She Shines: Rachael Palumbo, Nobu Hotels

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 Rachael Palumbo, VP of sales and marketing at Nobu Hotels.

I enter into the elegant lobby of the Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch and can’t help but admire the minimalist sophisticated décor and the serene feel of the place. Moments later, Rachael approaches, and after a friendly introduction we head downstairs to have our talk so we are uninterrupted.

• Rachael, you are the VP sales & marketing for Nobu Hotels, so can you give us an overview of the business?
“Nobu Hotels was born in 2013, so relatively young but we already have 18 hotels; 10 open and eight in the pipeline. The Nobu Hotels concept flips the normal hotel experience on its head. In fact we call it the upside down model, as we basically start with the restaurant first. Food is at the very heart of our proposition and experience. There are 41 Nobu restaurants worldwide, so a broad global footprint. We have two divisions under the Nobu brand;  the hotels arm which is my focus and the restaurants business with whom I work very closely. I oversee the brand, marketing, PR, creative, so all the traditional aspects of marketing as well as the sales side, which is my background.”

• In a very short space of time, Nobu Hotels has expanded fast. Talk to us a bit about the growth plans. 
“The first property opened in 2013. When I joined in 2016 we only had two hotels, Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace and the other one in Manila, Philippines. The growth has not stopped since and in some respect our expansion is helped by our model as we license some of our properties. We always manage them though and work very closely with our owners to ensure the Nobu experience and promise is delivered consistently to the highest standards.”

• Considering the global spread, do you use a centralised approach or do the hotels operate more independently?
“Our hotels are in very diverse destinations and for us the local market is hugely important. In the development phase when we are looking at a destination with an owner, we look at it with the lens of the restaurant first. Will the restaurant do well in this location? Is it a good fit with our brand and audience? And because our proposition is premium, we tend to be in top end destinations, hence we rely heavily on relationships and a strong local network. That demands a local sales and marketing team for every property and we make sure to also find local PR agencies who are experienced in food and beverages so they can help make a buzz for our openings.”

• Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. How was the Nobu Hotels idea born, and who’s behind it?
“It’s actually very interesting. One of our founders, the most famous of them; Robert De Niro, was attending the opening of the San Diego restaurant, which was at the Hard Rock Hotel. De Niro was being asked so many questions about the Hard Rock Hotel, and he just turned to chef Nobu and said ‘You know what, we should be opening our own hotels and keeping it in-house.’ So it is De Niro’s vision and his passion and drive that gave birth to Nobu Hotels. With his film career, he travelled the world, so he knows the perspective of a luxury hotel guest first hand. In fact he already had a property in Greenwich village in New York; The Greenwich Hotel, an amazing property.”

• There are quite a number of luxury hotel brands out there, how is the concept of Nobu Hotels different?
“It’s all in the experience. The fact that the restaurant and the hotel are effectively the same brand is unique. Often hotel brands open a beautiful property and fit in a celebrity chef restaurant afterwards, and sometimes the brand fit is not right. That is never the case for us. Also dinner at a Nobu restaurant is quite unique. It is a premium luxury experience, yet non-traditional and in a way approachable. The staff know the food inside out, the décor is locally inspired, minimalist and super elegant. There is also the Japanese influence, which stems from chef Nobu’s heritage as a traditional sushi chef. There’s almost a zen feel to the space. If I look at which brands could be close to us, it’s probably Edition, or Aman in some markets, where we push the limits into uber-luxury.”

• You have quite high profile founders, and probably quite demanding. Are they involved much in the running of the business?
“Some more than others. chef Nobu is much more involved naturally. He travels 10 months of the year and makes it a point to visit all his restaurants at least twice a year. He spends most of his time in the kitchen overseeing the operations and coaching the team. This is his comfort space and he says ‘I’m not a sushi chef, until all those in my kitchen are’. He is very true to his word and extremely dedicated. De Niro, on the other hand is very busy with his film career, yet he is as involved as he can and really sets the vision for the hotels. A lovely, lovely man. They all are and I’m very lucky to work with people at this level in their careers and still so humble. As for Meir Teper, as a film producer, he is the one who brings it all together. He is the one who will come into the hotels and start looking at the details, particularly the design and architecture. In a way they each have their own skills and they each bring a different value to the projects.”

• Now let’s talk about you – how and when did you start in hospitality
“I’ve always been in hospitality. Right out of college I started at Boston Harbour Hotel, which still to this day is one of the top hotels in the city. I worked in the restaurant as a summer job, which turned into my first catering position. I then moved to the Ritz Carlton, and it was truly a lesson in luxury. The service philosophy even back then was the famous ‘ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’ and I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. We had a very traditional German GM, who lived all over the world and he brought with him his little black book. I learnt the importance of building relationships and knowing who your guests are, what they do and what they like. I then worked with Starwood for the W hotels brand. They were pioneers and set the standard for lifestyle hotels. Then I moved to the One & Only. Again amazing brand and my experience with luxury has developed significantly there. It is just a different world when you deal with guests at that level.”

• Are the ultra-luxury guests really that different, don’t we all want the same thing at the end?
“I would say that guests within the ultra-luxury category is quite different. It is all about listening, observing and anticipating. When you are paying over £1,000 a night, you are probably very busy and your schedule constantly changes, so we have to be responsive and quick to act as a lot is done last minute. If the guest is with family, every minute counts, as they probably don’t see each other as often. Our role then would be to allow them the space and deliver a non-intrusive anticipatory service. That means the staff is in the background, you don’t see them but they are always at hand. We have our property in Malibu of only 16 rooms and it is a very special project. There is no online distribution. It is only bookable via email and mainly through word of mouth. Here the power of the network and relationships comes to play. You get a special guest who wants to attend a Barcelona game that night and wants to sit in the president box. The staff instantly disappears, they are on their phones tapping into their network and making it happen. The guest will then leave with a memorable experience as you made their wish come true. Luxury now is about engagement and truly immersive experiences.”

• You studied sociology at SMU – Southern Methodist University, what is the connection and does your line of study come into play in your work at all?
“Absolutely. At the end of the day it is a study of human interaction. I really enjoyed my studies and understanding the collective behaviour and the psychology behind it all. So although not a direct connection, it helps. A lot of people now specialise in hospitality but at the time I did not know I was going to work in this field. Thinking back though, my first lessons in luxury started in SMU. It is a very special place, located in an uber-luxury neighbourhood. I changed my clothes three times a day, I would have full make up before going to class. And It was like a fashion show. I loved it.”
• So, is Dallas home then?
“Actually both my parents are from London and I was born here together with my three sisters. I only moved to the US when I was 11. I do feel American though as it is where I grew up, but you know I come here, they say ‘welcome home’ and I go back, they say ‘welcome home’, and I do feel comfortable in both places. However, if I am to call somewhere home, it has to be Boston.”

• You worked in many different places, interacted with lots of people including world celebrities. Who inspired you most throughout your career?
“I think my experiences moulded me, but I am going to say two people who inspired me in my life not just my career. My mother; she got married, raised a family, was a house wife, then went back to college in her forties. Not only did she get her masters, but did her PhD and became an accomplished archaeologist. She lived her dream and pursued what she always wanted. She is 77 now and she still works. She is in research at Harvard, and an amazing inspiration to me. It is because of her I think I still have the entire half of my life ahead of me. The second person is my father who helped her do it and raise four daughters, helping them achieve their dreams too. They are very proud parents and they have always been there for me. They keep me motivated.”

• Any lessons learnt you want to share?
“Lots of lessons and am still learning. The first one is to listen more. It is a common mistake that young people do and I was one. A lot of talking, not a lot of listening. I remember at my One & Only days, I was on a conference call with the MD of the Atlantis in the Bahamas, George Markantonis, an amazing person. He just told me out right ‘Shut up! You have to stop talking. You have to make pauses and you have to listen’. I was shocked for a moment but he was right and I needed that. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot more active listening. The other lesson, is that you have to take risks. If you are in a leadership position, you make decisions and sometimes you have to be fast and you can make mistakes. Learn, make the best out of it and move on.”

• You are in a senior leadership role with a lot of travelling. Do you find it hard to get a work-life balance?
“It is tough and as a mother, I rely on my husband a lot. I am a woman who has a lot of respect for the men in my life. My father has been a great support but also my husband. He has given up his career to allow me to grow mine. He is Latin so it is not intrinsic to his culture but he is super supportive and I know I am so lucky to be with such an amazing man. The good thing is that I also have two very supportive bosses. They are very open and they give their team lots of opportunities, which is great.”

• I understand you were a soccer coach. I am quite curious about that, so tell me more about it. 
“Oh yes I did coach for almost five years. I never played soccer when I was young. In fact I was not an athlete. I was a cheer leader, but sports was not my thing. Then I married a man who played soccer professionally so I went to a lot of games with him and he suggested I join him in coaching. I thought, why not! I could try it, so I did and I loved it. I did that with my children so as a bonus I got to spend time with them, and at the same time it gave me a challenge. I even started to play in the women’s league. I played every Sunday for four years and it was great fun, well, until I hurt myself, then I stopped. Now I play tennis and golf and again it is an opportunity to spend time with my children. With golf it is a solid few hours with my son. You see my children are teenagers so they don’t want to be with me” she smiles. 

• I think plenty of people can identify with that! So as we come to our last question, what is next for you?
“I want to write a book. It has always been my passion. I love to write and I love to read. I will continue to do what I am doing as long as I can and I do enjoy it. Then my dream project would be to write a book.”

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

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