Christina “Chrissy” Denihan has spent the past 12 years at Denihan Hospitality where she is currently a Managing Director. She developed a love of the hospitality industry from her grandfather, Benjamin “Bud” Denihan, who founded Denihan Hospitality in 1962. Growing up surrounded by a family involved in the business, Chrissy was able to gain valuable hands-on experience in all different aspects of hotel operations and management—guest/customer services, operations, food and beverage, development, etc. The perspectives and insights she obtained at such a young age were essential to shaping her into the dynamic young business professional she is today.
At Denihan Hospitality, Chrissy’s day-to-day responsibilities include overseeing all aspects of asset management, development and marketing for the company. Career highlights include, playing a critical role in the company’s acquisition of The James hotel brand from The James Group, implementing Denihan’s strategy to grow revenue by acquiring management contracts, and upgrading the food and beverage lineup across each hotel to generate added cash flow. Chrissy is currently overseeing the development of the first James hotel in Washington D.C., which is set to open in 2020 and will serve as the hotel component of the premier mixed-use Armature Works development.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up in a hotel environment, I learned early on the best practices for successfully operating a family run organization and the important role that guests play in shaping a reputation. As was instilled in me, guests weren’t just people – they were family. Their feedback mattered above all else, and if we failed them, it was our legacy that was at risk. I saw how much my grandfather, father and aunt and uncles valued feedback from our guests, and that is the same mentality I take today when it comes to managing our employees. Our employees are the lifeblood who will ensure our brand continues to thrive over the next 55 years and beyond, so nothing is more important to me than listening, valuing and incorporating their suggestions and ideas where appropriate.
There is tremendous pressure when you are involved in running a family-run organization, but it’s a challenge I embrace because I truly believe the principles that my grandfather founded the company on are things that apply to life in general—respect for everyone’s point of view, commitment to excellence in everything we do, and fostering an environment that everybody wants to be part of.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
I pretty much knew early on that I wanted to work in the family business because of my love for hospitality. Before I did so, however, I took the time to explore different parts of the county to study travel patterns and the dynamics of each city that I visited. I thought it was important to understand how hotels in other parts of the country operate and how they market to their customers, so that I could take the overall best practices and apply them to our business to ensure Denihan’s success over the long-term.
When I finally Denihan in 2006, I began with an extensive training program where I spent several months in all areas of hotel management including, front office, food and beverage, housekeeping and more. During this time period, I was able to garner vital information about each aspect of our business and begin to see how I could improve upon our organization given my understanding of travel preferences on a national level (i.e. the importance of a restaurant partnership). I feel I have taken the time to understand how our employees, our customers, our peers and our industry operate, and because of that, I feel I have earned the trust of my colleagues and my family to make strategically important decisions.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
There are two highlights that stand out for me. The first is when I was Chief Comfort Officer for one of our hotel flagships, Affinia Hotels & Suites. I was responsible for launching a customer-centric initiative we called Tender Loving Comfort® which involved reading and interpreting body language to help improve customer service. We received the Best in Show award from Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) for Public Relations – which was a major milestone for me.
The second is the soon-to-be-constructed James hotel in Washington, D.C. NoMa neighborhood. It was a competitive bid process, but the developers ultimately agreed that The James was exactly the brand they set out to attract. I’m excited to offer the NoMa community a hotel that is the ultimate urban retreat and experience.
As it relates to challenges, being a third-generation leader in a family business means continually and constantly proving your value. You never want to be the one to drop the ball. I am very cognizant of what being a Denihan means in the hospitality industry, and I work each day to turn those expectations into new opportunities for our brands.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Hospitality is a great career path for women. At Denihan, we believe in diversity and the power of a woman’s voice and insights. We have made it a point to fill our leadership team with highly-talented women and create an environment they can thrive in. In addition to myself and Brooke Denihan Barret, our co-CEO, there are two other women who play leading roles in the direction of our company.
This is an industry that you can achieve great successes in if you work hard, stay focused, and communicate. For women who are thinking of a career in hospitality, I offer this advice: be comfortable with public speaking, understand the nuances in conflict resolution and most importantly – know how to make others feel comfortable.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Never be afraid to speak up and share your thoughts, opinions and feelings that you are most passionate about – especially when they go against the consensus. Don’t allow yourself to fall into “group think” and become a “yes man” or “yes woman.” One of my greatest regrets was not speaking up more vocally when we passed on an initiative that could have been a game-changer for us. I found out later that my father, our co-CEO, also regretted passing on the opportunity, but because nobody challenged him otherwise, he let it go by and admits today that it was a mistake. In hindsight, I wish I would have pushed harder on sharing my input. I refuse to make that mistake twice – finding my voice and trusting my instincts, even when it doesn’t go my way, was a very important life lesson. And it transcends from the business world into my personal life.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have three children under the age of five and a very demanding role in the office. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance can only be achieved by relying on my teams. And I have teams both at home and at the office. So I admit the only way I can do what I do is with help – and it is ok to ask for help. Luckily, I am surrounded by smart, capable professionals who I trust tremendously. And at home, I have a lot of support including, my mom, who lives a few blocks away. Asking for help has always been a challenge for me, but I know that at this stage in my life there is no way to be a successful business professional or mother without it. And I’m okay with that.
During the work week, I arrange my schedule so I that can see my children in the morning, be home for dinner and put them to bed. I’ve had to make accommodations to my routine be a present mother, and that’s something I don’t apologize for. It may require me to get up earlier and log back on after I put them to bed, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. They are only young once and I want to be able to enjoy the time I have with them. I also make time to decompress from the world by diving into a good book when I can. I’m currently reading a lot of fiction including “Pachinko” by Min Jee Lee, “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari and there pretty much isn’t a day that I don’t listed to “Michael Barbaros Daily” – these allow me to escape into another world for a bit.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
While progress has been made, there is still a gap in pay between men and women, and that is something that frustrates me. Because of this, we have made a concerted effort at Denihan to eliminate any real or perceived pay gaps. My grandfather founded this company with the expectation that in order for it to be successful, women were going to have as much or more of a say on its direction or decisions as men. We are one of the few real estate companies with a female leader. Brooke has paved the way for a lot of us, and she overcame a lot of entrenched prejudices in the industry to get to the place where she is now.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
Continuing the female empowerment dialogue and encouraging one another to take risks. Often times, when you take a big risk, the reward is sweeter. A great example of someone who has done just that and is making a difference is my college roommate, Kathryn Kaufman. She has been instrumental in setting up the 2X Challenge: Financing for Women, a fundraising challenge that is seeking to collectively mobilize $3 billion in commitments to provide women in developing country markets with improved access to leadership opportunities, quality employment, finance, enterprise support and products and services that enhance economic participation and access.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It is important to have mentors in your life – both professionally and personally. I have to say I have learned just as much from being a mentor as I have from being a mentee. Participating in an engaging conversation about what drives people and figuring out how to get to a particular career or personal development milestone can be very stimulating to ones’ own career.
I’ve had many mentors in my life ranging from my father and my aunt, to other executives at Denihan. Throughout my career, I’ve also sought out executives at other family-owned businesses outside of the hospitality business to garner fresh perspectives.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many wonderful women in powerful roles that I respect, follow and admire. On the personal side, I really admire what Kathryn is doing with 2X: Challenge; she really is making a difference. We were on a run together recently when she got a call from a Rock & Roll legend communicating his desire to be part of what she is doing.
As a mother of three, I gained a newfound appreciation for the role my mother played in shaping me and my three siblings. I’m so fortunate she lives just a few blocks away, especially now when I need her motherly advice.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
Professionally my focus for the next year plus is a successful opening of The James Washington D.C. Making sure that our first hotel in the D.C. area is representative of both the brand and the neighborhood is very important, as is ensuring it reflects the culture of the area. Personally, I’m seeking continued balance between my high pressure career and raising my children.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
Do something you love. Accept your mistakes. Ask for help if you need it.