Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Episode: Joanne Kolata
“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.
These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that The Shackman Group is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.
In today’s episode; New York Hospitality Professional Karen Shackman, President and CEO of The Shackman Group talks to Joanne Kolata, Principal of the Bright Box Bakery.
Karen: Joanne, it is my pleasure to have this conversation with you today. For our readers, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?
Joanne: My name is Joanne Kolata. I’ve been in the hospitality business most of my life. In fact, I held my first job serving people delivering an afternoon newspaper in the 3rd grade. In my teenage years I cut fabric in a Craft store and dialed for dollars in a smoke-filled telemarketing room before finding my way into the restaurant business. I attended Virginia Tech and studied Hospitality Management and upon graduating started my hotel career. Over that last 25+ I have worked for a number of hotel companies such as Hilton (17 years), IHG, MHG, & Omni. Most recently I am excited to have launched into entrepreneurship.
Karen: We have known each other for many of the years you were working as a hotelier, and I did not realize how much the hospitality industry was ingrained in you from such an early age. I believe we first started working together when you were with the Waldorf Astoria a long time ago. How things have changed since that time. How and where have you spent the last six months?
Joanne: I’ve spent the last 6 months pursuing a new business venture, reconnecting with the meeting community through my work with HelmsBriscoe and managing my family in a fully remote world.
Karen: I know you are wearing a few new hats now – recently joining HelmsBriscoe as Director, Global Accounts and now at the helm of your new baking venture. What prompted you to start Bright Box Bakery and what is the philosophy behind the company?
Joanne: It has been a long-time dream of mine to open my own business. I’ve looked into in the past but never given it my full attention. The circumstances around Covid19 enabled me the time and as I was coming to terms that an online bakery was where I was leaning, I began to show signs of gluten intolerance. I quickly came to terms that my baking needed to pivot, just like my career and suddenly there was light. The ability to look on the bright side of things really formed our philosophy. Providing a gluten free (GF) product that wasn’t limited to just those who had to eat GF, something all could enjoy together like treats are meant to be enjoyed.
Karen: How are you managing your time with both?
Joanne: It’s been interesting as much of my time for the bakery is spent in the physical world of manufacturing and shipping while ultimately my livelihood depends on my ability to garner sales. Organization is key. I tend to split the week in half with the bakery production on the front end and my sales efforts mid to end of week. I am becoming more comfortable with wearing both hats and combining them when appropriate. When I worked at the DoubleTree Guest Suites in Boston, I quickly learned it was often the cookie that got me in to appointments so I’m doing a little bit of that… if I can’t help you with one aspect of meetings, perhaps I can assist with another. It’s all about customer service and making connections at the moment as I build both businesses and get to know who needs my services for what.
Karen: Customer service is truly the defining element of so much in the service industry and you have found a great way to merge both sides of business to counter the reality we now find ourselves in. With your many years of experience in the hospitality industry, where do you see our industry in five years?
Joanne: In five years, I have faith that we will see much of the virtual business meetings and conferences happening now return to in person. I am sure hybrid will be an ongoing option but if anything, I think this time has proven to us all how important human interaction is. Perhaps even more so as more people continue to work remote and become anxious to meet and travel outside of the house. Human interaction is vital to live a healthy balanced life inside and outside of work. I do foresee that the technology we have become so emersed with will continue to evolve and perhaps one on one meetings in a zoom environment will be maintained but I think group business will be back to meeting in person.
Karen: We share a similar outlook for the long run – however, I am truly hoping that we will get back to in-person events and meetings sooner than in 5 years. Fingers crossed! As a step back to when things were more “normal”, is there a fun story you would like to share from your time in the hotel industry?
Joanne: Hmm, there are surely so many. It’s funny what pops into your mind after so many years. I think one of the most “stressful” experiences I’ve had to deal with is when I was a catering sales manager and handling a wedding… Historically I’ve tended to prefer the corporate based events but on this particular day I was managing a wedding I’d booked. The wedding cake was delivered to the ballroom and placed along a wall that the vendor thought safe. Unfortunately, a stack of chairs was in the vicinity and as a houseman came by to move them, they were knocked over and went tumbling into the cake. At first glance it looked destroyed. The hotel’s Executive Chef, by some miracle, was manager on duty that weekend. He came to the rescue, whisking away the cake to the pasty kitchen to perform culinary surgery. He went to work on repairs, replacing parts of the cake and sewing it all together with a near flawless basket weave to match the original frosted pattern. The cake emerged just in time for the reception to begin and with a little creative placement of cake table, not a guest at the event would have known the cakes path prior the celebration and although we had rightfully informed the bride when it happened, we all secretly wondered if she would have ever known.
Karen: Stressful indeed. But truly telling how resourceful and creative people in our industry are when faced with a crisis. Of course, the Executive Chef was at the right place at the right time. So, now that you are in the baking world, how has Bright Box been received by your clients, and how are you marketing to prospective clients?
Joanne: It has been received well. Much of it is getting the word out… becoming “sticky” as they say. Much has to do with our “look.” In this digital world it’s got to look appealing to be purchased. The branding is very much my sister’s accomplishment, as my partner, she has really been a big player in launching the vision. We are marketing direct on the web by highlighting our website (www.brightboxbakery.com) through social networks such as Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn while I work to connect with my B2B network through organizations I’ve been involved in and reach out’s via phone and email to primarily in the hospitality industry but also to other industry professionals. While there are a great deal of bakeries and gifting companies out there, our advantage is we know the needs of meeting planners and hoteliers. Whether to fulfill an operational need (contactless delivery) or sales need (appreciation or thank you gift), at Bright Box Bakery we understand and can take you from start to finish in accomplishing your goal.
Karen: It is great that you work well with your sister, and that you are able to keep this new venture in the family! What three important essentials have aided you over the past few months?
Joanne: As clichéd as it may seem, my husband has been an amazing force in supporting this venture so family support is the first and foremost on this list. Close friends I think is #2. While we haven’t been able to see and be close to most people lately, my longest and dearest friends are in different states so in a lot of ways the Zoom life we live has actually reconnected us more so than the brief “girls’ trips” of the past. We had a lot of 50-year birthday calls this in 2020. The 3rd, personal reflection. This last one is always a work in progress but really digging into what is it that I need and what is best for me after so many years of working for someone else.
Karen: Personal reflection – seems to be something so many people now have the time to engage in – if they want to. I imagine you are spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen these days – which is enviable. How do you keep yourself fit and mentally healthy with everything that is going on in your life?
Joanne: Well, I’d like to say I’m consistent with my personal fitness but that has always been a battle for me. Going gluten free has really helped me however to drop a few pounds and motivate me to be more consistent on the elliptical in my house. Now that it’s winter we ski a good amount so there is nothing like getting outdoors and enjoying the fresh air.
Karen: With your HB hat on, what trends are you seeing in the industry at present?
Joanne: Still very much virtual in the NE with limited meetings happening in the SE and other parts of the country. Most of the conversations I’ve had with those in the corporate world are seeing virtual/ remote environment until Q3/Q4. Hybrid is happening more and more. As well, technology in these virtual environments is now evolving and while more awkward than face to face, it’s fun to create an avatar and test your keyboard skills on maneuvering in the space. I do see the virtual avatar style meetings staying fairly strong at least through June.
Karen: We are well on the way to June, it seems – and hopefully with the vaccine roll-out, some of the smaller in-person meetings will resume sooner rather than later. Any specific plans to travel once restrictions are fully lifted?
Joanne: For my 50th birthday we’d planned a sailing trip to Grenada which we had to cxl. There is potential to reschedule that but I think our heart is actually in driving West to the amazing State and National Parks of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado which are on top of the list. Maybe abroad after that.
Karen:That seems to be so much on trend these days - either staying local, or at least national for the time being, until the world opens up once again. How do you think New York, and the industry, can regain trust with travelers so that they feel safe enough to travel and to visit our great city again?
Joanne: Being very transparent and on top of the safety game for the immediate future. The vaccines will naturally bring some of this back but in general NY needs to continue to embrace the vast cultural and arts scene that is matched in intensity by only few cities in the world. I see hoteliers from hotels that aren’t yet open promoting NY, area attractions and fun facts on their social media and this is great to keep presence of mind. It will be interesting to watch the race for NYC Mayor and what direction that leans; perhaps the outcome can help repair travelers embrace for the city.
Karen: Ah, the race for Mayor – that is certainly going to be something to watch closely!!! All of us in the hospitality industry in the city are very much behind #AllInNYC to continue to promote the city so anything that the hoteliers and others are doing can only assist – particularly with the impressive marketing initiatives from NYC & Co..
What are two of your strengths and why are they important for what you are currently doing?
Joanne: I would say two strengths that seem to re-occur in my life are being an achiever and positivity. Ultimately, I am a “doer” and while daily achievements may not need to be huge or amazing, I do measure my days through accomplishment and this helps when you are starting a business as you’ve got to have goals that you are working towards and you have to measure achievement to be able to get to what you’ve set as your end game for a day or a particular project. In terms of positivity – it is what Bright Box Bakery was formed around. It’s that old “you can’t let the turkey’s get you down” theory. If you’re having a tough day, a sweet treat may be just the thing that brings a smile. If you’re gluten intolerant you don’t have to be singled out at a party. If you want to be your own boss, baking starts you on your way. Maybe it is just keeping it simple but I find it much easier to be positive, being able to look on the bright side rather than dwell on the negative. I think I am realistic enough to recognize when things aren’t so bright but being able to remain positive allows you to progress and move forward, live more peaceful.
Karen: Sounds like you have a great balance in your life these days – both from a professional and personal perspective, and that is admirable. What permanent changes do foresee in the hospitality industry post-Covid, and how should our industry respond to those?
Joanne: The ability to stay fluid, to adapt to current public health and safety needs is proving to be a must. More contactless contact but that may increase costs for the operation in several ways. The successful teams in the industry will find their way by staying present in service (whether virtual or live) and finding ways to provide personal touch points throughout the customer’s experience.
Karen: Any final thoughts or take-aways you wish to share?
Joanne: Just one -The other day I recalled a popular poem many of us know and was one of my favorites growing up…Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken”… perhaps I’ve been standing where two road diverged for some time, or is it only recently I’ve arrived at such cross roads? I’m not really sure but do know, in taking the road less traveled, it is making all the difference.
Karen: It has been great reconnecting with you, Joanne. Thanks for sharing your perspectives with us and I wish you all the very best with Bright Box Bakery. Your treats are absolutely delicious, and I highly recommend them to gluten-free and non-gluten free.