As the granddaughter of a Greek diner owner in western Massachusetts, Niki Leondakis has very fond memories of growing up in the hospitality business. “I watched my grandmother’s unique version of hospitality and how she balanced and juggled all the different aspects of running that diner,” says Leondakis, CEO of Commune Hotels & Resorts.
When she was about 8 years old, and her parents went on a trip to Greece, she remembers staying behind with her grandmother. Some nights, Grandma got a phone call at 1 a.m. to come in for the graveyard shift, and Leondakis had to tag along. “They’d make me a bed in the corner of the kitchen, but it was too exciting to sleep,” she fondly recalls. “So I’d be there in my pajamas watching Old Man Bill peeling the potatoes and making stews and soups from scratch.”
That early exposure to the restaurant world led Leondakis to pursue the food and beverage side of the hotel business. She initially majored in art at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst but switched to hotel and restaurant management her sophomore year. “Hotel and restaurant management allowed me to balance both the left and right sides of my brain,” she says. The culinary side allowed for creative expression, from menu planning to marketing and positioning products, while the day-to-day business and financial management required left-brain logic.
After graduating, Leondakis moved to Nashville to become an F&B management trainee for Marriott and quickly advanced to a manager position. From there, Leondakis worked as an F&B director for Ritz Carlton for eight years, in Marina Del Rey, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Calif., and Atlanta, Ga. Early in her career, Leondakis learned the importance of building strong relationships with team members to achieve positive business outcomes. “I learned that we are completely dependent on the people who are on the front lines serving the guests who stay or dine with us every single day,” she explains. “My ability to relate to those people, communicate with them effectively, and inspire them to do the right things was really critical.”
Leondakis’s ability to connect with people propelled her up the ladder at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants in San Francisco. She joined the boutique chain in 1993 and moved up the ranks to president and COO in 2003. Leondakis’s drive to reach the upper echelon of the boutique company was fueled by a desire to keep her constituents happy with her leadership approach and business results. “That required really stretching my range of ability to relate to and understand another person’s or group of people’s frame of reference, needs, desires, hopes, and dreams, and then deliver,” she says. “I really liked that challenge, and it continues to keep me growing all the time.”
While Leondakis misses digging into the nitty-gritty of F&B operations, she’s still deeply involved in the restaurant realm as CEO of Commune, which includes the Alila, Joie de Vivre, Thompson Hotels, and Tommie brands. Exciting F&B options play an integral role in each brand’s identity. For instance, Thompson Miami Beach, which opened in fall 2014, enlisted Miami native and James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein to debut Seagrape, a Floridian brasserie, at the hotel. “In each of our hotels, we have exciting chefs and culinary and bar programs that are cutting edge and really locally relevant, so I still get to dabble in how we bring exciting restaurant, bar, and nightlife programming to our guests.”
Developing emerging leaders has always been a core mission for Leondakis. While at Kimpton, she formed a mentor program and a diversity initiative, as well as furthered the company’s education and training program. Commune has its own education platform for skill-based training and personal development of employees. Oftentimes, young employees don’t believe in themselves enough or don’t dream big enough, Leondakis says. “It’s very rewarding to take young people who have high potential and try to give them guidance and support their goals. I enjoy helping them through their own perceived self limitations.”
Leondakis has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She follows the edict that courage is not the absence of fear but rather the ability to take action in the face of fear. “Setting big aggressive goals makes me fearful at times, but plunging ahead and galvanizing everyone around a common goal is something that is really exhilarating and fun—especially when you accomplish it.”