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Workers picketed in front of the Hotel del Coronado in December 2003 when Christine Saito first arrived as HR director of the 115-year-old resort where the classic 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot” was filmed. Members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 30 were protesting the previous management’s notification that it had sold the hotel and that all union employees would be terminated and the contract nullified.
Saito, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, weathered that experience and many others during her 27-year career. She has opened new hotels; served as an HR pro-on-loan to a state senator; and handled workplace investigations, grievances, mediations, arbitration and layoffs.
As HR director at “The Del,” as it is known to San Diego locals, Saito oversees human resource operations for 1,031 employees. Her top goal: maintaining the hotel’s reputation for legendary service by engaging the right talent to create customers for life.
Mentors and a willingness to take risks have been cornerstones of Saito’s career. She left one valued employer for another, for example, because the second was considered the expert in the hospitality industry and offered outstanding employee training.
Your first job was in accounting in Hawaii, where you were born. Why did you start out in accounting?
Accounting was a great way for me to understand business. I was looking at understanding where I wanted to be as a woman. There was a lot going on related to the status of women, especially on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. It was predominantly males running businesses. To get ahead or be a partner in any business, I really needed to know my numbers.
Why did you enter the hospitality industry?
Tourism was No. 2 after the sugar industry in Hawaii. I thought I should get into the hotel industry because the sugar cane industry was not going to last forever. The way I got in was through one of my first mentors, then the comptroller at the Kiahuna Plantation Resorts. He said, “You’re going into the hospitality industry. You really need to know food and beverage.” I got exposed to the food and beverage side of a hotel restaurant through accounting-related responsibilities such as menu costing.
After about a year as payroll coordinator at Stouffer Waiohai Resorts, the HR director asked you to apply against 11 other candidates for the hourly job of employment coordinator. You got the job. Was it scary transitioning to HR?
It was very, very scary. Unlike accounting, you have to make a decision right then and there for some employees. As a field accountant auditing books, I had a little exposure with employees. And if the HR director is asking me to apply, she’s not interested in the other applicants. She said, “I’ve seen what you can do. I know you’re good with computers.” The new job involved helping the four-person HR department transition from a manual to a computer system and serving as a recruiter.
Why did you pursue HR as a vehicle into hospitality?
HR opened doors to schools where I could promote tourism or work with teachers or instructors as they develop curricula that prepares students for—or at least gets them thinking about—a future in tourism. HR was the obvious vehicle to deliver the true form of hospitality, or the “Aloha Spirit,” to our guests through our employees and to the community through personal involvement.
You describe Juan Aquinde—then at Stouffer—as the first general manager you admired, noting his gift for remembering the name and a salient fact about each new hire and using that information when meeting them. What’s your gift?
Mentoring. My mentor at the Westin started telling me how to be a good mentor to people who reported to me. I wasn’t sure how to do it at that point because we were so busy, but then I realized I had to mentor them and used performance reviews to set goals. We would plan courses they could take at the community college or workshops. You always make sure you’ve got someone waiting in the wings before you move on.
You worked with state Sen. Malama Solomon for five months in 1995 as an employee on loan. What did you take away from that experience?
It prompted me to get involved with the Hawaii Civil Service Commission, where I served for five years as chair. I was already involved with Oahu’s Committee on the Status of Women and served as its delegate to Hiroshima in 1994. Our objective was to share our experiences with the women of Hiroshima on how we elevated the status of women in our state.
Kate Morgan, a pretty 24-year-old married to a gambler, died at The Del on Thanksgiving evening 1892 and is its resident ghost. Do you have to deal with employees, such as housekeepers, who don’t want to enter room 3312?
It’s not an issue, but there have been odd incidents, including the time a training coordinator conducted a tour with new employees. While in 3312, the coordinator noticed a body-long indentation on the bedspread. She smoothed it out as she talked, but it promptly returned. She hurriedly finished and ushered the employees out. She brought a colleague to the room to explain the experience, and the indentation had returned and would not be smoothed away. It finally disappeared as if someone lying there decided to get up.
Christine Saito, PHR
Education: 1983, associate degree in accounting, Kauai Community College, Hawaii.
Current Job: 2003-present, HR director, Hotel del Coronado, Coronado, Calif.
Career: 2002-03, HR director, Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii. 1999-2002, HR director, KSL Grand Wailea Resort, Wailea, Maui, Hawaii. 1997-99, HR division director, condos and resorts; 1993-96, employee relations supervisor; 1990-93, employee relations specialist, corporate office, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, Honolulu. 1987-90, employment manager, Westin Kauai, Kalapaki Beach, Kauai, Hawaii. 1983-87, assistant HR director, employment coordinator, payroll manager, Stouffer Waiohai Resorts, Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii. 1982, bookkeeper, Kiahuna Plantation Resorts, Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii. 1980-82, dual position as field accountant and income auditor, Colony Resorts, Poipu Kai Resorts, Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii. 1977-80, bookkeeper, Kiahuna Plantation Resorts. 1974-77, office clerk, Garden Island Motors, Ford Co., Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii.
Personal: Age 56; born in Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii; husband, Dan; one son and one daughter.
Diversions: Hiking, day trips visiting museums and tourist spots, reading.
Connections: www.hoteldel.com, (619) 435-6611.
The interviewer is associate editor for HR News.
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