Michael Mathis’ introduction to the world of hospitality and tourism was not by accident – it’s been ingrained since his childhood. Having a father in the military and a Taiwanese mother who owned a Chinese restaurant, Michael’s early exposure to different cultures and locations ignited his passion for traveling and working internationally. Through his tenure in the gaming and resort industry, he’s been able to do just that.
During his 20-year career, Mathis has served in multiple capacities, including development, legal, and operational roles with the industry’s leading domestic and international operators. As the current managing director of Graduate Hotels, he oversees the company’s Northeast portfolio of boutique hotels.
Mathis earned his BA in economics and Asian studies from Dartmouth College and his Juris Doctorate from Georgetown University Law Center.
Below, Professor Mathis discusses his early connection to the HT industry, his experience in the gaming and resort industry, and his excitement for educating MSHT students.
How did you find yourself working in Hospitality and Tourism?
I was born in the states but spent a large part of my youth in Asia and Western Europe, so I did a lot of traveling as a child. I would call myself a “citizen of the world.” My father was a career military officer and met my mother, a Taiwanese national, while serving in Asia. When we returned to the states from our time abroad, my mother opened, owned, and operated a Chinese restaurant. I worked in the restaurant with her throughout middle school and high school, so I had early exposure to the food and beverage side of the industry and really enjoyed everything that went into operating a successful customer service business and the close relationships with customers and employees.
How do you describe your area of expertise in HT?
Working closely with stakeholders, I identify marketing strategies, across all communication channels, mindful of outcome and ROI. If we’re promoting an international destination, we utilize government entities that focus on increasing visitation, while considering local communities and overtourism. It’s a challenge, with numerous moving parts, but a successful outcome justifies the hard work, particularly the long-term meaningful impact on local populations.
At the end of the day, hospitality and tourism is a people’s industry and we are in the industry to bring change. In the hospitality and tourism industry, the stakeholders are concerned with the social, economic, and environmental impact; it’s people, profit, planet.
How would you describe your experience?
My passion and experience are in the development of multi-use brick and mortar resort development, from the lobbying and entitlement stage to the real estate acquisition stage, and eventually the design, construction, and staffing stage. I enjoy the economic development that comes to a community from large capital investments as well as the job and career opportunities from a large hospitality and entertainment facility. I also enjoy developing young hospitality leaders and sharing my experience in the industry to support them in their development and career goals.
What inspired you to obtain a JD and how has it played a role in your career?
I obtained a JD not knowing exactly how I would use it in my career but knowing that I wanted to have the training that a law school provides in terms of problem-solving, negotiation skills, and public speaking. After receiving my law degree, I practiced commercial law in New York and New Jersey, but soon thereafter, moved to Las Vegas and worked in-house with Las Vegas Sands. It wasn’t long before I discovered my passion for the people and operations side of the business and slowly transitioned from the document and corporate work to more operations and development roles.
I find myself relying on my legal training in the various roles I’ve held in terms of the negotiations or the advocacy that comes with bidding for licenses with local partners or foreign governments. It has been a wonderful tool that I have found to be a unique advantage in many of my various roles.
How did your career evolve in the gaming and resort industry and what were some of the highlights during your time in those roles?
I started my career in corporate law working for Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which was the first American gaming company to obtain a license to operate in mainland China. From that experience, I continued my transition into international development, as the Senior Vice President of Global Gaming Development for MGM Resorts International. In that role, I helped the company pursue new gaming resort licenses in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Canada, and in major markets in the United States, including New York City and Miami.
My greatest achievement was successfully helping MGM Resorts develop the first gaming resort in Massachusetts, the MGM Springfield. I was part of the team that first identified the site, and our local partners, and then won a competitive bid, resulting in one of the largest private economic development projects in that state’s history.
That’s impressive! What’s one of the most important pieces of knowledge you’ve gained from working in the industry?
Ironically, with all of my formal training, I have found that the most successful hospitality companies and leaders are not necessarily the most formally trained, or the most skillful in their respective disciplines, but rather they are the individuals with the highest empathy and a true passion for service. Beyond the glitz of beautiful buildings and exotic locations, the heart of the hospitality and tourism business, is our employees and more importantly our line-level employees. The best leaders, and I have tried to emulate them, spend as much time on the floor as they do at their desks and in board meetings. I think, if a company’s leaders lose connection with their employees, they will lose their connection with their customers, and eventually the business will suffer.
Let’s touch on your current role. What does a normal day look like as the Managing Director of Graduate Hotels?
Each day can be so different, which is what I really enjoy about the role. One day I could be on an interior design call about furniture selections for the new hotel we’re building in Princeton. Later that morning I could be a revenue strategy call for our hotel in New Haven, and that afternoon, I could be on a 1:1 with one of our general managers who needs advice about a struggling manager on their executive team. The industry and business are so dynamic, especially in these challenging times.
By far the best part of my day is working with the young hospitality leaders that report to me and run many of our hotels. They inspire me and keep me connected to the business, and I am grateful to be in a position to share my experiences with them.
What’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in the hospitality and tourism industry?
There are so many aspects of the industry that I enjoy, but I would say it is how people-centric the business is, from a customer perspective, employee perspective, and a cultural perspective. My best days at work are when I have the chance to be at a property when we are onboarding a group of line-level employees who are joining our company and potentially our industry for the first time and knowing that they have the ability to grow to the highest level of the organization. On that same day, I could be meeting customers from all over the world and working with a local visitor’s bureau to win a bid for a citywide convention that will highlight the local downtown and be an economic boom for the region.
What do you enjoy most about educating the next generation of industry leaders?
The people that are attracted to our industry are compassionate, hard-working individuals, that want to make a career serving others. In a course I taught previously on customer service, our class read about one of the leading hospitality companies in our industry. Their employee motto is “Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” I love that ideology as it reminds me of the nobility of serving others.
So, I am really energized by meeting the next generation of industry leaders, and knowing that they are individuals with so many talents that they could deploy in so many other industries, and yet they have chosen to spend a career serving others. They are committed to developing employees of all economic and social backgrounds to collaborate, in order to provide great experiences for others.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.