Beyond the glass ceiling: GM Interview Nayla Chowdhury

Nayla Chowdhury, general manager at Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport, sits down with Hotelier Middle East to talk about the soon-to-open property and the power of mentorship for aspiring female leaders in hospitality


The world’s largest Hampton by Hilton is set to make its debut in Dubai near the Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority (DAFZA) this August. The mid-market hotel, besides being the first of its brand in the UAE, has yet another feather in its cap — Nayla Chowdhury. Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport’s general manager is the first female to hold that position within Hilton’s portfolio in the GCC.

While the title of the first female general manager for Hilton in the region is something Chowdhury is definitely proud about, the hospitality long timer and Hilton veteran isn’t new to the ‘GM’ game.

With more than 20 years of hospitality experience under her belt, the petite and personable hotelier first held the post of general manager at Embassy Suites located in Tysons Corner in Virginia, USA back in 2003 before moving over to hold the same position at Hilton Mclean Tysons Corner in the same area in 2007 five years later. After that stint, Chowdhury moved to Washington D.C. to head the Embassy Suites in the metro area in 2010.

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Later on, when an opportunity cropped up for her husband to move to the UAE, Chowdhury, along with her three sons, decided to make the move to Ras Al Khaimah.

Soon after the move, given her background in operations, Chowdhury decided to take a detour to work in human resources and was part of the opening team for DoubleTree by Hilton Resort & Spa Marjan Island.

But when the general manager position at Hampton by Hilton opened up, Chowdhury decided to reroute her career back to an operations position and make the move to Dubai.

With 420 rooms and suites, the hotel is part of Hilton’s efforts to boost its mid-market footprint in the Middle East. The upscale mid-market hotel brand also offers guests a trademarked ‘100% Hampton Guarantee’ to its customers and this, Chowdhury says, is at the heart of hotel’s vision.

“I think the key to the team here would be creating the culture because Hampton as a brand has a unique culture. It’s very authentic, friendly, that’s kind of our vision for the hotel. So the result I would like to say for the hotel is, as a brand that from the moment a guest walks in, there’s warmth and that hospitality and that authentic, genuine feel of customer service,” Chowdhury notes.

In terms of adapting to being a general manager at Hampton during the pre-opening phase, Chowdhury is quick to credit her short stint in human resources for the huge learning curve it imparted.

“It was a little bit of a transition. But now, I realise that was the best thing I had to go through because it really made me a lot more resilient and got me to a point where I am more adept with dealing with different nationalities, how the management team will work even in my role as a GM, how will I manage the team, it’s different at the end of the day. You have to reach your goal, and how you make that work with the team is different. So it’s been interesting to take a ride in the HR world and then get back into operations once again,” Chowdhury relays.

This approach is something she claims she carried with her while putting together the pre-opening and post-launch team for the hotel she now heads up. “I feel that when I built this team, I mostly built it on their attitude. Based on the fact that whether they fit into that [hotel] culture. Whether they will be able to have the vision that I have and I think right now. My style right now is very collaborative and I totally understand that every head of department will all have their own strong points that they will bring to the table. And as a result, as a team we all work with the strengths that we all have,” she adds.

But for Chowdhury, who holds an MBA from SBS Swiss Business School, climbing the hospitality career ladder was never really in the books. However, a nudge from her hotelier husband, she says, made her switch tracks completely.

“Actually, hospitality is not what I studied, I was going to be an accountant. However, my husband was in the hospitality industry, and I thought I’ll be working there for a little bit till I graduate. But at the end of the day, I got some great mentors — it was the GM in the hotel where I worked in sales as a sales manager — that’s where I first started,” reveals Chowdhury, referring her to her first job at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Washington D.C. –  Crystal City.

Chowdhury affectionately credits Blaine Wilkinson, the hotel’s former general manager, for mentoring her and pushing her to reach beyond her comfort zone and opt for a career in managing hotels. “I moved up to revenue management with sales and then when he heard I was going to be an accountant, he said that’s not where I see you in the future. ‘You’re such a people person’ — he said hotels are where I need to be instead of ‘something as boring as an accountant’,” laughs Chowdhury.

“I think it was very inspirational. At the point that he thought that I could be a GM was not where I was in my mind-set. But what I learned from that mentorship is that you need to push your limits sometimes. You don’t know something until you try to find out whether you can be successful at that,” asserts Chowdhury.

As far as being a female GM in the GCC region, Chowdhury admits that the hospitality industry here is inextricably male-dominated and the dearth of female leaders is noticeable — but she asserts that things are changing everywhere and Hilton is doing its part to pave the way.

“A lot of times women have these barriers because there is sometimes a confidence gap. I think women in leadership positions, such as a GM, also face a lot of subconscious bias. I think this has traditionally been very male-dominated role in the industry. However, I am pleased to see the progress now,” she says adding, “We are trying to recruit and retain women from the get go and see what they need — it would be more supportive for them. This is flexibility sometimes in their roles.” 

The support, Chowdhury notes, also resonates through Hilton’s leave policies. Hilton provides all its female employees, hourly and salaried, who give birth a full 10-week paid maternity leave. For fathers and adoptive parents, the hotel company provides two weeks of paid leave.

The style of mentoring that Wilkinson bequeathed to her is also something Chowdhury is implementing in her current role as a way of paying it forward. 

Currently, Chowdhury tells Hotelier Middle East that she is mentoring two women at Hilton who are mid-managers looking to move up to leadership roles.

“I keep telling them ‘you know you need to be bold, you need to takes some risk in your life and put yourself outside of the comfort zone’. Challenge yourself and do it in your own way. You don’t need to be someone else but do it in a way you can do but don’t limit your goal or the highest ‘I will go’ because you never know,” she explains.

The hands-on collaborative mentorship, of course, she says extends to the rest of her team as well as they prepare to represent the first Hampton by Hilton property in the region.

She adds that the property will be an “an exciting entry” to the pool of Hilton properties in the region. “The fact that we are the largest Hampton and the first one in the UAE... I’m really excited and with the unique proposition of our value, we not only offer a premium product in the area, we are also offering complimentary breakfast to all our guests which is part of the Hampton brand,” she explains.

Guests can also choose from the à la carte options for lunch and dinner from the all-day dining restaurant on-site.The hotel also includes a temperature-controlled infinity edge pool and a fully equipped gym and also offers guests complimentary shuttles to DXB terminal 1, DAFZA, the historic districts of Old Dubai and Mamzar Beach.

The soon-to-open property will also be implementing the digital key technology, only the second Hilton property in Dubai after DoubleTree by Hilton Dubai Business Bay to do so. As part of its commitment to the environment, guest room spa amenities will be replaced with individual wall-mounted pumps to reduce plastic waste, Chowdhury says.

“I feel that, being a general manager here, especially in Dubai, will be a bit different from other places in the world. I’ll be extremely involved in every aspect of the operations, starting from the guest experience, all the way to the back of house. It is a mid-market property so the key is to have that level of connection with the guest through every aspect. That would be my leadership approach, I would say,” Chowdhury concludes.

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