Career Advice from an AAPI leader in Hospitality
Neil DeGuia redefines what it means to be a Filipino American leader in the hospitality business.
With 21 years working in the hotel industry — and 25 years in hospitality — DeGuia was appointed to the role of Complex General Manager of the upcoming dual-branded Canopy Chicago and Hilton Garden Inn in Chicago.
His ascension as a leader is even given the statistics of Asians in the hospitality industry.
In 2012, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reported that “hotel ownership is consistently cited as the greatest challenge for diversity in the hospitality industry.”
The NAACP Opportunity & Diversity Report Card for the Hotel & Lodging industry in 2019 revealed that just 1% of top management at Wyndham Hotel & Resorts is Asian.
Since then the industry progressed. In 2018, travel industry analyst Skift released its annual report stating that companies are finding that speaking out about diversity is not risky, it’s mandatory.
However, there are still very few AAPI leaders in the hospitality industry. As of 2018, Asians only made up 6.2% of hospitality managers in the United States.
Far from being an outlier, DeGuia’s career path is trailblazing. Cold Tea Collective sat down with DeGuia to chat with him about becoming a Filipino American leader in a field that sees few leaders of Asian descent in North America.
Discovering Hospitality As A Career
His humble beginnings in hospitality date back to scooping ice cream at the age of 15. After high school, he had to face the reality that college wasn’t an option.
Not because of grades but because of family finances.
DeGuia attended community college instead. During that time, he felt inadequate staying behind and watching his friends move away for college.
It was a turning point. He didn’t know what was next, but he knew scooping ice cream wasn’t part of his future.
That’s when he stumbled upon hospitality as a career. The hospitality industry is a broad category of fields nestled within the services industry. It can be broken down into four main sectors: food and beverages; travel and tourism; lodging; and recreation.
“I grew up in an immigrant family who loved to host and entertain people. So the hospitality industry was a natural fit for me,” DeGuia said.
He found a hospitality program at his community college and fell in love with it.
During his time in the program, a classmate introduced him to the hotel industry. DeGuia hasn’t looked back since.
In 2000, DeGuia started working at Wyndham Garden Schaumburg for three years. He then joined Aimbridge Hospitality in 2003 and has been with the group ever since.
“I learned from a very young age from my grandmother that if you work hard, good things can happen,” DeGuia said.
GROWING INTO TITLES
DeGuia’s journey had ups and downs. His biggest challenge early in his career was his constant need to chase prestigious job titles.
“I was always trying to work for the next thing too fast,” he said.
DeGuia felt like he needed to become a general manager at 20 years old.
However, as he gained experience, he realized that it wasn’t about the title. It’s about what you do with the title and the role you’re given.
Those values are things that DeGuia passed onto his hospitality mentees.
He recalled a conversation with an intern he mentored. She expressed to DeGuia that she really wanted to take on a role not for the responsibility but for the sake of earning the title.
DeGuia shared his experience with her, telling her the lesson he learned in title chasing.
The most important piece of advice he gives the younger generation is to slow down, be patient, and look for opportunities so that good things will happen.
THE NEXT GENERATION
For aspiring hospitality leaders, DeGuia encourages them to maximize their ability and knowledge in current roles before moving on to the next one.
“You got to make sure that what you do, you feel like you can’t do any more in this position,” he advises young professionals who feel the need to always be chasing the next title.
As a sports fan, he lives by the philosophy of working as a team.
“It’s not me, it’s we,” he said.
It’s a mentality instilled into him at a young age by his family.
Reflecting on his family’s stories and experiences — such as making difficult decisions like his aunt and grandmother leaving family behind in the Philippines to emigrate to the U.S. — inspires DeGuia to pay it forward.
His biggest inspiration is his late grandmother, Josefina Reyes — the hardest working person he’s ever known.
“She just taught me how to live life, to be a good person, to be a genuine person, to care for others,” he said.
HOSPITALITY’S NEXT GENERATION OF AAPI LEADERS
How did DeGuia blaze the trail that others in the AAPI community don’t often consider?
He always learned as much as he could, asking a lot of questions along the way, and pushing himself to do everything possible in every position. Plus, he made sure to surround himself with a strong support system.
The self-realization allowed him to be present and stay at the forefront of his work.
“My best advice is to find a leader or property who values their employees. A leader who will work hard and ensure they have the right tools and training to be successful in their job,” he said.
DeGuia notes the business world evolved to pave a way for AAPI leaders.
Although AAPI professionals appear well-represented — as highly employed and high earners — in corporate America, there’s a long-held bias toward the AAPI community.
Oftentimes, they face a “bamboo ceiling” — the barriers some AAPI professionals face when trying to reach leadership positions in the workplace. AAPI professionals make up only 2 percent of C-level roles, 4.6 percent of executive roles, and 5.9 percent of managerial roles.
However, it’s inspiring to see more and more leaders such as DeGuia stepping into the leadership space.
“Things are changing, and they’re changing in a good way,” DeGuia said.
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