It’s a steamy morning at Mayakoba resort on the Riviera Maya of Mexico, and Suzanne Cohen, VP of Luxury Brands for the Americas at Marriott International, has just finished a presentation on brand strategy at the ILTM Americas conference — an annual gathering of luxury travel advisors and industry professionals. It’s a glamorous setting, for sure, but Cohen has only flown in for a series of meetings. Right before this, she was in Los Cabos doing a site inspection at the soon-to-open Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort. Later that day, she’ll be off again to check out Marriott properties in other parts of the region.
It’s just a slice of life for a woman whose role at the world’s largest hotel company involves influencing the guest experience in unique ways. In her position, Cohen works on marketing for seven luxury brands and spearheads corporate initiatives, global partnerships and program development like “What She Said,” an event series that she created for W Hotels. “What She Said” is a monthly networking opportunity that brings together dynamic women like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg for discussions about career, travel and more. Besides all that, Cohen is a mom who cares deeply about helping other women get ahead in the male-dominated hospitality industry.
Here, we talk to Cohen about what it’s like to be a woman exec in the hotel space, get her to share some of her favorite advice from inspiring women who have spoken at W Hotels events and find out if it’s really OK to take the shampoo from the room.
Laura Begley Bloom: Tell me about your career trajectory.
Suzanne Cohen: I’ve worked for Marriott and Starwood for 14 years. I started out doing a lot of operations and marketing at Starwood, focusing on luxury brands. Prior to that, I worked in advertising and the non-profit sector. I was very motivated by my projects and started to travel more as my kids got older. My husband pivoted to a role that involved less travel, so that I could continue to travel and grow my career. I love what I do. I travel every week, meet a lot of people and impact our guest experiences.
Begley Bloom: Tell me what programs you implemented at W Hotels to achieve your goals.
Cohen: Many successful women stay at W Hotels. They like the design aesthetic of the hotels and the quality of our services and amenities. These women are growing in their careers and becoming increasingly successful. They made a choice to stay at a W. We wanted to give back to our guests as well as the community, so we developed programming with a heartbeat behind it that involves their interests in fashion, music, technology and lifestyle. That was the thought behind our “What She Said” speaker series. It’s an intimate moderated forum for learning, inspiration and interchange of ideas. It provides women with a chance to network and hear influential women speak about their journeys.
Most of our guests are constant travelers seeking to share stories and learn from each other. They are looking for helpful hints such as: what are your travel must-haves, how do you balance work and family life and how do you keep it all together. The audience participates, and we record it all to podcasts, so our community can experience them.
Begley Bloom: Tell me about the “Power Trip” series that you created in partnership with Marie Claire and Jet Blue.
Cohen: We recognized a need to create a new space for leading influential women from different fields to interact and network. In partnership with Marie Claire, we chartered a Jet Blue plane with an all-female crew to fly 100 prominent leaders and influencers to San Francisco for a 36-hour networking extravaganza with 100 West Coast-based women. They were able to begin networking on the plane. In San Francisco, they stayed at the W Hotel, where we hosted a series of presentations and panel discussions. We love these invitation-only events. The most important part of it is the networking. Women love to share, exchange stories and gain insights from other like-minded women on how to successfully manage their careers and family life.
Begley Bloom: Are your hotels designed to encourage interaction among guests ?
Cohen: Yes. Travelers are naturally curious people who love to meet people. Travel provides opportunities to meet people you don’t know. Our hotels provide social spaces to foster their conversations. Our lobbies are designed to be comfortable sitting and working spaces. Hotel bars are meeting places where you can let guard down a little. Women travelers like to be close to other people.
Begley Bloom: Have you seen an increase in women traveling? How do their needs differ?
Cohen: Research tells us that there are more women millionaires on the horizon than men. While it’s important for hotels to create appealing experiences for both sexes, women travelers have different needs. Details are important. Women tend to like experiences that are unique and cultural. People are also working differently. Many people work from bed, not desks, so comfort is a big factor. Women need more care and services to make their experience smoother. We address those needs by designing rooms with wardrobe closets, better lighting and butler services. Our guests want high-end amenity products. Quality hair care products are especially important. They have to appeal to both sexes.
Begley Bloom: Talk to me about being a role model for your kids.
Cohen: Working moms who travel always have guilt. I show them that I can work hard but still be actively involved. Work is important. It’s good for them to see me following my professional dreams and doing something I am passionate about.
Begley Bloom: What about other women in the workplace?
Cohen: Women with babies always ask me how I do it all. I remain connected to young managers and support them and help them navigate being a good mom and having a career. It is inspiring for them to see women in executive roles. I encourage them not to give up their dreams. I’m a working mom who leads important initiatives, but I am still a human being who chats about family life. I remind them that it gets easier as they and their kids get older. And with increasing executive level opportunities for women at Marriott, they can continue advancing their careers. I do my best to be supportive, transparent and human.
Begley Bloom: What is your biggest piece of career advice?
Cohen: You have to love what you do. You may be away from home a lot. You will be making friend, family and social sacrifices. Always be passionate or you will resent it. Have fun. There will be tough days, but it should always feel exciting. To get ahead, be a good person and treat all people at all levels with respect.
Begley Bloom: The hospitality industry doesn’t have many women in executive roles. What do you think about women general managers?
Cohen: Women are an asset in a general manager role. They have a naturally different eye for hospitality. There is a conscious effort at this company to hire more women general managers, since GMs stay at hotels for a few years, then move and bring their families around the world. It is good for staffs to see a woman’s perspective, too.
Begley Bloom: What do your daughters say about your work and travel?
Cohen: My daughters love to travel. They see the respect and pride that we experience in our properties. They see that families are well taken care of. It makes me proud that they know it’s because of the work I do. Statistics prove that generations X, Y and Z appreciate the finer points of luxury travel. My girls love beautiful rooms, luxury experiences and good amenities. At some of our hotels, we also have special gifts for kids and families, such as backpacks and daddy-and-me swim trunks.
Begley Bloom: Tell the truth — do you want guests to take the shampoo and other amenities home?
Cohen: Absolutely! We want them to enjoy it and take the memory of it with them so they will come back.
Begley Bloom: What amenity to you love the best?
Cohen: My guilty pleasure is dark chocolate on my pillow at night. I love that.
Amazing Advice from Amazing Women
W Hotels’ “What She Said” event series spotlights creative women shaping the world today, while “Power Trip” gathers powerful women to network across industries like tech, media, fashion and policy. Here, Cohen shares some inspiring advice that other women have shared at various “What She Said” and “Power Trip” events.
“Be true to yourself and not to try to copy left and right.” —Diane von Furstenberg, one of the few women in fashion who still owns, controls and designs for her own label
“I never met a woman who wasn’t strong.” —Diane von Furstenberg
“The biggest mistakes are the one you don’t learn from.” —Jenna Lyons, American fashion designer, business personality and former creative director and president of J.Crew
“If you’re not doing it for fun, don’t do it.” —Jenna Lyons
“Once you tap into your power, no one can take advantage of you.” —Taraji P. Henson, actress
“If you change your own narrative, that changes the story.” —Taraji P. Henson, actress
“I need encouragement…and women should do so more often for each other. We don’t do enough to encourage each other when we’re doing something right!” —Anne Wojcicki, CEO/founder of 23andMe
“It is important that we keep striving to inspire one another to do better — young people today are the leaders of tomorrow and we have the responsibility of guiding each other.” —Mary Katrantzou, fashion designer
The next “What She Said” event is scheduled for Thursday, February 28 at W Atlanta – Downtown with a focus on music. It will be highlighting Grammy recording artist Kelly Price.