On the Record: Carlson Hotels Exec Revels in Responsible Business

Passion. It's the driver behind leaders, and it's what anyone charged with a Herculean task must have to make big changes.

Fortunately for Carlson Hotels Worldwide, North America, that emotion is also what fuels Carmen Baker, who was promoted to the newly created position of vice president of responsible business earlier this year.

Baker, who rose to the post after becoming vice president of diversity at Carlson back in 2004, charted her own path at the company. She came on board in 2001 as general manager of reservations in Omaha, Mexico, and Sydney, Australia, and when she could, took free time to focus on responsible business practices. That extra effort allowed her to carve out a niche.

Today, her expanded role is presenting new challenges. But like everything else, as she made clear to Successful Meetings, she is tackling them with gusto.

Successful Meetings: Your job includes oversight of Carlson's business ethics, culture, community, and the environment. What are you working on in those areas?

Carmen Baker:
In ethics, we already have the Carlson credo, and our Code of Ethics. Every employee, from front line personnel to the CEO, has to take a test on that.

In culture, we have had a policy of inclusion since 2004, when I started handling diversity, along with a focus on work/life balance and wellness.

In terms of community relations, we do a lot of charitable giving at the corporate level and at our hotels.

The environmental piece is new for me, and we're creating programs that we can build on. We're finding ways to reduce and recycle solid waste; we're conserving energy and water, reducing the use of harmful chemicals, improving indoor air quality and the health and safety of both employees and guests.

SM: Wow, you have to be an expert in many things. How are you accomplishing that?

Baker:
You have to get very close to the community, and to the people that are already doing the work or those who you can learn from, whether they're consultants, educators, or others in the business or the community.

Also, when I first started, I read everything I could get my hands on. But there's so much information out there about caring for the environment, I've had to come to a level of understanding about what's impactful versus what the noise is.

In creating our strategy, we decided to keep it simple. The environmental issues we're focused on are the concerns of our clients, and they reflect the direction in which legislation is headed.

SM: How did you move from reservations into the field of diversity—which seem to have such different focuses—and then into the job you now hold?

Baker:
The management team in Omaha was working really well so, frankly, I had time on my hands and I saw an opportunity. I had a lot of international experience, and having grown up in the military, I'd seen a lot of diversity. Plus, my parents come from two different Caribbean islands, so diversity and inclusion were part of my upbringing.

Our diversity effort started as a grass roots campaign with six other people, and I led it. First, we sought opportunities to learn from programs outside of the company, and then we started to develop internal programs.

SM: Have you always been a leader, rather than a follower?

Baker:
That is what I do; I'm a builder. It started with a need, and diversity and inclusion is something I'm passionate about because I believe that different work, life experiences, and perspectives lead to better solutions.

Also, I believe that when you have a culture of inclusion, where people feel like they can be themselves, you create better solutions because individuals offer more of themselves.

SM: How do you think your efforts impact meeting and incentive planners' experience when working with the hotel and meeting attendee customers?

Baker:
Group clients already have a role in our policy: The measures we're taking reflect the things they're asking for in their RFPs. And the response has been really positive.

Our hotel guests see us being inclusive. For example, we make language services available and have more choices on our menus. I hear a positive response from them.

SM: What's the future of the hotel industry when it comes to conducting responsible business?

Baker:
Most companies are focused on one or two areas, not all four that we're working on. My hope is that more companies will broaden their definition of responsible business.

Meanwhile, I do think we'll see more environmental efforts because there are more products and services available to us, as well as more tools to measure the effectiveness of our efforts.

SM: What would you say to someone on the meeting buyers' side interested in working on his or her organization's responsible business practices?

Baker:
Start reading, and get ready, because clients are going to ask more questions about this. Your organization is going to go there. The more we can do to educate ourselves, and create our own criteria as to what responsible business means, the better, because it's coming.

Originally published July 1, 2008

For more ideas, tips, and tools for better meetings and events, get Successful Meetings' weekly e-newsletter delivered to your inbox.