After 24 years spent in the hotel and catering business, one of the most important things Lisa Hopkins has learned is to listen up.
Hopkins' background in hotels is extensive. She has worked at hotels all over the U.S., in roles ranging from the front desk to marketing manager. At the beginning of her career, “I underestimated the power of asking the customer what keeps them up at night regarding their event or conference,” Hopkins says. “You can really build rapport with someone when you want to listen to what’s going on.”
Hopkins knows a thing or two about building rapport with clients, having worked as the director of catering and conferences at the Houstonian Hotel in Houston since 1998. She and her team help stage some 250 social events, 1,100 corporate catering events, and 425 conference groups annually.
She says having a sense of humor is the most important “skill” she’s picked up when it comes to staying on top of such a heavy workload. A touch of humor "does help me deal with the day to day unexpected and unplanned-for surprises we can see,” she says. “A good laugh with your colleagues can go a long way.”
And there have been quite a few surprises since Hopkins has been in Texas, including two tropical storms and a hurricane. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Hopkins faced the challenge of relocating a wedding that was supposed to be on Galveston Island to the Houstonian, and making it look “as though it had been booked here all along,” she says. She’s also worked on a kosher Orthodox Jewish wedding weekend, a conference for 900 people in an outdoor tent, and plenty of corporate events on tight budgets.
The key to a successful outcome in all of those situations is simple: providing value to the client. “Delivering value is really at the top of mind for everyone, and working creatively is required,” she says. “As catering and event professionals, we really have to draw inspiration from what’s around us in terms of people, places, and things to gain that edge.”
It also helps that Hopkins’ customers are more knowledgeable about her side of the project, thanks to the ongoing popularity of the Food Network cable channel and online sharing services such as Facebook and Pinterest. “The Food Network has done an amazing job of bringing the ‘mystery’ of food into the mainstream,” Hopkins says. “Catering customers now see and know so much more about food and wine than they did before.”
While Hopkins says the catering industry’s exposure on TV and the Internet often works to her advantage, the avalanche of information—on TV, cable and social media—is a double-edged sword. “The challenge," she says, "becomes how to integrate all of the resources effectively to get the job done well with less stress, more productivity and more profitability.”
With all her dedication to meaningful, stress-free events, there’s still one event looming that’s keeping Hopkins up at night: her own wedding this November. Though she’s already narrowed down the guest list, decisions on colors and menu are still to come.
But if she approaches her wedding like the rest of her events, it will surely be a success.
“Finishing strong and delivering results are the most important things we do every day,” she says. “I have to really focus on that to be successful.”
The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, 111 N. Post Oak Lane, Houston, TX 77024; 713/680-2626; www.houstonian.com
A FOOT IN THE DOOR
“I have a bachelor of arts in speech communication from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and worked part-time in retail during my college years. A friend of a friend who was in a speech communication class with me my senior year introduced me to the possibilities in the hospitality field, which really intrigued me. I took a job right out of college as a receptionist/cashier at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, and never looked back.”
DAILY SUPPORT SYSTEM
“I’ve been lucky to have inspiration from many people who have been valuable mentors. People who I work with every day here at the Houstonian like [director of sales and marketing] Mark Lupton, [general manager] Jim Mills, and my version of the ‘Magnificent Seven’--the Houstonian catering team--is very important to me and my success. And I’ve been given much inspiration to help advance the industry from great NACE leaders like Shelley Pederson, CPCE, Jerry Edwards, CPCE, Paula Fenner, CPCE, Gary Baumann, CPCE, and Margery Reinheardt, CPCE. All of these people do their jobs with great passion and creativity.”
ADVICE FOR NEW PLANNERS
“Gain experience in every way you can, and know think that you can learn something in every role and job you take. Respect the industry and know that you can have a bona fide, meaningful and successful career in it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Before you are given formal authority in a job title, you’ll have moral authority in a role you take. Use that leadership opportunity to serve others, and advance the industry.”