spend the money, but you have to maintain the hotel and keep putting money back into it.

What’s the best part of your job?
When I came here nine years ago, my goal was to put the Peninsula Chicago on the map and make it the best in Chicago and one of the best in the country. Our team has been able to accomplish those initial goals and at this point in my life and career, I think my success lies within the fact I am able to help grow and cultivate young talent. I take pride to foster and mentor people. That’s very important to me.

The worst part?
Sometimes [the above] means telling someone that this isn’t the right career or hotel. The difficult part of my job is dealing with employees who think they should be promoted. I’m brutally honestly when I give reviews or if someone asks me my opinion. I’m very direct and that’s probably one of the more difficult things about the job.

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