When Michael Leven started his first job in 1961 in the sales department of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, America was entering a period of profound transformation. John F. Kennedy was president, the civil rights movement was under way, the Cold War was intensifying, the Beatles staged their first performance, and Roger Maris belted his 61st home run for the Yankees. In the hotel world, transcontinental air travel and the Interstate Highway System made it possible for Americans to travel when and where they wanted. Motels, the forerunner of highly profitable select-service hotels, were just beginning to change the face of lodging.
For Leven, who grew up in a modest middle-class family, education was the true measure of success and the launching pad for establishing careers. He received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Tufts University and earned a master of science degree in public relations and communications from Boston University though, at the time, he had no notion of how far he would go. But he knew hard work and opportunism would determine his trajectory.
From the Roosevelt, Leven would go on to the Dunphy Company and into the operations side of hotel management. Then came the role of president at Americana Hotels, Days Inn, Holiday Inn, and U.S. Franchise Systems (which he also founded), and a short stint as head of the George Aquarium (a hybrid form of retirement). Today, Leven is president and COO of Las Vegas Sands. Sands has expanded into the Asia market, where it is a dominant player in China, and in 2017, it plans to open similar operations in Spain.
Along the way, Leven, 76, has amassed nearly every award and recognition to be had in the hotel industry. In 2010, he created the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, which concentrates on three areas: free enterprise, the Jewish community, and oil independence. In January, AH&LA presented Leven with a lifetime achievement award at the annual Americas Lodging Investment Conference.
In this interview with Lodging, Leven shares his thoughts on half a century in the hotel business, his views on leadership, and his plans for the future.
Why did you choose this field, and why have you stayed?
I didn’t really choose it. It chose me. When I got out of graduate school with a degree in public relations and communications, I went looking for an advertising agency or a public relations firm in 1961 and for a variety of reasons couldn’t find one. Boston University [employment placement program] had a job for a sales promotion manager at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. I interviewed for a job that paid $495 a month and if you stayed 40 years, they had a pension of $40 a month.
The job lasted about two months, and then they threw me into the sales department. And then I stayed in the business one way or the other for all but maybe a year or two of the 53 years. Once you’re in it, it’s tough to get out. It’s a business I was really fortunate to be a part of. It’s not a very technical business—it’s much more of a liberal arts kind of business than an engineering business. Also, the industry grew dramatically during the number of years I’ve been in the business. So, the opportunities grew exponentially with the business.
I was thoroughly stereotyped as a sales person, and a good one. Then, I became a marketing person, and a good one. But I always wanted to be in operations. A couple of people along the way gave me a chance to be in operations. I became a resident manager of the Balmoral Beach Hotel [Bahamas], which wanted somebody with a sales mentality to be resident manager. Pat Ford was vice president of marketing for Dunphy Hotels and gave me a chance to be a regional vice president of operations and gave me five or six of its largest hotels to supervise its general managers. From there, it was back and forth between marketing jobs and operations jobs until my first presidency, of Americana Hotels in 1984. It took me 23 years to get there.
I developed an early sense of the customer and satisfying that customer. I always objected to some of the resistance from the financial side of the industry, which prevented the satisfaction of the customer. I always had good relationships there. Sometimes they were better relationships than I had with my bosses.