She Shines: Jan Hazelton, Kerzner International

In She Shines, Dina Soliman of BrandFull talks with some of the great minds and personalities that are shaping the world of hospitality today and in the future. We will zoom in, share their insight and celebrate their success stories. What we promise is that they will all be varied, they will be interesting, inspiring and they will all be women. This month we meet Jan Hazelton, vice president, global business & real estate development at Kerzner International.

I arrive at the office of Kerzner International at Knightsbridge catching my breath and embarrassed for being late. I am immediately  greeted by Jan’s warm reassuring smile welcoming me and making me feel comfortable. After a coffee and a brief chit chat in the elegant setting of the office, we kick start our conversation.

• Good morning Jan. You are the vice president of global business and real estate at Kerzner International. Can you tell us a bit more about the business and your role?
“Of course, happy to!  Kerzner International is a leading global developer and operator of destination resorts. My responsibility is to find new opportunities to introduce Atlantis, our flagship entertainment destination resorts, and for our ultra-luxury One&Only resorts and private homes. This involves sourcing the right location in the right market and ensuring that the product fits within our criteria.”

• That must be quite demanding criteria, no? 
“Well, we do have very high standards, and it is a rewarding experience, collaborating with my Kerzner colleagues to develop the right One&Only projects. Our team is very innovative and entrepreneurial, and we go to great lengths to ensure our next resort is exceptional. With only nine One&Only resorts open, the brand has a very high level of brand recognition, and we want to make sure that any new hotel we open will be extraordinary. We pride ourselves on providing our guests with incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, authentic experiences. We recently opened our second resort in Rwanda, One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, where guests can have a face-to-face encounter with the rare and majestic mountain gorilla. These gorillas are roaming free in their own natural habitat. I have seen them twice, and can’t wait to have another encounter with them, it is an amazing experience!”

• With such high criteria, does that create friction between the drive for scale and growth and staying true to the demanding requirements of the brand?
“This is interesting, but in fact there is no friction at Kerzner. The plan for our expansion is strategic, we are very clear that we will only grow with the right opportunities. Of course we have our targets, but we have no problem walking away from a deal if it does not fully meet our criteria. We do strive for perfection which is hard to attain, but we won’t compromise the integrity of the brand or the guest experience. I have been with the company for two years now and understand what will or will not excite us. There are certain destinations that are more akin to our brand. For example, the world’s best ski destinations, incredible natural locations, exquisite beaches, vibrant cities;  destinations where our customers already travel to, or are curious to discover.  We are focused on providing exceptional guest experiences in addition to providing a sustainable return to our owners.”

• Luxury is said to have changed a lot, how does that impact development?
“Luxury is such a broad term now. It has also become very competitive, but with One&Only we elevate ourselves to the top of this sector. Luxury is subtle, it is in the details, the intangibles. It is all those things you don’t see but you notice if they are not there. Guests are more demanding than ever as they have seen much more of the world, so they do pay for quality and they surely expect it.”

• So let’s now talk about you. Your first job was in a hotel. You moved into different areas and made your way back to hotels. Can you take us through your career choices and the motivations behind them?
“Well, I went to the Hotel School at Washington State University and interestingly I am going back again in February, as I have been nominated into their Hall of Fame of hotel graduates. It is a real honour. I was really flattered as it is a nomination by my peers.”

• Congratulations Jan, that is fantastic.
“Thank you, I am thrilled. So straight out of Uni, I went into the Westin management training program at the Century Plaza Hotel. After a year, I was not convinced that operations was for me. During my studies I had taken a course where we learned  about hotel feasibility studies and I found the subject intriguing. So, I steered my career in that direction and joined PKF, a consulting firm focused on consulting to the hospitality industry.  This is where I started learning about feasibility and hotel investment analysis. From PKF, I joined Sheraton where I spent  seven years during their growth phase in various roles including feasibility, development, and owners relations. I loved it. As change is inevitable, Sheraton split into three publicly traded companies before being acquired by Starwood. The result was a massive redundancy and I was a casualty.”

“At this time, I took the opportunity to broaden my experience and joined a private equity firm in Dallas. Shortly after that I got a call form a head-hunter to  work for a French bank in New York City in their specialised hotel financing group. I jumped at the opportunity! Everyone should live in New York for a short time. I moved and spent almost 10 years with Credit Lyonnais. Three of those years were in NYC, then I moved to London for three years. After 9/11 the business dried up and I had to return to NYC. Not wanting to leave London, I spent the next four years searching for the right opportunity to move back. After the two Hiltons came back together, I found a way back by joining Hilton’s international headquarters in the UK. I’ve been in London ever since.”

• Having been part of a big corporate most of your career, you switched to consulting for a while. Which side did you enjoy more?
“Being in a big company is interesting and challenging at the same time. It is dynamic and ever changing. My advice to anyone who is in a big corporate and is not happy; give it a year, it will change. Consulting on the other hand was rewarding in different ways. The opportunities are much more varied, as you don’t have to stay within the confinement of what a specific brand will do. I had some really interesting consulting experiences. You get the random obscure phone call from one of your contacts that leads to a consulting assignment for a very famous movie star! That is the beauty of one’s network, things can happen when you least expect it.  The power of your network is not to be underestimated.” 

• There are not many women in hotel development. Why do you think that is?  And how did you break the trend and manage to succeed in this field?
“That is a really hard question to answer but it is true that the industry and investment conferences tend to be dominated by men. As a woman, it is a little harder to break in because many deals are done via personal relationships that are forged over drinks, dinners or sporting events. As a female it can be a bit more awkward to form these kinds of relationships with men, especially after the “Me Too” movement, while for a man it is a bit more natural. The fact that there are not many women in development is one of the reasons why I am quite tight with my female network – it is small but we are all supportive of each other and I have many  good women friends in the sector. To succeed it takes hard work and perseverance but also making sure your voice gets heard. I think it is important to stay true to who you are. Sometimes things don’t work, but you just move on. I have been advised sometimes not to be so nice or to be more aggressive or hardcore but it is just not me and I found that I can still accomplish and get things done in my own way.”

• You dipped your toe into teaching at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne – can you tell me a bit about that experience?
“Oh, I love it! I just love being around students with all their energy and creativity. I’ve established a relationship with EHL where I am frequently a guest speaker on campus. When EHL was developing its Executive MBA program, they asked me if I would teach a module about hotel feasibility. I said ‘Absolutely! I’d love to’ and really it was a great experience, I loved listening to the student’s questions and seeing how smart and creative they are. I also developed an online module for their online MBA program. It is rewarding when at the end of the course, a few students express that feasibility and development is the direction they want to take in their career. That makes me smile!”

• One of the biggest challenges for the industry is attracting and retaining talent. What are your thoughts on that?
“Hospitality is such a growing sector and  attracts a particular type of individual. Someone who is a people’s person, someone who is curious and want to travel and learn more about the world. There are shortages in the industry for sure but I know a couple of hotel companies are creating hospitality schools in emerging international destinations. These initiatives are welcome and will help.”

• Having achieved so much, do you get the chance to share your experience and help other women?
“I am actually discussing with other women colleagues in the hotel development and investment sector how we can support and mentor women in the industry.  As you move up the ranks, you lose a substantial number of women. We are in the process of shaping this initiative, focussing particularly in hotel real estate, banking and development, areas with a scarcity of women.”

“I have also been a part of the leadership circle of Women for Women International that focuses on empowering women in countries that have been affected by conflict or war. The support covers 8 countries including Rwanda which I visited twice. I sponsor a woman in the community where Women for Women help her learn a skill or a trade to earn income. The other great benefit with this program is that these women become part of a community rather than continuing to feel marginalised and alone. Women that have been through the year long program end up giving back exponentially to the community; they take care of their children, hire other women; it is a demonstration of how empowering one woman can create a snowball effect.  During my first visit to Rwanda, I had the opportunity to meet the woman I was sponsoring. She was shy and timid but by using a translator we established a connection. During the year of sponsorship, we would correspond, and she sent me letters that were full of gratitude. Those letters have been wonderfully motivating for me. You come home after having had a bad day and you open a letter saying ‘Thank you. You changed my life. You gave me hope.’ Everything falls into perspective then.”

• What is your favourite destination?
“Rwanda. Without a doubt. It is such a memorable destination. I was fortunate to meet a lot of the leadership in the country and learned about what they have accomplished over the past 20 years. It is truly incredible to see how they managed to forgive and forget. You see two women sitting next to each other and then you realise that the husband of one is in jail for the murder of the other’s husband, but they found a way to forgive and move forward. Then you meet some of the children and their names are Hope, Joy, Amen and you  think ‘wow, the Rwandan people are remarkable, they are resilient.”

• I know that wellbeing and sports, particularly tennis, play a big role in your life, how do you incorporate that in your busy travel schedule?
“Well I have always been relatively active – and with so much travel, the sneakers are always packed in the suitcase in hopes I’ll be diligent about exercising while on the road. I love tennis, skiing in the winter – cooking healthily. I truly believe ‘You are what you eat’.  I’ve experienced this for the better and for the worse! I so enjoy travel – although I travel significantly for work I don’t think I will ever get tired of travelling. It is such a big world out there and there is no replacement for seeing and experiencing a destination first hand.”

• That does sound incredible. Talking of which, who inspires you?
“One of the people I admire is Isadore Sharp – the founder of Four Seasons and the golden rule which he instilled in the company and with all stakeholders; treat people well, like you want to be treated. It’s really simple but it can easily be forgotten. It is a great ethos to have.  Another inspiring woman is Brita Schmidt, the director of Women for Women International in the UK. Her drive, her values and the impact she has on others’ lives through her work with Women for Women is powerful.”

• What would you say to your younger self?
“Take risks. Don’t be afraid of change. If it does not work, change again. Live abroad. It opens your mind like nothing else. And never burn bridges.”

• Lastly, do you have any career advice for other women?
“Stand up for yourself. Nobody is going to stand up for you but you. Tell people about your achievements, and a job well done, don’t be shy. Claim the credit that you deserve.”

Dina Soliman-Pedersen is founder and managing director of BrandFull, a brand and marketing consultancy

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