It’s hard to say what the biggest crisis was: the fire, being held at gunpoint, or the chocolate chip cookies. Hint: It wasn’t the cookies but you’ll find out later why it got shortlisted. In her nearly three decades in the hotel business, 24 of them at the Nassau Inn, Lori Rabon, general manager, has dealt with crises every day, but it is such an integral part of her job, it takes her quite a long time to think of the biggest.
Raised in Little Silver by parents who owned a construction business, Rabon was the oldest of three children. In high school she worked at snack stands at the mall. She didn’t know then where her career would lead, but she knows she learned her biggest business lesson, which she practices to this day, from her boss at California Smoothie.
“He told me, ‘Be consistent with your employees, never treat anyone, including subordinates, like they’re just an employee. Don’t treat anybody differently than you would expect to be treated.’ That was so key,” says Rabon in an interview in the General Mercer Room, one of 14 conference rooms at the hotel.
Today she applies that credo as she manages about 165 fulltime employees. “It’s so important, particularly when you’re working with as many different types of people as I do.” And they run the gamut, ranging in age from 18 to 76, including some who started while still in high school on weekends or in the summers and just stayed. Some employees pre-date her arrival.
In November, 2011, Rabon, 49, won the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Leader of the Year award (you could hear a pin drop in the ballroom at Jasna Polana during her acceptance speech when she mentioned she has five children). But what is infinitely more interesting than her award is the path that led her there. She is a living, breathing, example of someone who started at the very bottom and worked her way up — slowly and strategically — to the top.
The summer after she started at Old Dominion in Norfolk, VA (with a major in business and a minor in human services counseling), Rabon didn’t want to come home so she and her roommate got an apartment and started working in the clubs. That was 1981. In 1983 they moved off campus into a townhouse her roommate’s father bought them, and that summer they started working for the Omni hotel in Norfolk. “I thought it was a cool lifestyle,” says Rabon.
Her first hotel job? Shuttle bus driver. “I literally drove people from the front of the hotel to the parking garage, which was down a ways. Once a night I would go to the airport to pick up the airline crews who would stay with us,” says Rabon. When she learned that nearby Tidewater Community College had a hotel program, she juggled coursework at two schools and shift work at the hotel.
This is where the gun comes in. Rabon got promoted to parking garage booth attendant, where she stayed until Election Day, 1984. On that day a man walked into the garage, when no one else was around, and robbed her at gunpoint. He then walked her across an eight-lane highway, with the gun now hidden at her waist, to a wooded area. “I thought this is it, he’s gonna rape me, he’s gonna kill me. I was 22,” says Rabon.
Once they got across, however, he told her stay where she was and then ran into the woods. Rabon hightailed it back across the highway, back to the hotel, and called the police. The perp turned out to be the brother of a colleague and both were caught. One might expect her to still suffer the after effects of that trauma. But Rabon, with her signature “it’s all good” outlook, shrugs that off, saying only, “It was freaky.” But that was her last day in the parking garage.
She rose through the ranks — all the while still taking only shift work to coordinate with her school schedule — through switchboard operator (where, during a bomb scare, she had to hold down a walkie-talkie with one hand while maintaining a well-modulated voice on a customer call), reservations supervisor, sales, conference services, then front office manager. At that point she was married and had one child.
She arrived in Princeton in 1987. Omni transferred her to the Nassau Inn, then an Omni property, as human resources manager. When Omni lost its contract for the hotel the following year, Rabon was put on the team to orchestrate the hotel’s transition to an independent property.
“While it was an Omni property, we had Omni corporate backing, Omni marketing, an Omni reservation center. When we went independent we had to hire a whole new team, and the employees who were asked to stay had to be rehired under the new company, Nassau Inn Limited Partnership, with all new policies and procedures,” says Rabon.
As the team got all the books together for the final transition, she was offered to stay on as the assistant comptroller. But the Career Fairy had bigger things in mind for Rabon. She made her final jump, from comptroller in December, 1991, to general manager, in May, 1996.
The Nassau Inn, built in 1756, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has 203 rooms and approximately 120,000 guests check in each year. How does Rabon preserve the legacy of the inn — including its iconic lobby with a giant Colonial fireplace and gleaming red leather furniture and the venerable Tap Room with its Normal Rockwell mural and wall of framed photos of famous Princeton graduates — while ensuring the inn meets the needs of 21st century guests? And, as importantly, how does she get her staff to make that happen?
“This is my house. I treat it as if it’s my house, every expense, since we own it, everything. I try to explain to the staff how important the Nassau Inn family is to me. The Nassau Inn family includes all of us, the employees, the ownership, we all work together. I say, ‘This is our house.’ And I really try to impress upon them, ‘You’re welcoming someone into your house, your home. You can’t always predict who those people are but you can control how you respond to them. And we have a great opportunity to turn someone’s day around, or to make someone’s day the best day of their life, like when we do weddings.
“People throw out the words ‘customer service’ and ‘100 percent guest satisfaction.’ You’re never going to get 100 percent guest satisfaction, it doesn’t happen. This is our home, and sometimes the family is dysfunctional, but at the end of the day, as long as we are flexible, considerate, and caring in the way that we handle things, I always say to the staff, ‘I’m never going to Monday morning quarterback you. Because if you used good judgment, and you thought about how it was going to impact the guest, how it was going to impact the hotel, I can’t tell you that you did anything wrong but I may tell you I may have done it in a different way.’ I trust that if you buy into that philosophy, which 99 percent of the employees do — and you weed out the ones who don’t — then it’s all going to be OK. At the end of the day, the guests are going to leave happy, and we’re doing the best job we can for them.”
Her philosophy of the hotel as home is a lot easier, she admits, as an independent property versus a corporate property. “We have so much more flexibility in the things that we can do,” says Rabon. For example, two years ago, a couple wanted to book their wedding at the inn. The groom had a large family coming over from Wales. “They wanted to do an extended wedding with a ceremony, reception, and after party, using different parts of the inn, a total of about eight hours. A typical hotel will only give you four hours. But I’m not tied to any corporate rule. So we got together and said, how can we make this work? How can we serve coffee in between and handle different age groups, make the transitions, and so on. And I have to tell you they had a fantastic time.”
The payoff is big, to say nothing of the word of mouth factor. That couple now celebrates all their big events at the inn, including celebrating the birth of their first child eight months ago. “When he was born, they called us immediately, and we were able to send flowers. They brought him to visit. We’ve all actually become friends. That’s the type of ‘home’ I like to create, where people feel comfortable coming here, whether to stay overnight or have dinner or drinks on the patio or celebrate a big function. They put their trust in us. And I tell the employees that. When someone puts that amount of trust in you, it’s a huge responsibility.”
Other guests don’t come for happy occasions, such as those who are there because they have a loved one at the University Medical Center of Princeton being treated for cancer. Rabon and her staff take care of them with the same finesse and attention as they give brides.
Her management style speaks for itself when you look at the low turnover in the executive suite. Mariela Blanco, director of sales, has been there 18 years; Frank O’Reilly, director of operations, 22 years; Jim Byrnes, food and beverage director, 15 years; and Nick Ballas, director of rooms, seven years. “We complete each other,” Rabon says. When they eat lunch together, they eat off each others’ plates, just like a big family would.
And if she’s part diplomat, she’s also part mom. With Princeton University right across the street, the Nassau Inn is the go-to hotel for university families. “They become your family because they’re spending four years with you, and the parents are coming in, particularly those whose kids are athletes, then they come back for graduation and reunions. I had one family where I actually became another mom to the daughter, because her mom was in California. Anytime anything would happen with the daughter, she would call me, and I would make sure it got taken care of.
“Then you get invited to the family graduation parties, and you get to watch them graduate — it gives me goose bumps. It is the coolest feeling in the world to know the staff and I got to be a part of these families’ lives during a time they will never forget, like a wedding or graduation.” Other families send her Christmas cards and wedding announcements. “You build these lifelong relationships,” she says.
The inn may be right across the street from the university but it is also situated exactly in the middle of Princeton, in the middle of Palmer Square, which makes its relationship to the greater community equally important. Tiny example: The inn’s restaurant is the only restaurant in town, besides Chinese restaurants, open on Christmas day, all day — and always has been.
When asked if she agrees with Bob Hillier’s recent comment, “Princeton isn’t a big town, it’s a small city,” Rabon toes the line right down the middle. Referring to the greater Princeton area and not only downtown, she says: “I think we’re a small city in that we have all the attractors a destination city would have — fantastic restaurants that run the gamut of any type of cuisine you can think of, all the arts, entertainment, first-class shopping, and sports. But at the same time we’re tight-knit; it is a community. It isn’t faceless; you know your neighbor.”
Add community leader to diplomat and mom. Rabon sits on the boards of the Princeton Merchants Association and the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce (of which the inn has been a member for 50 years), and she chairs the Princeton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, a program of the Chamber. “I feel being centrally located downtown, I have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and look at what is helpful to the area.”
She readily admits building the new outdoor patio, with access from Palmer Square West, was an economic decision to invite the community in. “I wanted to make sure that the public at large knew we were here, not just our guests who happen to walk through. We were able to take advantage of the changes in downtown Princeton. There is so much opportunity now on weekends and at night, with people strolling. Princeton has become vibrant season after season, whereas it used to be dead in the summertime.”
She maintains close business relationships with people like Jeff Nathanson, executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton. She says she doesn’t get business from the Arts Council but any time Nathanson needs a hotel room for, say, a visiting artist, she gives him one, gratis. Last fall, when the Princeton University Art Museum launched its first annual Artwalk, in which participating arts organizations offered a variety of events, activities, and refreshments, free of charge, the Nassau Inn sponsored it. “I felt it was our civic duty,” Rabon says.
“I wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for Lori,” says Mimi Omiecinski, founder of Princeton Tour Company. In 2008, when Omiecinski hatched the idea for bike tours of Princeton, she approached Rabon to see if she could store her bikes at the inn. Rabon readily agreed, saying it would be great for the inn and great for Palmer Square, but when liability issues made the arrangement impossible, Rabon continued to encourage Omiecinski.
“She told me, ‘You’ve got to do this, and I will do anything I can to help you.’ She made me courageous.” Omiecinski convinced Charlie Kuhn of Kopp’s Cycles to store the bikes, which he did for two years, until Omecienski changed over to walking tours. “Lori is such a connector. She is selfless,” she says.
Some of the inn’s community activism is behind the scenes. For example, when Rabon met Connie Mercer, executive director of HomeFront, in 1996, she asked her, ‘What can we do to help you with your mission, to help these people, who are a lot of my people — they’re like some of my employees who often were finding themselves in the same situation.” Rabon hosted a tea and invited all the area hotel GMs to meet Mercer. “I told them, ‘If you’re getting rid of furniture or TVs, think about HomeFront, think about the next person who could use that. There is no sense in putting it in a dump if you can help someone.”
For the just-completed stage one of the inn’s newest renovations, 83 rooms were gutted (the other half is being gutted right now). HomeFront got 66 rooms’ worth of furniture. Housing Initiatives of Princeton, a transitional housing program with professional support services for low-income families in the Princeton community facing a housing crisis, got two rooms’ worth.
“The timing was perfect,” says Ruth Thurmond Scott, Housing Initiatives board chair. “We had a new family moving in the next day. Since our families get to take whatever they want when they move out, a family had just moved out and taken the furniture.”
The inn has a large Haitian employee base, so Rabon coordinated with a Haitian church in Trenton to ship 15 rooms’ worth of furniture to Haiti to help those still in need after the 2010 earthquake. Rabon also developed a fundraiser to benefit the American Red Cross Earthquake Relief Fund and coordinated with 17 other restaurants and businesses. They raised over $11,000 at the event.
That would be a good day. Not every day is so pleasant. Here’s where the fire comes in, which really was Rabon’s biggest crisis. In August, 1997, she and her family were on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, on day five of a seven-day vacation. She received a call that there was a fire in the kitchen of the Greenhouse (a former restaurant where Lindt Chocolates now is). That’s the occupational hazard of having a mom who’s a GM for a hotel. They packed up the car and drove the 10 hours home, with Rabon on the phone the whole way.
"This was a full-blown fire. It was in the morning, and guests were in the restaurant,” says Rabon. A passing patrol car saw smoke and called it in, even before the smoke alarms went off. They had to operate all food production through a smaller kitchen, attached to Palmer’s, the inn’s fine dining restaurant (which in 1996 was turned into a banquet room). Since the Tap Room was under renovation, management decided to lease the space rather than repair. Let’s just say Lindt got a good deal.
Technology also helps Rabon do her job. Her iPhone, set on the conference table, blinks 17 times during our interview — she looks but she doesn’t touch it. Her favorite app is SkyGrid “because I can customize my news and get it all in one place,” she says. She also loves her iPad. “I have recently started using it for taking and organizing all my meeting notes so I couldn’t live without the Notes app. It lets me sync the iPhone and iPad, which is terrific.”
She also uses technology to relax. She loves to read novels — on her Kindle, on her phone, on her iPad. Anything by Nicholas Sparks (she’s currently reading “The Best of Me”), Nora Roberts, or Danielle Steel (her favorite was, not surprisingly, “Hotel Vendrome”). When her house quiets down around 10 p.m., she calls that “my time.” Parked in a leather recliner, she’ll watch “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Private Practice” but if they aren’t on and she isn’t doing work she’s brought home, she reads.
She’s in bed by 11 or 11:30. She goes to a trainer at the gym twice a week and walks at 5:30 a.m. three times a week with her neighbor, and in good weather, she also walks on the weekends.
And what about all those kids? She says that when she had four kids it made economic sense to have someone come fulltime to the house every day. She admits, “we ate out a lot.” When she remarried and had her fifth child, the others were all in school, so Lindsey, now 8, went to KinderCare from the time she was six weeks old.
“There’s a lot of coordinating, you have to be really good at scheduling. I work for an ownership group that is so family-oriented. I really try to make it good for my staff, and I recognize what the family pulls are. I make sure they’re at the games and so on. To me that gives you a better employee when you let them have that balance in their lives. Otherwise, it’s too stressful.”
Rabon practices what she preaches: she rescheduled this interview when she found out it was the same morning as Lindsey’s choral concert at school. Later she answered some follow-up questions while she was working from home because Lindsey was sick.
Her other children are Loren, 24, currently earning her paralegal certification at Brookdale Community College and working as a home health aide; Virginia, 21, a student at Monmouth University; and James, 17, and Jack, 15, both at Freehold Township High School. Once the older ones were able to drive, they took over car duty for the younger ones’ activities. “I’ve got great kids,” says Rabon. “And I have a great support system of friends and colleagues.”
Rabon met her second husband, Daniel Eskes, at work, sort of. In 1999 she and her human resources manager flew to Disney’s corporate training center for a five-day course in executive management. In a scene straight out of a Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston rom-com, she says, “We arrived on Saturday, and I met him on Saturday night at a bar.” Script notes: He is from Haarlem, Holland, and was a trainer with NFL Europe (now disbanded). He was at Disney with a team from Amsterdam for spring training.
What Rabon thought “was just gonna be a quick little romance” ended up with the two visiting each other every eight weeks and in May, 2000, a Maui beach wedding with just the two of them and an officiant (“all from the Internet,” says Rabon). They were, of course, already at their honeymoon destination, and Rabon actually got to enjoy being a hotel guest — at the Four Seasons. Eskes, who finished his physical therapy degree (his third: the other two are in economics and physical education) the day before leaving for America permanently, now works as a physical therapist.
Rabon is terminally humble. She was truly shocked to learn she had won Business Leader of the Year. “I thought, people are nuts, why would they give that to me? It’s a huge honor to have that recognition. But it’s not about me. It’s about my team.”
I ask, “Do you think of yourself as a leader?” Without a moment’s hesitation, she says, “I do. Absolutely. I do lead. But they’re not all my ideas. I tell my staff all the time, ‘Look at something we’ve done the same way for the last 15 years, how can we change it up?’”
But some things, it turns out, shouldn’t be changed. Here’s where the cookies come in. Rabon admits it was the stupidest decision she has made as GM. “I became a germaphobe for a few minutes last fall. We have had cookies — the inn’s own chocolate chip recipe — on a cart in the lobby from 4 to 7 p.m. for the last 10 years. So I decide there are too many germs and too much flu going around. Everybody’s all about the Purell all over their hands. I’ve got hand sanitizers all over me — I hook them to my purses, my belt loops, they were in everybody’s stockings this year. We’ve got people who are either coming in off the street just to have a cup of coffee and a cookie or they’re guests — but everyone’s putting their hands in, and they’re not using the tongs.” Rabon killed the cookies.
“The backlash I got from taking those cookies out of the lobby — from guests and visitors who asked, ‘Where are the cookies? How could you not have the cookies out?’ Comment cards filled out, ‘Where are the cookies?’ One guest, a visiting professor at the university, wrote me a personal note: ‘How could you take the cookies away? I need my cookies.’ And I just thought, wow, what an idiot I am. So the cookies are back! God help me if anyone gets sick because they put their fingers all over them.”
The conversation has come full circle. What Rabon is describing is a home, no different from if a mother gave her kids cookies all along and then one day suddenly took them away. “These aren’t just guests,” says Rabon, “they’re people, just like anybody else. I got personal notes when I put those cookies back, saying things like, ‘Thank you for putting the cookies back.’ ‘You have no idea. We look forward to this.’”
Rabon admits being the Nassau Inn’s GM does have its perks, several of which she listed in her award acceptance speech. She has met — on separate occasions — President Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton (with whom she had a good chat about being working moms — Clinton said, “It’s key to have a good support system of friends”). She shook hands with General David Patraeus, who palmed her a badge-shaped medal that says “For Excellence” and is embossed with his signature. She helped Bill Cowhers draft a successful game plan for Super Bowl XL (his daughter, Meagan, is a member of the Class of 2008). She admonished actor Russell Crowe for his rude behavior while filming ‘A Beautiful Mind’ on campus in 1998. And she juggled separate suites for director Oliver Stone and his ex-wife when their son, actor/director Sean Stone, graduated from Princeton in 2006.
“If I wasn’t here I don’t know what I’d be doing,” says Rabon. “I literally fell into my passion.”
Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square East, Princeton 08542; 609-921-7500. Lori Rabon, general manager. www.nassauinn.com.