What does the world of hotel finance look like?
An interview with the Deputy Chief Financial Officer of Ritz Group Services – by Răzvan Dumitru.
Some say hard work is the key to a successful career. However, it might not be enough. Continuously challenging yourself to become better and aiming higher after every target that you reach are the main drivers of self-improvement. The alumna of this week, Natalia Santolaya Escañuela, shares our opinion and believes that being critical of your work is necessary for becoming a true professional. She is a Spanish alumna who graduated in 2018 from Amsterdam and entered the hotel real estate industry. As life can sometimes take you on unexpected paths, she is now the Deputy Chief Financial Officer for a notable name in the French and English hospitality industry.
What did you do after graduating?
I started working right after finishing my last internship with CBRE, a global real estate company. I began working in the Barcelona branch as an intern in the hotel investment advisory team. After completing my internship, I realised I wanted to continue within the firm but preferably in an international environment. Even though I love Spain, I knew that staying in my home country would be my comfort zone and multicultural environments have always been more appealing and motivating to me. Despite my choice for Amsterdam, I was offered a job for the EMEA market in the London branch. Although I did not really want to move to the UK, I decided to accept. While being in London, I had to manage writing my thesis and working full time. What a challenge that was!
You filled in many finance-related roles, but we also noticed that you worked in HR. How did that happen?
That was actually my first internship! Back when I was a student, you did not have as much freedom as nowadays in choosing your placement. It was provided by the Placement Office and since I had previous experience in operations, a managerial position was offered to me. In addition, the fact that I speak fluent French was taken into consideration and so, I was offered to be the HR Training Assistant Manager Intern in Monaco. I still use the knowledge gained from that job and reflect on it regularly. I interacted with all of the departments of the hotel and realised how challenging it can be to satisfy the different needs of employees. The best experience was to meet my manager with whom I started a beautiful friendship that lasts to this day.
I also learned that talent is the most important and valuable asset in any organisation. In addition to this, in the hospitality industry, service is also key as it has a substantial impact on the overall profitability of a hotel. The more distinguished service a hotel has, the higher the rates that can be achieved. Moreover, the service represents the area in which hotels can easily gain a competitive advantage. The Ritz Paris embedded anticipation in its service. For example, if someone saw you wearing glasses, you will find a cloth for them in your room the next morning. This is the kind of service that triggers loyalty and repeated business.
Could you describe one of your working weeks between London and Paris?
Well, last week I had a flight to Paris on Monday at 06:00 and arrived at the office at 10:00. There, I started having meetings. The main topic was enhancing structure in corporate finance and how are we going to proceed in the coming year. My time in Paris usually revolves around meetings and discussing topics such as future projects and possible expansion.
In contrast, I like planning some “focus time” while I am in London so that I can do some of my work individually. I use this time for tasks such as investment paperwork that require my undivided attention. To put it briefly, I am in Paris from Monday to Thursday, when I return to the UK. It is an amazing experience that can sometimes become tiring. This is why I plan my whole week ahead so that I have sufficient time to rest.
From your point of view, what did the pandemic change the most in hotel finance?
Since I was still working for CBRE when the pandemic started, I could see how the market perspective was the first to be affected. Many investors, hotel owners and operators discovered that the usual global occupancy rates of 60-70% changed overnight to dramatic rates as low as 3%. That was the moment when everyone got into a race of re-financing, re-leveraging and what not to save their investments. It was interesting and terrifying at the same time to see an industry switching from continuous growth to extreme cost-cutting. The pandemic made many people, including myself, realise the true power of operational costs and how small changes in that area can have a drastic effect on the entire profit & loss statement of a hotel.
How important is Hotelschool The Hague for you?
I would like to thank Mr. Bosman for being selected to attend the Young Hoteliers Summit (YHS) in Ecole Hotelier de Lausanne, representing HTH. During this student competition, I met another alumnus of our school who was attending the summit to recruit for CBRE. After having gone through the selection process, I obtained my role with CBRE. Our school offered me so much, empowered me to discover myself and enabled me to acquire invaluable experience. Mr. Griep, Mr. Gallicano, Mr. de Vos and Mr. Villanueva are just a couple of names that come to my mind when I think about my development and growth. This multitude of memories and my gratitude motivate me to answer any person from our school that has a question. This is also the reason behind taking the role of London Alumni Chapter head. I believe that you always need to give something back!
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am very proud of the fact that, while working together with a colleague for an investment project, I was congratulated by him for being a true mentor while always going the extra mile in my approach. I was told that even though the quality of my work was very high and that he could sometimes see me as harsh, I taught him so much and actually helped him in achieving excellence. I mentored him by pulling him upwards at my pace, aiming to broaden his vision and offer him a more business and commercial-oriented approach. I am very happy that we achieved that goal as a team, it brought me very much satisfaction! After seeing his dedication and impressive work, I decided to promote and recruit him into my team.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
Throughout my career, I learned that I could be too impulsive sometimes. Even though I work in a German-style – based on logic and reasoning, my Latin roots are visible as I am an emotional person. In my previous role, I sometimes tended to forget what I truly wanted from a certain individual or meeting due to my impulsiveness. Even though it never affected me negatively, I think I could have handled this aspect differently and I have been working on it ever since I realized it and I am still working on it.
What would your advice be for a person that just entered the hotel finance industry? What is something that you wish you had known?
My mentor once said: “Whenever you accept a job, already think about what is going to be the follow-up job after that one”. Since then, I have always kept in mind that each job that you accept opens different doors into the future. I would say that for any career, try having a clear set of objectives that reflect what you want to learn from the organisation. Companies need to benefit from the employee, but employees should also benefit from the knowledge of the company. I call it a two-way approach. I personally have this breakdown into short and long-term objectives and try to reflect on them on a six-month basis to assess my progress. I still keep the notes that I took during my time at Hotelschool The Hague and use them as a toolbox as I think that they added significant value to my set of both soft and hard skills.
Natalia is a very inspiring person with an outstanding drive for self-development. After hearing about her career, we wanted to know the person behind all the numbers and P&L statements, so we decided to ask our quickfire questions. This is what we learned about her:
What is your favourite book?
Becoming by Michelle Obama.
What is the last film you saw?
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I am a night owl since I love what I am doing! I get lost in my work because I find joy in it and sometimes, I do not realise that it is already one in the morning.
How do you prepare yourself for a workday? What is your ritual?
Let’s say that I do not have the most structured routine when I am working from home. In contrast, when I am working in the office, I always enjoy waking up early and having breakfast in the hotel. I admire people who have morning routines, but I am also a great enthusiast of sleep!
What is your biggest dream in a few words?
Being a successful and impactful business leader!
Name one thing on your bucket list?
Personally, I want to visit Africa! On a professional level, one of my goals is to become a CEO before my 40s.
Name one thing that you like to do in your free time.
I love spending time with friends and family! I consider this very important.
What is your favourite place to visit?
The Ritz Paris.
What is your favourite city in which you have lived?
What would your advice be for students graduating in 2022?
Do not be shy and go out there! You are your own limits!