On Wednesday, April 13, 2022, the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality hosted the 27th Annual Stephen W. Brener Distinguished Lecturer Series in Hospitality Management. The annual event invites key industry figures and provides a forum for industry leaders and students to meet and discuss the various changes and impacts on the hospitality and travel industry. This year’s lecture featured David Kong, retired president and chief executive officer, BWH Hotel Group Principal, DEI Advisors, and was moderated by Jonathan M. Tisch, industry icon, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels & Co. and co-chairman of the Board Loews Corporation. Wednesday’s lecture was titled “Hospitality Leadership in Times of Change: The Transformative Legacy of David Kong” and provided attendees with insight on Mr. Kong’s extensive career in hospitality and trending topics in an industry that is ever-changing.
David Kong was born and raised in Hong Kong after his parents fled from communism and planted their roots in Hong Kong. Growing up, one of Kong’s parents’ primary goals was to send their children abroad to complete their education – which is how he found himself attending university at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Kong was able to secure a job at the Hilton Hawaiian Village as a dishwasher and busboy. As he became more comfortable in the work environment, Kong found himself aspiring for greater roles and gradually moving through the ranks at work. Kong eventually began working as Food and Beverage Director at a 450-room hotel with Omni Hotels and Resorts. While Kong had been just offered a promotion in San Francisco, his wife, who was working at Hyatt at the time, informed him of an opening at the Hyatt Regency Dallas as Assistant Food and Beverage Director. Between the Hyatt Regency Dallas’ position as a local landmark and Hyatt’s overall reputation, Kong ended up taking the job in Dallas, which also meant taking two steps down in position and an approximately 30% pay cut. At Hyatt, Kong quickly moved through the ranks and became General Manager.
Then, Kong found his life pivoting once again when he was asked to lead the business process reengineering efforts at the Hyatt corporate office. Kong describes the driving idea behind this initiative to be that while Hyatt hotels were considered modern, beautiful, and dazzling, they were not particularly profitable at the time. With this change, Kong and his family went from living in a hotel in Dallas to living in Chicago, and Kong spending his days in a corporate office. Following this role and Kong launching the first Hyatt.com, he did not want to transition back to being a hotel manager and instead, moved into consulting. It was during Kong’s time in consulting that he was approached by BWH Hotel Group to help them with their loyalty program, and then later asked to join BWH Hotel Group and implement his proposed plan. Best Western at the time was largely considered to be down-market, which left Kong with the optimism that there was nowhere to go but up – which through launching 17 new brands, was exactly what Kong made happen.
The hospitality industry is often said to be very diverse in nature. Mr. Kong and Mr. Tisch expand on this idea and note that the industry is diverse in the sense that its customer base is very diverse, and for the most part, the employment base of the industry is reflective of the customer base and diversity. However, Kong adds that in reality, the industry is like a triangle where the bottom is extremely diverse but as you move up the hierarchy, there is less diverse representation. Kong recounts that for many years he has sat on panels where he is the lone token minority, and Kong explains that recent reports have found that often times minority populations struggle with networking and being their own advocates in the industry. And as an immigrant himself, even Kong admits to being very shy and initially reluctant to boast about his own accomplishments but diversifying all levels of the hospitality industry is not only important so it can accurately reflect its base but also because it is known that diverse thinking helps make for better decisions.
Kong concluded the discussion by adding that despite the challenges of the past few years, the hospitality industry is a very exciting and welcoming industry to be a part of and has provided a great living for himself and his family. The industry provides individuals with tremendous opportunities in so many different areas and roles, and it is because of the industry’s supportive nature that Kong felt empowered enough to dream big from the beginning and pursue these dreams without hesitation. As the hospitality and events industries continue to prosper, adapt to societal changes, and surpass countless expectations, it will open more doors to young professionals. Kong advocated for hospitality education and the unique perspective it brings to the industry. As put by Mr. Kong, the future of hospitality, tourism, and events alike is very bright and exciting, and being such specialized fields, offers individuals the capacity to innovate and shape into anything they want. It was an honor to host Mr. Kong and gain valuable insights from both himself as well as Mr. Tisch; being two industry icons and having such accomplished careers, they are truly aspirational and embody what should be aimed for when working in the hospitality industry.