Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
After many years working as a hotel sales director and general manager, Annette Nichols now recruits for those jobs for one of the country’s leading hospitality management companies.
In a recent interview, she said one of the top traits she looks for in a job candidate is adaptability. It was needed to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and remains a necessary quality.
“If they didn’t have that before COVID, they sure gained it during COVID,” she said. “If you don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet, you’d better learn.”
Nichols started late last year as a corporate recruiter for Florida-based McKibbon Hospitality. She works remotely from her home in Rogers, interviewing and recruiting general managers and sales directors for McKibbon hotels throughout the country.
“It’s been a good [job] transition,” Nichols said. “When I’m interviewing these general managers, they realize I’m not just someone asking them questions. I’ve been in the role for 15 years. It’s been good.”
Nichols’ new job followed a 15-year run at the 103-room Hyatt Place on Walnut Street in Rogers, which McKibbon managed from 2011 until mid-2021.
Nichols started working there in 2006 as the property’s sales director when it was called AmeriSuites. She became general manager in 2008, one year after the owners rebranded the property to Hyatt Place, and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal recognized her as a Forty Under 40 honoree in 2010.
Nichols said she resigned from Hyatt Place in May 2021 due to health reasons that preceded COVID. McKibbon execs understood her medical issues and, frankly, her burnout of leading a short-staffed hotel through the pandemic.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life to leave,” she said. “But as time went on, the health issues were getting worse, and I was missing doctor’s appointments. Finally, my husband said, ‘OK, we have to say enough is enough.’”
Nichols gave McKibbon a five-week notice. The company let Nichols know that they would have a job for her when she was ready to come back to work.
“They have been amazing,” she said. “They don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They’ve been arms wide open.”
Like most of the workforce the past two years, Nichols does her job virtually. She said remote work suits her, but she does miss the daily interaction with colleagues at Hyatt Place.
“A lot of them are still there, and they are friends,” she said. “Most of the staff had been with me anywhere from nine to 15 years.”
Nichols said her most proud accomplishment before she resigned was helping to bring back the hotel’s employees. When the pandemic hit, ownership told Nichols she would need to reduce her staff from 33 to four.
When she departed the hotel in May 2021, the hotel was back up to 21 employees.
Nichols said perhaps the most enduring lesson of the pandemic is to be a good listener.
“Listen to your people, let them tell you their fears and then figure out how to get through the next step,” she said. “And, love what you do. What’s that saying about finding a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life? That is absolutely the truth.”
McKibbon named Nichols a “Regional GM of the Year” in 2018, and she’s the current president and chairman of the Arkansas Lodging Association board of directors. It’s one of three components of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, with the Restaurant Association and the Travel Council.
She said the mood in the hospitality sector is picking up.
“We’ve had a lot of resumes come in,” she said. “Most of our hotels in Fayetteville are back to almost 100% staffed. Arkansas has been a bit slower because it’s more corporate travel than other areas and not leisure, and people are still working out of their homes.”
Since the start of the pandemic, McKibbon has assumed management of 27 new properties, bringing the company’s portfolio to 11,097 rooms across 96 properties.
“Business is booming, and I think that’s why we’re getting some great applicants and not scrounging for employees,” she said. “The McKibbon name speaks for itself.”