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Michael Leven: What I’ve Learned From a Lifetime in Lodging

Michael Leven: What I’ve Learned From a Lifetime in Lodging

What changes have you observed and experienced over the course of your career? Which have you liked and disliked?
The industry was very rigidly run in the past by a significant number of imported general managers with European systems. They were more product-oriented than customer-oriented. The industry has grown into a much more customer-sensitive business.

Technology has given us speed and responsiveness. It’s taken some of the personal contact you get from the front desk.
When I entered the business in 1961, about 75 percent of reservations came into the Hotel Roosevelt by U.S. mail, because people couldn’t afford to make a long-distance call until the 800 number was developed.

The guestrooms have changed, the bathrooms, closets are very different. What’s in a room is different. But, fundamentally, the maid still has to make the bed and the linens have to be washed every day.

The global aspect is one of the more significant changes. You didn’t see different races. At the Roosevelt, some account cards had three Xs on them. I went to the sales director and asked what they meant. “Oh, that’s African American groups” he said, though that’s not the term they used. “We can’t book them during the year—only in July and August. We don’t want to mix the groups.” Today, it’s a polyglot of people, no matter where you go. But it took a while.

What I found out going around the world is that everybody has problems and everybody has opportunities. That basically the value systems of people are pretty much the same. Only the leaders are different.

You have either started or headed up at least five major hotel companies. Is there a pattern in terms of what attracted you and to what you wanted to accomplish?
Each one was different going back. I took the Americana job as senior vice president of marketing because I thought it was a great opportunity where I could spread my experience on an international basis. There were some very large conventions and significant international hotels with gaming facilities that I hadn’t experienced before.

I got a call from a headhunter about going into the franchise business, which was Days Inn of America. I had some franchising experience [from Americana and Dunphy], and I thought it would be interesting to become a franchisor. So I brought that customer focus to franchising that wasn’t in their business before, and then we moved that company from 50 hotels to 1,500 over a five-year period. It took my sales skills as well as my operating skills and my customer skills to put that together.

I took that experience into Holiday Inn, which needed an injection of customer relationships. Their franchises were horrible—their policies were anti-franchisee. I had my international experience from Americana that I brought to Holiday Inn’s expansion into other countries. Each experience tended to build on the other.

How have you dealt with the escalating scale of responsibilities with each new position?
Las Vegas Sands is a larger scale from a money standpoint, but it’s not a larger scale from a unit standpoint. The unit scale at Holiday Inn was the largest.

The answer is that the scale has to be handled by the people around you. When you are in it day to day on a small scale, you can do everything yourself, you can touch everything, you can make all the decisions. The bigger you get, the more dependent you are on others to perform.

I can say this about the company [Las Vegas Sands]: I feel like the coach of an NBA team here. Not the coach of a college team. The difference between a college team and an NBA team is the player. Here, I am dealing with people who make more money than I ever made in a single job. They are and they should be at the highest echelon of professionalism and they should have the highest amount of skill. And you manage those people differently—the maturity, the decision-making, responsibility, and the need for freedom, the very way you manage them—that is the difference.


  1. Mike Leven’s accomplishments in the hospitality business are extraordinary. Even more extraordinary is that he is one of the most decent, down to earth people you’ll ever meet. I admire him greatly.

  2. I know people who have worked with and for Mr. Leven at Days Inn/Holiday Inn hotels. I know of him through these people; who looked up to him for his management skills, for his expertise in the hospitality industry and just for being a good person and a mentor. When I saw his name on the cover, I was curious to see if this was the same person. And sure it enough, it is.
    Thank you for putting a face to a name and more importantly for bringing his story to us.

  3. Prior to leaving my full time career with Hyatt, Mike took the time to have lunch with me every other month. Chair time with Mike was a crash course in life’s lessons. He imparted great advice and was an excellent sounding board. Now in Savannah and Mike in Las Vegas, I miss our Atlanta lunches. He deserves every bit of praise that he gets.

  4. We look forward to having Mike Leven at AAHOA this year and is being awarded for helping start the organization and is a key individual within the hospitality industry. As there are rock n’ roll gods Mr. Leven is a Hotel God!

  5. More than his hotel accomplishments, he is one of the best human beings you will ever meet, not to mention ,a terrific husband,father and grandfather. He is ethical, kind and cares about people. I do know this first hand as I live with him.xo

    • Hi and agree..I had the pleasure to know your whole family at the Congress Hotel in Chicago/Americana Hotels and and will never forget what I learned from Mike and his team!

      Anthony M. Cerone
      Riegel Mount Vernon Mills

  6. I have known Mike Leven for almost 30 years and had the privilege of working for him 12 of those years. Mike is an inspiration to many people who’s lives he has touched. Mike creates a culture and environment that is second to none. A great father, husband, friend, mentor and patriot! The only thing I can say bad about Mike is he is a Red Sox fan!

  7. Mike was one of the first Executives to see the value in consumer data and gave my then young company the chance to be of service and success followed always for Mike but also my company as we have grown into the premier supplier of consumer travel and hotel use data in the USA. Mike has given a hand up and wise advise to so many. Mike, you are a fantastic person and a great friend from the early days. Thank you, Doug & The D.K. Shifflet & Associates Team.

  8. I have known Mike for many, many years when I was in the hotel business. He is a true gentleman and a kind human being!

  9. I have had the honor and privledge to work for Mike Leven on two occasions in the past 38 years. Not only is he a great hotelier, but a great boss, advisor, mentor and friend. I hae learned so much from him, and have tried to apply his principles in all I do. Thank you for everything Mike.

  10. As a young Assistant Professor of Hotel Management at the University of New Orleans, I had an idea about changing the outmoded organizational structure of a hotel and I wrote a paper which explained my ideas. I sent it blind to Mike Leven and he actually read it and made several comments and suggestions. I was pleasantly surprised that he actually took the time – he was President of Days Inn at that time. I am not surprised by all the wonderful comments about him on this forum. He is most admired for his long years of service to the industry which he carried out with such grace.

  11. I worked with Mike in a number of locations, and have known him personally for many years, and found him to be one of the finest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of being associated with in all aspects of human and business endeavors.
    ……..A GREAT GUY!

  12. When I got out of the Air Force I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I went to work as a bartender with Early American Inns. After only a year they were acquired by Dunphy Hotels which is were I first met Mike. He has the ability to see the potential in people that even they don’t know they have. I became F&B director and a year later became GM of the Sheraton in Portsmouth NH. When he went to Americana Hotels I followed him and tried to learn as much as I could from him. He’s truly one of a kind and because of him I had the confidence to start my own management company and DePalma Hotels & Resorts has been thriving for 33 years and I owe it all to Mike. Like Mike one of these days I may start to slow down but never retire.

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