Thomas Foti, general manager Wailea Beach Marriott Resort and Spa
The hospitality industry was an instinctive choice for Thomas Foti. Born in New York and relocated to California at age 10, he spent many a night in Best Westerns and Howard Johnsons while his father, an antique dealer, scoured antique shows for treasures. The family’s overnight adventures were full of magic, from perfecting cannonballs in curious swimming pools to meals on the road that just seemed to taste better than they did at home. In 1998, when a large-scale fire threatened northern San Diego County, the Rancho Bernardo Inn extended free stays to families affected by the tragedy. Deeply moved by the hotel’s generosity, it was then that Foti decided what he wanted to be when he grew up.
His multifarious history in hospitality began in food and beverage during college at UCLA, where Foti cut his teeth on properties like The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott and the Laguna Beach Surf & Sand Resort. After serving as senior catering manager for the iconic InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco atop Nob Hill, he became director of food and beverage for a Phoenix hotel and then transitioned to the room side as director of operations for the Oakland Marriott City Center. Foti accepted his first general manager position at age 29 at the Hyatt San Jose, then became dual general manager for the new fitness-hotel concept Renaissance ClubSport and took home an award for general manager of the year.
Next, he ran two Renaissance properties in New Orleans—an art-themed hotel in the Warehouse District and a jazz-themed hotel in the French Quarter—and faced his toughest challenge when Hurricane Katrina hit. Following a successful evacuation, Foti stayed on to oversee the reopening of both properties. “The Katrina event taught me so much about what people are capable of in the worst of circumstances,” Foti says. “I watched a small group of people come together with a tremendous amount of heart to take care of relative strangers like family.” Six years ago, Foti’s decision to accept a general manager role at Hilton Waikiki Beach, where he met his wife Terra, proved to be momentous for both his personal and professional life. “I woke up one day and realized I didn’t have to wait to retire to move to Hawai‘i, and my life took on new meaning,” he says. “I was able to achieve a worklife balance, became a husband and father and grew up a lot during that time.”
Now, as head of Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, he’s overseeing a $115 million renovation and working to shape a common identity and culture at the hotel. Though the upgrades will affect the guest experience until December, he’s proud of the level of aloha his team is delivering. “During the changes, I may not be getting the best ratings, but what I am getting is what I want to hear: how warm my associates have been and how they’ve worked with guests to deliver impeccable service,” Foti says. “My task is to build the confidence of the staff and add a little polish—a little anticipatory service—and, as such, become a game-changing property.”
Among Foti’s strengths is a high level of infectious energy, which allows him to serve as a cheerleader of sorts.
“Once we create a vision, I get people on board by painting a picture that makes them want to be a part of it,” he says. His ongoing success as an ambassador of aloha arises not just from a commitment to elevate his people, but also from aligning with organizations that take care of their team. “Marriott is a people-first company,” Foti says. “The more I can support a front-desk agent, a room attendant or someone in the loss-prevention department, the more successful the hotel becomes, and subsequently I also become successful.”
Foti’s willingness to embrace new trends and technology has also been an asset to the properties he runs. For example, when a current or former guest tags Wailea Beach Marriott in a post, it’s flagged and the author receives a personalized, handwritten card and often a gift. “We have so much communication pre- and post-stay now,” he says.
“It’s a dialogue that we didn’t have before, and it’s my personal responsibility to make every interaction, whether online or in person, as amazing as possible.”
Alvin Wong, Wailea Beach Marriott’s director of marketing, says it’s Foti’s kindness and level-headedness that make him a fantastic leader. “Whether you’re a frontline associate or resort ownership, he treats everyone with aloha and respect,” Wong says. “Even under extreme duress, he is always cool, calm and collected.” Foti insists his calm demeanor and aloha spirit would mean little without a certain vulnerability. “Leadership books tell you to learn about your people, but what they don’t say is that you have to be able to let them in to your world and tell them something about you,” Foti says. “It can be as simple as sharing your favorite cocktail or your middle name.
People are loyal to people.”