A conversation with Tonya Scott, general manager of Hotel Burnham Chicago

Tonya Scott (second from left) with staff
Tonya Scott (second from left) with staff

As the first black female general manager for the Kimpton hotel chain, native Chicagoan Tonya Scott is blazing a trail for future generations to follow.

As GM for Chicago’s Hotel Burnham, Tonya oversees the daily operations, sales, and marketing of the 122-room boutique hotel. She is responsible for maintaining the historic Chicago landmark (the building that houses the hotel was the very first skyscraper in Chicago) that is annually a tourist destination for tens of thousands of history buffs. Scott has been extremely successful in establishing and continuing the Hotel Burnham’s world class standards of excellence. The hotel has a reputation for personalized service as reflected in its Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants’ 2013 Customer Satisfaction rating of No. 1 of the 60 Kimpton hotels around the country.

After graduating Robert Morris University with a bachelor’s in business management and administration, Scott began her managerial career in the hospitality industry as an assistant front office manager. She was given free range to develop and share her energy and enthusiasm with staff, guests and community and was quickly promoted to director of rooms at Hotel Burnham. She then went on to share her experience and knowledge with other hotels in the Kimpton chain through various projects and assignments before she transitioned into her role as assistant general manager of Hotel Monaco in Denver. After a couple years in Denver, in which she oversaw a multimillion-dollar renovation of the property, Chicago called one of its favorite daughters home again — to assume full responsibility of Hotel Burnham.

In addition to her thriving career in hospitality, Scott is extremely active in the community and consistently participates in philanthropic and charitable activities such as the Dress for Success program, Adopt a School, and various others. Scott is also a member of the Chicago Loop Alliance and Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. Since being designated as a Certified Hotel Administrator, Scott has been nominated for the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association’s Stars of the Industry award in the Front Office Managers category, and in 2006 was awarded the Women Making History award from the Dress for Success organization.

Scott’s vision for the future is to continue to successfully building relationships with employees, guests, owners, and the business community as a whole. She hopes to use these relationships to create positive experiences and sound business plans that will lead to financial success for her hotel and community.

How did you get your start in the hospitality industry?

I started in the hospitality industry in 1997 as a reservation agent at the Holiday Inn City Center located in downtown Chicago. I happened upon this career as a result of economic downturns. Just prior, I had worked for my father who owned several businesses. He (along with my college degree) taught me to manage his restaurant, car wash and beauty salon. Things became difficult economically and I decided that I wanted to explore other possibilities. I spoke with a really good friend who told me that the hospitality industry was an industry that my skills would readily translate to. I purchased a Sunday newspaper, checked the Jobs section, and began locating hotels ads. I applied for the job with Holiday Inn City Center one late afternoon along with a line of others seeking the exact same job. To say the least, I was intimidated, having no experience in the field and competing with all the other. But, because I had traveled a distance to get there, I asked for an application. And was told to fill it out and bring it back the following day — the office was closing! I felt that I really had no chance for the job at this point, but fate had a different plan. As I was about to exit HR, another lady asked me to fill out the application right then. The rest is history. For whatever reason, I happened to be in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing!

Tell us about some of the charitable organizations you work with.

I have had the pleasure to work with Dress for Success in Chicago and Denver and help disadvantaged women become self-sufficient through job readiness and retention programs. I participated in Denver Digs Trees, a program that helped residents cultivate greener, healthier environments through the planting of trees. I chaired the philanthropic activities of Hotel Burnham, donating foods, clothing, funds, etc. to communities in throughout Chicago, Mississippi, and even West Ghana, Africa. I also partnered with Carter Elementary School in Chicago assisting kids with reading and providing lunches for children weekly.

Talk about what it means to be the first black female general manager for Kimpton.

When I started in the hospitality industry 15 years ago, there was minimal representation of women in the role of General Manager, and no black women at all. I was fortunate to be employed by Kimpton — a forward thinking company — and through education, mentoring, and sheer hard work, my efforts were acknowledged and I was promoted to my present position as general manager. I am proud to be a ground-breaker in this arena. There is an added burden that comes with being ‘the first’, but I relish the opportunity to be a role model and encourage other minority women to excel. We have come a long way since 1997, but there is still under-representation of minorities in the upper strata of hotel management.

What’s your business motto?

As General Manager of the Hotel Burnham, my goal/motto is: to successfully build relationships with, and between, employees, guests, and owners. Ultimately using these relationships to create positive experiences and sound business plans that will lead to financial success for the and the community.

Tell us a bit about the property you manage.

The Hotel Burnham — originally the Reliance Building — was designed by city planners Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood. Completed in 1895, these architects moved Chicago forward into the 20th century by constructing the first steel-framed skyscraper in the world. The building boasts large plate glass windows that allowed for expansive natural lighting, along with white glazed terra cotta cladding so the building would never need washing. Wrought iron throughout the elevator lobby, original marble and mosaic floor add to the magnificent ambience of this property. A very special part of the hotel is that it has historic landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places. You would be hard-pressed to find this rich history anywhere else.

How do you use social media to your advantage?

Social media allows me to interact on different levels. I use it to promote my hotel through blogging, advertising, and most importantly — tracking the feedback from guests. Social media is vital to keeping up with what’s trending, and staying abreast of my competition. I also use social media personally to maintain relationships and relax.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my life and the direction in which my career has taken me. It’s not every day that we get to do what we love and feel accomplished because of where we came from. Where you come from doesn’t necessarily determine where you are going. I continually strive to better myself and thoughts.

Who inspires you?

My parents for sure.  They always inspired me to do more and be the best that I can be. They were born at a time when they had to make the best out of what they had – and what they were allowed to have. They stayed focus and made the best for themselves, proving that hard work can pay off. This example framed my life and thinking.

Any favorite affirmations?

“The state of your life is nothing more than a reflection of the state of your mind”. Whatever you believe is what you can impose upon yourself… please be positive about what you believe!

What do you do to unwind?

I readily admit to being a shopaholic. Shopping is how I decompress, especially if the shopping is for me. I find enjoyment in finding things I may need and I am absolutely ecstatic when I “discover” some unique items that I just have to have.

What’s next for Tonya Scott?

Who knows what this life may bring? The sky is truly the limit.

For more info on on Tonya Scott or the Hotel Burnham, please visit www.burnhamhotel.com.


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