By Lebawit Lily Girma
When Crystal Vinisse Thomas’s alma mater, the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, invited her to deliver a talk in October for the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, she remembers being briefly struck by impostor syndrome.
“It’s been a tradition for the last 100 years: Every Friday the freshman course has to dress up and go and listen to an industry leader for a lecture.” Thomas shares names of visiting speakers when she was an undergrad, conscious she was following in the footsteps of legends—such as Sheila Johnson, chief executive officer of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and the first African-American female billionaire, and Marriott International’s late CEO and Executive Chairman Bill Marriott.
Thomas is vice president and global brand leader for Hyatt Hotels Corp., where she oversees six of its luxury and lifestyle brands: Park Hyatt, Alila, Andaz, Thompson, Hyatt Centric and Caption by Hyatt. She has more than a decade of experience in hospitality and branding—a career path she fell into without quite knowing it was even an option when she graduated high school.
“Basically, I told them to unplan your life,” says Thomas about her advice to Cornell hospitality students. “Every significant moment in my career trajectory was something that I didn’t plan for.”
The 37-year-old Miami native was a track and field athlete in high school, and she knew she wanted to land at a college where sports were valued, but academics were also strong. When she visited Florida International University on a recruiting tour, she recalls hearing about their tourism and hospitality school and thinking, “Hospitality? I’m not doing that!”
Thomas ended up choosing Cornell and, after she began as a liberal arts major, looked into ways to study business. That’s when she became more open to exploring hospitality, after it was described to her as “a business program that happens to have a hospitality focus.”
After trying a couple of classes, she was hooked. “I became fascinated by this idea that people do this for work; they live in this world that allows them to travel and experience different people, places and things, and so I just became enamored by the hotel school.” Thomas says she didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances in Miami and didn’t get to fly around that much. It would take up to nine hours just to drive out of the state of Florida, she adds.
“Just like I ended up at the No. 1 hospitality school in the world and didn’t know it: How does that happen? It’s because no one really spoke to me or I had no exposure to the idea of hospitality as an industry to work in beyond service,” she says. People think of being a flight attendant or a chef, but no one thinks chief financial officer, chief legal counsel or brand leader.
The Branding Lifestyle
At the time, only about 30% of hotel school grads went into a hospitality career, Thomas says, and she was one of them. A front desk job at the 1,000-plus room, $169-a-night historic Boston Park Plaza evolved into numerous roles—including working in revenue management and sales—until Thomas discovered her passion for the concept of making a mark on a hotel’s identity.
Her first opportunity to do that was as brand coordinator for W Hotels and Le Meridien, then under Starwood Hotels, a position that took her to New York and later Brussels, where she oversaw the marketing and brand management for all the W Hotels in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This meant coming up with innovative ways to showcase the brand across the region, such as how it showed up at major festivals like IMS Ibiza or creating a concert series for emerging artists.
When a new W hotel was signed in the region, it also meant connecting with every person who would touch that project to ensure they had a proper understanding of the brand, from owners to design firms and property leads, through pre-opening positioning sessions (What’s the story of the hotel and its location? What makes it W?), PR and marketing strategies in key feeder markets, as well as tent pole events with the who’s who in that destination.
“W allowed me to work on music, fashion design, and all of those other elements that are outside of travel, meld that with travel around the world,” says Thomas. When Marriott purchased Starwood in 2016, she didn’t feel like there was another brand at the time with the scale of W plus that natural immersion into her other passion points.
Thomas took a career break to explore Europe. Seven months in, she was unexpectedly tapped for a global branding management role at Beats by Dre, part of Apple Inc., in Los Angeles, including overseeing its NBA partnership.
“It made me work a lot more nimbly, and just fast and thinking creatively about how to speak to your audience in a way that resonates not only with them, but with the message that aligns with your brand,” she says.
Shaking Up Hospitality
The opportunity to put her own imprint on a brand is what lured Thomas back into hospitality in 2019, after four years in music branding. Caption by Hyatt launched in June 2022. The idea was in place when she joined the company, but she heavily influenced its branding and development.
At the first Caption by Hyatt on Memphis’ Beale Street, many of hospitality’s current trends are reflected but in a bolder way: a hotel slash social space that’s welcoming to locals and tourists. In lieu of a front desk there’s a modern, all-day hangout lounge that doubles as a restaurant, coffee shop, social and co-working space. Thomas stresses it’s also designed for the community to enjoy without feeling like it’s a transactional space (though they’ll still spend money while spending the day there).
“I was there a few weeks ago,” she says, “and there’s a woman who lives in town and she uses it as her office—and that’s not a big deal for us.” With local menus, repurposed furniture, no plastic in the front of house and a tech forward approach so you can go directly to your room on arrival, Hyatt plans to bring the brand to Shanghai next, as well as Osaka and Tokyo.
“At the root of everything we do, the people come first and that means that people are the community, the people that are walking in the door, the people who work there, our colleagues,” she says.
That’s part of how Thomas is shaking up hospitality—by leading with authenticity, she says. “Our tagline is ‘Be you, See you, Do you—Not Some Basic Hotel,” and people saw that and were like, are you sure you want to say this? Yeah, because that’s what people would say in real life to real people.”
Thomas says that a guest, who’s a Memphis resident, said to her that the community connection she built in her consecutive weeks of visiting the hotel encouraged her to recite a poem in public for the first time, at the weekly poetry slam. Thomas’s hope is to continue to fuel conversation and connection in a different way and that this can be a vehicle for how Hyatt views bringing hospitality to different communities, and servicing the neighborhoods where they’re opening. After the launch in China and Japan in 2023, Caption by Hyatt is set to open in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2024.
Shaking things up in the hospitality space includes not shying away from conversations of diversity, equity and inclusion with hotel owners, Thomas adds, and the need to be more mindful of representation. “Hyatt has done such a great job of giving us space to run with that, and I think our guests are seeing that and connecting to that a bit more directly than they have in the past. We have to do that now.”
At Thompson Hotels, Thomas is also behind the “Culture Lives Here” campaign to highlight emerging local creators in music, art, fashion, design, and food. This is done through on-site installations and custom itineraries, as well as workshops and public panel discussions, to which guests and locals both have access.
In 2023, Thompson Hotels plans to welcome a new cohort of “Culture Shifters,” including Tony nominated multidisciplinary artist Daniel J. Watts; globally recognized tap dance teacher, judge, choreographer, and performer Maud Arnold; and stylist, philanthropist, and the first lady of Texas football, Loreal Sarkisian.
“You don’t see travel brands doing that often,” Thomas says, “but sometimes half the battle and barrier for them is travel, and staying in hotels or trying to go to different markets to create and be inspired. We want to help fuel that and connect our guests to that creativity as well.”
Ultimately, Thomas’s success points to her passion for connecting with people—a superpower that she’s honed through sports, music, and her years in branding and hospitality. But she’s also aware of the power that lies in her identity as a Black woman in hospitality, an industry in which just 2% of executives are Black.
“What people have said to me and what I’m now starting to embrace is, just me being in the room is already shaking it up,” Thomas says. “And I say that humbly, because I’m over it. I want to see more of that.”
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