The city is her office

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March 1, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// W Minneapolis GM Susan Mabry’s plate just got a lot more full //

Forget about a penthouse corner office. Susan Mabry’s desk could be anywhere from the kitchen stove tops of Manny’s Steak House to the 31st floor observation deck of the Foshay Tower.

As general manager for the W Minneapolis–The Foshay, Mabry has an entire skyscraper’s worth of employees and guests to tend to — and an entire symphony of fine luxury to conduct. Every element of the hotel’s rich, Roaring 20s decadence falls under her purview. The alcoves of soft leather in the first floor “Living Room.” The glowing citrus cocktails served in the 27th floor Prohibition Bar. Even the hotel’s scent, which evolves along with the seasons.

Mabry doesn’t sell hotel reservations. She orchestrates an immersive universe that, when combined with the Foshay Tower’s historical lore, attracts business on its own. She says that her most recent title at the hotel is CEO: “Chief Experience Officer.”

Of course, in reality, Mabry’s most recent title is GM of the Chambers. Or make that GM of Le Mériden Chambers. When the luxury art hotel was added to the Paris-based Le Méridien chain of high-concept hotels last month, Mabry was tapped to take over managerial duties.

She now manages the two marquee luxury hotels Downtown, which are both owned by Ralph Burnet — a responsibility seldom heard of anywhere else in the United States. And as one of the few female GMs in the national luxury hotel scene, she’s smashed many glass ceilings along the way. Mabry is also a newly elected board member for Meet Minneapolis, the organization that competes with other cities to draw travel and business visitors to Minneapolis, a role that pushes her promotional scope beyond her two hotels to the entire city itself.

With a day job that immerses Mabry constantly in the finer things, you might expect her to pursue simpler comforts in her private life. Or to scramble to recreate that same luxury in her home and social circles.

“Actually, I don’t even separate it,” Mabry said. Her private interests are the same interests that draw visitors to her hotels. “You have to be naturally curious. You have to like people, to like entertaining. You have to have a real interest in the arts, a real interest in travel. If you weren’t naturally comfortable in this environment, you wouldn’t survive. I don’t see how you can fake it. If people sense that you’re working, that this is somehow drudgery for you, you won’t succeed.”

The lifestyle that she leads, then, is necessarily the same lifestyle that her hotels promote. She lives Downtown, and she likes the day-to-day discoveries that city living provides, and that the W and the Chambers enable. It isn’t corporate speak when she talks about “living the brand.” It’s the matter-of-fact reality of how demanding her role is.

“I tried to pull myself away from the hotel business in college because I knew how all-consuming it was,” said Mabry. “I saw the hours being put in by all the managers. But I think once you get it in your blood…I don’t see a lot of people who get into the business and then decide to try something else. They seem to get sucked in and then stay forever. It’s a great business. It’s a lot of fun.”

Born in the Philippines, Mabry moved to the United States in the ’70s to attend the University of Maryland, where she majored in economics. (“I dreaded going to my econ classes. I hated it actually, every minute of it. But I was being practical.”) A summer job at a reservation desk in a Downtown Washington D.C. hotel got her hooked on the worldliness of the industry — and it provided a tempting escape hatch from the dry drudgery of math and statistics.

In March of 2008, while working at the Sheraton Society Hills, which shares the same parent company as the W and the Chambers, she came across a company website describing the Foshay project. Intrigued by the Foshay Tower, and by the story of Mr. Foshay himself — a 1930s Bernie Madoff, spectacularly convicted of running a pyramid scheme but who got off easy with his sentence — she clicked a box indicating her interest to work there. The very next day, her new boss called. It was on. She flew out to Minneapolis to meet Ralph Burnet and to tour the historic skyscraper.

“The only thing I knew about Minneapolis was that it had a lot of culture to it,” she said. “Everyone that I knew who had been here absolutely loved it. And what really surprised me was when the head concierge at the Philly hotel heard I was leaving. He said, ‘Susan, I hear you’re going to Minneapolis. Can I come with you?’”

“I was like, well, what do you know about Minneapolis? And he told me the same things. It’s a very cultured city. It has a lot of art. It has a lot of theater seats. After New York, you have the most per capita. The gay population is the highest per capita. So I was very surprised.”

“I don’t think we get out how great of a city we have here. We don’t brag about ourselves enough. You can’t be so quiet and expect to get a promotional bang.”

She told a quick story about bringing in W management from all over the globe to “break in” the Minneapolis hotel.

“So we had somebody from Germany, Mexico City, Spain … six different countries were represented. And we had a lot of New Yorkers that came in to help us. And they were laughing on the plane, ‘Where are we going again?’ And once they were here — they were with us for two or three weeks — they could not believe what Minneapolis has to offer.”

She paused.

“Well, thank god they were here in the summer.”