Chester County Leadership: Michael Chain, General Manager, The Desmond
Publisher’s Note: We dip into our archives this morning to republish one of our first Chester County Leadership profiles. When we first spoke with Mike Chain last Spring, we had fewer than 700 subscribers (we passed 5,000 this week) and less than 150 daily readers (a year later, 10 times that number of visitors click through to a VISTA Today story daily). Even though we had never met and he didn’t know what VISTA Today was, Chain was gracious enough to share his life story, including a candid look inside the challenges of managing Chester County’s highest profile events venue, with VISTA Today readers.
Two weeks ago when Philadelphia Business Journal named Michael Chain, General Manager of The Desmond, to their much celebrated 40 Under 40 list, the only Chester County resident to make PBJ’s annual list this year, it was time to take a step back and celebrate the contributions of a raising leader and the organization he leads.
In Chester County there is no higher profile venue for a corporate breakfast, a business seminar, an afternoon networking event or a once in a lifetime wedding celebration than The Desmond in Great Valley. The hotel’s old English charm and hospitality set the standard for lodging and event management.
No one is more responsible for maintaining The Desmond’s standards and reputation than is Mike Chain. Even though, like the rest of us, he has a hard time checking out at the end of a hard day in his 194 room “office”, overseeing The Desmond is a responsibility Chain takes seriously.
So diligent is he in managing The Desmond’s service and reputation, he answer every comment posted about his property to TripAdvisor personally, as if that guest’s experience at The Desmond was his responsibility alone.
VISTA Today sat down with Chain last week and asked him about his journey from captain of his high school and college swim teams to leading The Desmond through troubled, challenging and competitive times.
Vista Today: Where did you grow up Mike?
Michael Chain: I was born in upstate New York in a town called Latham just north of Albany. When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to Fort Washington in Montgomery County.
VT: What do you recall from your childhood in Latham and Fort Washington?
MC: Latham was a smaller community. The families on the street I grew up on in Latham all had kids who were within two years of me. It was a wonderful little community to grow up in, as was Upper Dublin.
VT: What was you first job in high school?
MC: I was a lifeguard at Fort Washington Swim and Tennis Club. I swam throughout Upper Dublin and Fort Washington as a kid. Becoming a lifeguard was the natural progression.
VT: Were you a good lifeguard?
MC: I was an exceptional lifeguard! I loved being around the water and my fellow swimmers. Most of the lifeguards at the club were swimmers on Upper Dublin High School’s swim team with me. We all got along and shared common goals and values.
VT: What events did you swim in high school?
MC: Breast stroke and sprint events.
VT: What lessons did you learn as a lifeguard Michael, that stays with you today?
MC: I learned not to let my guard down for one second, that if I lost focus, even briefly, someone could get hurt.
On a different scale, it’s the same way in the hotel business. If I am not attentive to our facility, employees and guests, I could end up with a serious problem on my hands. Especially in this competitive local hotel market, when often the last experience will drive the next.
VT: What did you do after high school?
MC: While I looked at Cornell, Shippensburg, and Penn State, the University of New Hampshire offered a combination of a strong hospitality program and a swim team that fit my competitive level.
VT: Did New Hampshire end up being a good choice for you?
MC: It was a great four years. I learned many skills above and beyond hospitality, including rock climbing, ice climbing and surfing to name three, I never would have imagined. In my senior year, I earned captain of the swim team. As was my high school swim team experience, New Hampshire’s swim team was a unique combination of guys and gals of like mind and vision. I would encourage anyone looking for a well-rounded education to check out UNH.
VT: What did you do after graduation?
MC: I looked at a number of opportunities but chose to come home and work for my dad who was managing The Desmond in Malvern. I started out as a restaurant manager and worked my way up to director of restaurants in a couple of years.
Through that experience I discovered the food services business was both fun and challenging. However, I wanted to make sure I could have a lifestyle that didn’t evolve being at work late and around alcohol every night. In the Summer of 2001, I made a conscience decision to interview for a sales job at The Desmond. While many at The Desmond were surprised by my interest in sales, I wanted to learn other dimensions of the business, especially the sales side.
VT: Was the decision to get into sales a good move for you?
MC: It was an exceptional move for me. I am happily married with two kids age six and almost four. The balance my wife and I have been able to achieve, (both of us working different jobs with competing demands) has served our family very well.
VT: What was your transition into sales like?
MC: I started in the sales role at The Desmond two weeks before the 9/11 attacks. When 9/11 happened, travel halted and the way meetings took place changed forever. I learned again, never to let my guard down and to capitalize on every opportunity that came around. The experience also taught me a lot about consistent, personal and professional planning, sticking to your plan, and mapping out your weeks.
In January 2008, I was promoted to general manager of the hotel. I leveraged the experience I gained after 9/11 to weather the worst economic downturn since the great depression, and led the hotel through a major renovation during this time.
VT: What impact do you anticipate the Pope’s visit this Fall and the DNC convention next year have on The Desmond?
MC: I’m a big proponent of the City of Philadelphia. The city is a wonderful destination, for the papal visit and other large events. When big events happen, tourism and overnight stays push out our way. It’s going to be tough to find a room downtown the weekend of the Pope’s visit. I suspect more business will push out this way. We’re just about sold out for the weekend of the Pope’s visit. Hopefully, the same thing will happen for the DNC convention next year.
VT: How does the Desmond stay involved in the community?
MC: We have our family of charities we support. We’re very proud of the Desmond Project, a fully accredited, 75-student course at Great Valley High School my father started when he was general manager. Students in the program learn sales and business skills and put on an end-of-year banquet with food they buy, prepare and serve. Now in its twenty-first year, the project is the only high school course of its kind in the country. Philly.com just did a article about the Project a couple of weeks ago.
In addition to the Desmond Project, we remain involved with Friends of East Whiteland, Home of the Sparrow, the Elite Companies Charitable Foundation, the Garo Yepremian Foundation, we host many different charity events and very frequently donate gifts in kinds to support local fundraising efforts
VT: Looking forward Mike, what are your greatest challenges?
MC: At work, there is a ton of supply in the Chester County hotel marketplace. It’s very competitive. As an independent hotel, we can’t rely on strong hotel networks to send us guests. The competition is bringing out our best. We’ve formed partnership with locations that we might have seen as competitors in the past, and developed a rewards program to compete with the franchised properties that have surrounded the area. We are very proud of our distinct property with local décor and feel .
Personally, my challenge is to check out for a period when I leave work. I try to remember to turn off my phone, have dinner, play with my kids, to engage my entire family and just forget whatever I have going on at work, (for a period of time).
VT: Finally Michael, what was the best advice you ever received?
MC: There are two that come to mind. First came from my mom who is the nicest, kindest person on earth. She always told us, treat others as you want to be treated. I emphasize that with my staff at The Desmond, You shouldn’t be “not nice” and work in the hospitality business. If a hotel staff can’t be kind and hospitable to each other, they won’t be nice to a guest.
The second piece of advice, and I forget where I read this, is ‘wherever you are, be there.’ It goes back to what I said about leaving work at work earlier. With a staff of 150 people and guest coming and going every day, I will always have work on my mind. While I’m working my focus should be there, 100 percent. But when I’m away from work I want to push thoughts about work to the back of my mind and be with my family physically and mentally.
Top image courtesy of the Philadelphia Business Journal
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