Los Angeles’ iconic Hotel Figueroa has a history of creating spaces for women. First opened nearly a century ago as an exclusive women’s hostel by the YWCA, the property was not only funded and built by women but led by the country’s first female hotel managing director, Maude Bouldin. The hotel’s current managing director, Connie Wang, is intent on honoring that history.
Wang started her career in hospitality at the age of 16 working the front desk at a bed and breakfast in her hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. “The hotel was owned by one family. One of the things I really learned from them was the joy of hosting out-of-towners, showing them around our small town, and providing that genuine hospitality.” Wang went on to graduate from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and helmed hotels from coast-to-coast, including New York City’s Andaz 5th Avenue and the Arthouse Hotel, before joining The Fig in late 2019, just months ahead of when the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Through these challenges, Wang and her team continue to uphold The Fig’s legacy, supporting the L.A. community through new initiatives and showcasing local makers, artists, and entrepreneurs, all while ensuring the hotel’s top priority—keeping visitors and staff safe.
LODGING caught up with Wang to discuss Hotel Figueroa’s pandemic pivots, how its legacy is alive today, and what she anticipates in the year ahead.
This past year has been a whirlwind. What was it like for Hotel Figueroa to remain open through the pandemic? And one year later, how is COVID-19 impacting the hotel?
When the pandemic first struck, we had to completely change our business model, as many other hotels and businesses did. We asked ourselves, “How can we be of service?” We began by hosting first responders—medical workers, police officers, and others who needed a safe place to stay away from their families. We focused on the safety of our employees and those staying in our hotel as our number-one priority. In fact, we were certified early on by the California Hotel and Lodging Association’s Clean + Safe Certification.
After that, we looked at our space and said, “What can we do here?” We figured out ways for Californians and Angelenos to gather safely. For instance, we created an outdoor drive-in movie theater in partnership with an organization called Women Under the Influence (WUTI) and also the owners of the parking lot next door to us. The drive-in was a huge success—we hosted festivals there, premiered a number of movies that couldn’t premiere otherwise, and did a series with WUTI showing films directed or produced by women with all of the proceeds going to non-profits. Last summer, we also noticed a lot of local Angelenos (working moms, etc.) who needed a space to disconnect away from home, so we started a new “Work Perks” (work from hotel) subscription program that we internally developed in April/May and launched by last June which was, and is still hugely successful at the hotel.
As we move further into Spring, fortunately, we are seeing a reduced number of COVID-19 cases and leisure travel is starting to return to the hotel, which is very popular with local “staycationers.”
What are your biggest takeaways from this experience of navigating through the pandemic?
Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a lot of upheaval, confusion, and uncertainty, and there’s also been a discussion on what’s essential. I think there are two things that are essential. The first is leadership: We all need hope and a way forward, and we also need honest and timely communication from our leaders. At The Fig, we continue to host regular town hall virtual meetings to give everyone updates, discuss ideas, and agree on our goals. Even if you as a leader don’t have all the answers, people will generally understand as long as you’re honest, forthright, and can create that space and that path for optimism.
The second essential thing is your community. I feel so fortunate to have an amazing team here at The Fig who have been hardworking and passionate about continuing the mission of the hotel, despite the pandemic. I’m grateful for the downtown L.A. community. I moved here before the pandemic and we were all so busy all the time; the pandemic gave us a moment to look around and meet our neighbors. That was the silver lining of this pandemic: We’ve all gotten closer, and we’ve had an opportunity to share resources as a local business community.
How are you upholding The Fig’s legacy as a space for women?
Hotel Figueroa was funded and built by women in 1926 in partnership with the YWCA and was really the largest project of its kind in the United States that was owned by women. We honor that legacy today in a few ways: Last year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment by becoming a polling center for the 2020 Presidential election. We created “I Voted” stickers with the yellow rose and purple sash of the suffragettes and promoted the idea that this is not something that we should take for granted: We have a voice, and we should use it.
The other thing that we’ve been focused on throughout the pandemic and today is supporting female entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses. Through the partnerships and ideas brought forth by our team, I had the pleasure of meeting amazing people: Heather Wong, owner of Flouring LA, a bakery out of downtown LA, has been doing pop-ups out of our hotel; Pam Johnson from The Bridge Mind Body Movement, a Pilates studio in downtown L.A., has been offering outdoor Pilates and yoga classes in our outdoor terrace space; and Stephanie Castaneda, owner of Vases to Vases, who actually got married at The Fig in 2018 and joined us for a “Flour + Flower” pop-up at the hotel this past February.
We’re also really focused on elevating women in the arts. Our newest 2021 featured artist is Shyama Golden, and her exhibition, The Portal, debuted at the hotel on the first day of spring.
As you’re considering the year ahead, what are your top priorities?
Safety, safety, safety. Our guests put a lot of trust in us, and we don’t take that for granted. Equally, our employees place a lot of trust in us that we’re providing a work environment that’s safe. It looks like we’re turning the corner in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases, and hopefully we’ll soon be able to reopen more parts of our economy and return to activities. We don’t want to take our eye off of the priority, which is to make sure that everyone is completely safe.
What do you enjoy most about the hotel business?
I love the creativity in the business; creating unique guest experiences is my passion. I also love the way that the industry allows the building of genuine connections, whether it’s with our guests, our employees, or our partners and our community. Those are my favorite parts of the job.