Biltmore’s Murtagh fosters diversity for greater good

Abby Murtagh says she is laser focused on further developing her team because an elevated and empowered staff is what she believes drives results for owners at the recently renovated Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

The general manager of the Phoenix, Arizona-area icon, who has also always made an abundant amount of time for community initiatives, is passionate about fostering diversity in leadership and is an active contributor to The Castell Project’s Castell @ College program, aimed at supporting female leadership in the hospitality industry.

The general manager of The Arizona Biltmore recently took time to talk to HOTELS about her role and what she needed to do along the way to make an impact in the hotel business. “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough,” she said.

HOTELS: What was the biggest pivot you made as a manager in the past three years?

Abby Murtagh: I have become laser-focused on making team members our number one priority. Placing our core objectives squarely around the team member, followed by our guests and owners. Without a robust, engaged, and developing team we simply can’t achieve our goals of being the best resort possible for our guests or drive returns for ownership.

“My biggest influences are those who look beyond the quarterly strategies and understand that investment in food and beverage, landscaping, amenities, experiences are what defines a luxury resort property.” – Abby Murtagh

H: How are your previous experiences serving you right now? Can you offer an example?

AM: My experience in food and beverage is paying off in spades right now. After a long period of limited or zero dining experiences, guests are back with a vigorous appetite for food and beverage, excellent service, and experiences that have significance. Flimsy concepts that have no meaning are a thing of the past. Even if guests don’t totally get the depth put in to designing a concept, there are a million little decisions that end up coming to life in the dining experience.  This is what guests want now. Exciting and well executed restaurant and bar experiences can generate occupancy and ensure return visits by locals.

H: Who have been the biggest influences in your hotel career?

AM: I have several mentors who think differently and deeply about the hospitality business.    My biggest influences are those who look beyond the quarterly strategies and understand that investment in food and beverage, landscaping, amenities, and experiences are what defines a luxury resort property.

I learned about deep-rooted restaurant concepts and not taking shortcuts from Karim Lakhani, EVP of food and beverage at Northwood Hospitality. Debi Bishop, managing director of Hilton Waikoloa and Hilton Hawaiian Village taught me about leading through culture and making it work on the P&L. John Ceriale, founder and CEO at Prospect Advisors, is teaching me about design and landscaping, and why it is truly a differentiator in luxury resorts. My career has been shaped by creative people and I continue to learn and seek mentors who can broaden my views.

H: What and who is inspiring you now, and where do you look for it?

AM: Emily Goldfischer, the founder and editor-in-chief of Hertelier. Emily started Hertelier as an online platform from nothing, with nothing but an idea about connecting, supporting and nurturing women in hospitality at every stage of their career. What I love about Hertelier is that the interviews and conversations are unfiltered and real, and at the same time the content is top-of-the-line. The weekly Hertelier newsletter is jam-packed with both information and inspiration. I always find something interesting to forward to friends and colleagues.

The newly designed outdoor Spire bar in the center of the resort with nine firepits, cascading fountains and a view of Piestewa Peak.

H: Who taught you your biggest lesson, and what was it?

AM: When I was a young manager, I was next in line for a promotion. My GM didn’t think I had the chops to manage a larger, tougher group so he told me to “go out there and assert yourself.” When I asked for specifics he said, “Go yell at someone!” I did it and needless to say it did not work out well for me. What I learned was twofold:  that you can get bad advice from your leader, and that the best internal power comes when you’re true to yourself. Even if it means pushing back.

H: What are your new personal and professional life hacks?

AM: Personally, I’ve become an unapologetic introvert on my time off. That rejuvenation time is priceless, and I protect my personal time for myself and my family like a fortress.

At the resort, I try to walk the property at least three times per day. The information I absorb from interacting with guests and team members is invaluable. It builds relationships and trust while opening the door for creativity.

H: How and where are you finding happiness and meaning in work today?

AM: Returning from the closure and the pandemic, our team members were hungry for growth and knowledge. We started an Arizona Biltmore executive development program, where senior leaders share knowledge from their areas of the discipline. The first class was on hotel finance and I was shocked to see it was standing-room only. Same with Forbes training, we did not have a seat left in the room.

This gives me great hope for the future of this industry – people are ready to develop and grow, and they want to be in hospitality. We are finding there is great passion from our young and developing team members. This momentum from the team gives me great hope for the future and happiness to be in this amazing business.

H: Industry trends you like, don’t like?

AM: I like the post-pandemic trend correction back to being environmentally conscious as an industry. At the Arizona Biltmore, our team is leading the way. Employees are active and invested in our “green team” and constantly looking at how we can reduce the impact on the environment within our industry. We are adding beehives, reducing our daily trash by a metric ton a day, and saving precious energy in the daytime with voluntary energy pause periods.

It’s time to reverse the trend of reduced services due to COVID.

H: How are guests behaving differently and how are you interpreting guests’ new/evolving needs in a hotel setting?

AM: We are finding that guests want experiences, and they will pay for them – real, interesting, authentic experiences. For example, we recently relaunched our Legendary History Tours at the resort, and we sold out immediately.

In addition, guests want vibrant and robust services. They are willing to pay for them and we are excited to deliver.

H: What aspect of the Biltmore refresh is having the biggest impact?

AM: The reinvention was built on the legendary history of the Arizona Biltmore but done in keeping with the design and beauty to appeal to the modern traveler. During 2020, the resort was closed and reopened in 2021 with the expansive outdoor Spire Bar in the center of the resort with nine fire pits, cascading fountains, and a massive view of Piestewa Peak. This is one of several examples of our focus on outdoor and public space with amenities that speak to today’s travelers.

H: What are you doing right now to further drive demand and rate?

AM: With the relaunch of the Arizona Biltmore, we’ve transformed from historic to iconic and opened up with a vibrancy that appeals to an entirely new market. We have leaned into our history and layered on amenities and experiences that can only be found at the Biltmore. With our beautiful new Tierra Luna Spa, elevated dining, exciting bar experiences and access to bespoke activities, we are attracting new segments and guests that would have chosen other fine resorts in the past. In addition, we have recently added the Citrus Club, an exclusive experience associated with premium rooms or available as an a la carte buy-in option.

Renovated suite at The Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort

H: Hotel pet peeve?

AM: We have a habit in this industry of hiring people who remind us of ourselves. This is not just limited to gender and race. I was told once that I couldn’t get into luxury without luxury experience. I thought that’s like being allowed to go swimming without getting in the water. These days I insist on a spectrum of candidates and make sure we level the interview process for everyone.

H: Favorite minibar indulgence?

AM: Cashews. And dark chocolate anything.

H: Favorite travel item?

AM: Earbuds. Without them, I find air travel a nightmare.

H: Best idea ever stolen?

AM: Room attendants placing a jogging map on top of the guests’ running shoes during daily service.

H: What would you like to have more time for?

AM: I dream of long, leisurely mornings sipping café overlooking the Côte d’Azur.

H: Favorite app?

AM: My camera.