Elizabeth Mullins: Overseer of Hotel Experiences at Disney

Elizabeth MullinsFor Elizabeth Mullins, it was afternoon tea at The Ritz-Carlton in Boston at age five that sealed her destiny as a hotelier. She shared with LODGING the path that little girl took to her current position as Vice President, Hotels and Resorts, Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products, the people who helped her realize her dream, and her advice for women with similar aspirations. She reflected on how the industry has changed and described where Disney is headed.

How did your career lead you to the hospitality industry? And how did that path lead to Disney?

When I was five, my father brought to me to afternoon tea at The Ritz-Carlton in Boston. I remember everything about the experience—the way the hotel was decorated for the holidays, the scent of cinnamon and pine, even the music of the harp playing in the background. At that point, I looked at my father and said, “Daddy, this is what I want to do.”

I never let go of that thought; six days after graduating with my hotel management degree, I started as a management trainee at that very same hotel. At the Ritz-Carlton, I held several general manager positions around the globe and became an area vice president. I wouldn’t have considered leaving Ritz-Carlton for any place except Disney, where I have the honor and privilege to lead the team focused on hotel strategy, development, and planning the future for our hotel portfolio.

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How has the hotel industry evolved since you started your career?

When I began my hotel career in 1988, hotels were “better than home” in almost every way. Over the decades, technology changed, design changed, and guest expectations changed. Right now, we are on a precipice of dramatic transformation that could be the most exciting time for the hotel business. We need to look forward and think about every aspect of our hotels differently to satisfy today’s guest as well as those of the future.

TITLE

Vice President, Hotels and Resorts, Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products

TIME WITH DISNEY

Three years

HOTEL MUST-HAVES

A great architectural presence; lobby or social space; a terrific sleep experience; strong WiFi and cell phone coverage; a great cup of coffee

FAVORITE DESTINATION

The one that I have not yet visited or explored

WHAT SHE NEVER LEAVES HOME WITHOUT

“My cell phone, and pink lip gloss.”

WHAT SHE WANTED TO BE WHEN SHE GREW UP

“A hotelier—it’s all that I have ever wanted to be.”

MANTRA/PERSONAL MOTTO

“‘Moments matter.’ Turning moments into memories is a gift, both for those who receive them and for the creator.”

Did you have any mentors who helped shape your trajectory?

Absolutely. I would not be where I am today without guidance from some of the world’s greatest hotel leaders, including the legendary Horst Schulze, who taught me the fundamentals of being a hotelier, and my regional vice president, Bill Rhodes, who helped me grow as a leader and in the craft of being a hotelier.

Since joining Disney, I have learned what it’s like to be a hotelier within a larger entertainment company, and I have a tremendous leader in George A. Kalogridis, president of Walt Disney World Resort, who leads with passion and conviction. My direct leader is Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of resort hotels, who has the rare ability to focus on a broad vision while also appreciating the smaller details.

From them and others, I have learned that leadership is all about the team. Great leaders create the vision, clear the path, narrow the focus, inspire, and push beyond the possible while allowing team members to achieve and surpass expectations.

What are some of your top priorities for Disney’s hotels over the next few years?

One of the most exciting projects we are working on now is something only Disney could imagine—creating a new kind of vacation experience where guests will completely immerse themselves in their own Star Wars story aboard the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Of course, we are also keenly focused on connecting our guests to classic Disney stories by re-imagining existing hotels in ways that exceed expectations both today and in the future, like the milestone 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort in 2021.

Disney is renowned for its guest service. How do you ensure that your hotel staff meet those high standards?

At our core, Disney associates—called Cast Members—are dedicated to creating magical memories for our guests. We have a true passion for the Disney brand and a commitment to our core values. From their very first day, Cast Members learn the basic principles of treating guests courteously, maintaining the Disney story, and acting efficiently with an eye always toward everyone’s safety.

We also encourage leaders to develop meaningful relationships with their teams and create a culture where all Cast Members are comfortable expressing their ideas and thoughts. All of this contributes to building strong teams focused on a single purpose—creating happiness.

“The best advice I can offer [women in the hotel industry] is to ask for the most challenging assignments, network with a defined purpose, and strive to learn something new from everyone they meet.”

What advice would you have for the next generation of female leaders in the hotel industry?

I believe with my whole heart that the hotel industry is the greatest in the world. Where else can you explore the globe, make memories, learn in a diverse environment, and be challenged every day? The best advice I can offer them is to ask for the most challenging assignments, network with a defined purpose, and strive to learn something new from everyone they meet. I would say, “Be the best at your job today, have clear goals for your future, and don’t forget to travel, be inspired, and enjoy every moment of your career journey as I have.”