Sarah Robbins got her start at 21c Museum Hotels as a founding partner. Now, as chief operating officer of the brand, she oversees both F&B and hotel operations, as well as HR. Robbins discussed with LODGING how she discovered her love for the hospitality industry, what she does to keep her team motivated, and how her leadership strategy has evolved over the years.
What led you to the hospitality industry?
My first job in the industry was at a small bed and breakfast, and it was a totally eye-opening experience. I was really young—given the demand for labor on Martha’s Vineyard, it was easy to find a job, which allowed me to start working a little earlier than most—and I genuinely love making people happy. The fact that I could make a difference in somebody’s day was especially impactful because I was so young.
How did you come to be at 21c?
The first job that I took out of college was at Tribeca Grill in New York City, and that role is literally why I am sitting in the desk that I am today. When I moved back home to Louisville from New York, I was able to stay on with the company that owned Tribeca Grill because they were doing consulting for other hotels companies. Then, I got a call from my former boss, Michael Bonadies, the former CEO of 21c, and he let me know about an opening in Louisville—it was for the 21c Louisville. We opened that hotel 13 years ago. I was supposed to work there part-time and help out with the opening, but I stayed on. The rest is history.
How has your leadership approach evolved throughout your career?
For a long time, I tried to shield our team from complications and make sure they weren’t over tasked by handling road bumps for them. Then I read a fantastic book called The Coaching Habit, and realized that I had the wrong approach. I was always quick to answer questions, because I thought, “I know the answer, I can just give it to you.” But this was not the best way to go about it; it’s much more rewarding to ask, “I’m not sure, what do you think?” or “Share your opinion with me first.” This has helped the team hone their problem-solving skills and excel within their positions. Being able to watch my team grow and develop—that’s my drug of choice. It’s truly amazing.
Title: COO, 21c Museum Hotels
Education:Cornell School of Hotel Administration
First hotel industry job: Handing out mints and towels at a bed and breakfast in Martha’s Vineyard.
Hotel must have: A cold room!
What she doesn’t leave the house without: Blistex
Favorite destination: Martha’s Vineyard
What is your team-building approach?
And how do you keep your team motivated? My goal for any member of 21c is that they never leave the company for another job, that they know they can stay within the 21c family and still grow their careers. That said, I also want to be sure that if they do pursue something else, they learned the most here. This spirit of ongoing learning and development is how I’ve built our teams and why I think people stay at 21c for so long. They’re given the opportunity to learn. When I think back to my 20-year-old self, I’m not sure I would have prioritized that on a list of things I was looking for in a job, and now it would be number one.
Are there any new initiatives that you’re really excited about?
One of the things I am really hyper-focused on is training and development. In 2015 we opened our fourth property, and now we are operating nine. We’ve had a lot of growth, and this was the perfect time to go back and refine. We’ve promoted a person to oversee all of our training initiatives.
How can successful women in the hotel industry build up other women and help them succeed?
If you hear or read about somebody and you’re excited about what they’re doing, reach out to them. You don’t have to work for these people or move to New York City to get that experience. The sky’s the limit, and there are a ton of resources. Go find people who you are interested in and pick their brains. These people often welcome your efforts to reach out and will usually answer a few questions for you.