Amery Burleigh is the first female general manager in any Sofitel venue Australia-wide. Lauren Arena sat down with her to discuss her long, but fulfilling, journey to the top.

Amery burleigh
general manager
sofitel gold coast

Q. What was your first job in the hotel business?

A. I was a jack of all trades working mainly in the food and beverage team. I had a different position six days a week, so lots of variety. They didn’t have a position available when I applied, but created one as I had an excellent experience. It was the quickest and best way to learn all of the F&B positions in the hotel – from hostess in the fine dining room, to relief sommelier and back waiter.

Q. What attracted you to hotels?

A. Hailing from Carmel, California, where there are more restaurants and hotel rooms per capita than anywhere else in the world, I was raised surrounded by the industry. Hotels provided a long-term career path that would allow travel and cultural experiences, two of my passions.

Q. You are the first female general manager in any Sofitel Australia-wide. Tell us about your journey thus far and experience working in the United States.

A. Indeed, and I am currently the only female general manager for the brand in Asia Pacific. In the U.S. it is quite common to have female GMs of luxury properties, so it was never an issue until I arrived in Australia. But Australia is a land of opportunity and women are definitely making up for lost time with more and more talented women taking the driver’s seat in recent years and mentoring the next generation too. Mentoring is very important. My first GM in the States organised for me to spend a day shadowing other five-star female GMs when I first went into hotel management. I have a deep passion and enthusiasm for the hotel business, so my progress has always been linked to doing what I love.

Q. Why do you think there is a lack of women in the top job and how significant was the appointment to you?

A. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand why there are so few women in the top seats. From what I see, it comes down to a deeply set cultural difference. There is a true celebration of the family unit and of community in Australia. Women are the bond and take pride in their role within the family structure. We need to continue to promote the development of and support for those women who choose to pursue a career. If more women had support and more companies looked for innovative and engaging ways to support their high potential women, all would benefit greatly.

I suppose the appointment is significant in that it paves the way for other women to follow. But seeing that it is 2013, it makes it quite clear the Asia Pacific region has not yet embraced the benefits of female leadership, which is disappointing. Someday the region will wake up and realise what it’s been missing.

Q. What has working in the hotel business given you that you don’t think you could have achieved in any other profession?

A. A worldwide family that celebrates culture and diversity like none other.

Q. Having worked through all areas of food and beverage in both the US and here in Australia, what would you say is the key to great event food?

A. It is so simple. When your team work from the heart, you can see and taste the difference. I look for an internal flame of passion in all candidates that I hire, front and back of house. Then I work to keep that flame alive and growing.

Q. Throughout your career you’ve orchestrated several events in various locations. Do you have a favourite? Why?

A. Bill Gates’ private home outside of Seattle, Washington, to celebrate his wife’s birthday with 200 of their closest friends. There were no budget restrictions, just an expectation of the highest quality local ingredients served in the most picturesque location, overlooking the Puget Sound, with exceptional service. It was a magical evening, very relaxed perfection, and I will never forget the sunset.

Q. Funniest/strangest guest request?

A. For my banquet staff to hide in the tops of the palm trees lining the bridal walkway and gently “rain” imported Peruvian rose petals down upon the wedding party. We did it, and charged accordingly.

Q. How has the business changed?

A. As in all industries, owners want to make more money and guests want to pay less which means we are working two to three times harder for that same dollar. It is unfortunate that people don’t truly value the cost of providing excellence in service and environment.

Q. If you had to pick a country for service excellence what would it be and why?

A. It would have to be the US. Hospitality is an honourable profession in the States as it is in Europe, but you have to work hard to earn your money, so there is more focus on knowledge and expertise in service. Asia has potential, but it’s still evolving their service culture.

Q. How do us Aussies fare on the world stage?

A. Aussies are the friendliest people out there, but not always as focused and efficient as we could be. If we could lose the “she’ll be right” attitude and put more effort and time into training, inspiring and rewarding service excellence, we would compete on the world stage.

Q. What advice can you offer to people considering a move into hotel management?

A. It can be the most stimulating and rewarding job if you have passion in your heart for the industry. Do not be afraid to step laterally into a new area within the hotel on your journey to the top. The more you understand about the diverse operations within the building, the more successful you will be in motivating and coaching your reports to achieve successful results.