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Alvaro Diago, who recently retired as Chief Operating Officer at InterContinental Hotels, earns praise from partners and colleagues. (Photo: IHG)
Herman Bern, Empresas Bern; Fernando Poma, Real Hotels and Resorts and Michael Hoe Knudsen and Michael Herrmann from IHG.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
People

Alvaro Diago: Latin America Hotelier Icon

Alvaro Diago retires from InterContinental Hotels Group after 44 years.

BY JOACHIM BAMRUD

Alvaro Diago appeared to be born to be an hotelier, but his career choice was by accident. “My plan was to become an engineer,” he says.

By coincidence, the Colombian native won a scholarship to study in Coral Gables and among his alternatives one stood out, hospitality studies at Miami Dade College. “I loved it from the very start and fell more and more in love with hospitality,” Diago says.

After completing his studies, fate again came calling. At the graduation event at the Coral Gables City Hall he met the head of InterContinental Hotels in Latin America who lived in Coral Gables and who asked him to come to his office at the Pan American Airways building the next day.

As a result, newly graduated Diago became front office manager at the recently opened InterContinental Hotel in Medellin and his career at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) was off to a flying start.

His 44-year work with the hotel company included living in more than a dozen cities in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. The past 19 years he served as Chief Operating Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Miami. After retiring in March, he continues to serve as a consultant for IHG.

Partners and colleagues say one of Diago’s main strengths during his long career at IHG has been his personality, which helped bring IHG close to its key franchisees in Latin America.

“Alvaro’s personality is contagious,” says Herman Bern, the owner of Empresas Bern, which owns and develops hotels and residential and commercial real estate. They include the InterContinental Miramar in Panama City, the InterContinental at Playa Bonita, Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels in Panama City.

"During his 44 years with IHG he has made friends across the whole continent,” Bern says. “During the past 20 years we have travelled together to many countries in the region, in addition to his visits to Panama, representing IHG and forming new friendships for the company. Alvaro has become a close personal friend as well as a key reference in all issues related to hospitality.”

Fernando Poma, Executive Vice President of Real Hotels and Resorts, also counts himself and his family among Diago’s friends.

“Over time, a great deal of confidence has been generated and a deep friendship formed,” he says. “Alvaro always developed the relation between both groups, which has likely been the key factor behind the growth we have had with the brand.”

El Salvador-based Real Hotels and Resorts owns 19 hotels located throughout Central and South America, Mexico, the United States, Dominican Republic, and Colombia. They include seven InterContinental branded hotels in five countries (and a eighth on its way in the Dominican Republic).

“His ability to connect and form long lasting relationships and partnerships with key stakeholders is remarkable,” says Michael Hoe Knudsen, IHG’s Regional Vice President of Operations for Latin America & Caribbean.

OPTIMIST AMIDST CHALLENGES

Another key trait Diago had was to remain optimistic amidst Latin America’s frequent challenges.

“He really was and still is a tremendous leader who knows the culture and the how-to conduct business in Latin America,” Hoe Knudsen says. “He has a deep understanding of what it takes to thrive in Latin America.  His long-term vision and experience played a pivotal role when it came to overcoming challenging situations and our region certainly experienced cyclical economic and political challenges, all as diverse as the countries in which they occurred.  Over his 44 years, he was always forward-looking at what “might be,” rather than getting stuck in any situation. He steadied the ship during whatever challenge might be at hand, and then helped chart an appropriate course to success.”

That was the result of his philosophy of combining optimism with realism, Diago says.

“One of the things I always have expressed is the need to look at the positive side,” he says. “There’s no country where politics or the economy remain the same. All these countries see cycles, some better than others. The important thing is to be constant, not to cede when you set a goal and be aggressive or cautious when necessary.”

With IHG as the only major international hotel chain with its roots in Latin America, Diago always sought long-term success for the region, Hoe Knudsen adds.

IHG was created by Pan American Airways to accommodate crews and passengers in locations where five star hotels were lacking.  The first hotel opened in Belem in northern Brazil nearly 70 years ago -- in 1946.

PEOPLE BUSINESS

For Diago the most rewarding aspect of his job has been dealing with people.

“One of the main aspects of my journey, of my hotel career, has without doubt been the number of relations that I have amassed during so many years, not only internal, but also external, which helped the growth of the company,” he says.

One of the things that he was most passionate about was development of new hotels, having a pipeline in place for maintaining IHG as one of top hotel chains in Latin America.

“I am very pleased over the number of owners that believed in us and our brands,” he says. “With many of them we have continued growing with multi brands.”

“This is a people-to-people business,” Diago says. “A service business. Everything starts with relations, with people who have the development capital. The Pomas or Berns or others in Latin America, where the first contact is vital.”

RELATIONS WITH PARTNERS

For Diago the most rewarding aspect of his job has been dealing with people.

“One of the main aspects of my journey, of my hotel career, has without doubt been the number of relations that I have amassed during so many years, not only internal, but also external, which helped the growth of the company,” Diago says.

One of the things that he was most passionate about was development of new hotels, having a pipeline in place for maintaining IHG as one of top hotel chains in Latin America.

“I am very pleased over the number of owners that believed in us and our brands,” he says. “With many of them we have continued growing with multi brands.”

Diago’s close contacts with IHG’s partners have been remarkable, Hoe Knudsen says.

“His ability to connect and form long lasting relationships and partnerships with key stakeholders is remarkable,” he says.

Diago was the point man for Real Hotels and Resorts when it opened seven InterContinental branded hotels in Central America and Miami.

“He convinced us of the strength of the brand and the culture of his company, which was in line with ours as a family company,” Poma says.

He particularly praises Diago’s transparency and integrity during negotiations.

“Working with Alvaro has been a very unique and rich experience,” he says. “We always felt that he had a strong desire to make things work and to have the flexibility and creativity to do so. He also showed a high degree of personal integrity. An example of that was his transparency when he would tell us what he could and couldn’t do without ever entering into complex or unpleasant negotiations. Alvaro always made you feel like he was on your side.”

What most impresses Poma about Diago is his unique combination of personal values, strong experience and capacity to create strong and lasting relations

RELATIONS WITH COLLEAGUES

However, Diago also earns plenty of praise from his colleagues.

During the past 20 years, Diago on average spent every two weeks on the road, to visit partners and check up on IHG’s properties in Latin America.

A typical day would start early with a meeting with the hotel management and team, a surprise inspection, a look at any new projects and a general review. Then he would meet with select staff that were targeted for promotions, followed by meetings with the hotel owner. Often a day full of meetings would end with a cocktail reception in the evening.

“He is incredibly energetic,” Hoe Knudsen says . “He’s nearly twice my age, yet I often struggled to keep up with him.  Throughout all the trips, he was always extremely polished, fresh and ready for any task, despite the lack of sleep.”

He was also highly engaged with his team, Hoe Knudsen says.

“He ensured that everyone felt they had significant part, and they did,” he says. “I’ll always remember, when I was a general manager and he visited hotels he always made it a point to greet the teams and interact with the entire staff.  He was particularly fond of those who worked their way up from challenging circumstances and always acknowledged them. He appreciated hard work and recognized it.”

Michael Herrmann, Regional Director of Operations for the Caribbean & General Manager of the InterContinental San Juan, agrees.

“Diago is a go getter, a coach, a friend and a person with a big heart,” he says. “Not only is he an excellent professional but guests, owners and employees love him and enjoy being around him because of his warmth and his positive attitude.”

Herrmann worked closely with Diago during many years. “It has been an incredible journey of fun, learning and successes,” he says. “He has a wealth of knowledge that he loves to share and has endless anecdotes that are fun to listen to.

Herrmann also praises Diago’s “open heart, candidness, and unconditional friendship and support.”

“He has an incredible positive mindset that inevitably puts you at ease,” he says.

FAVORITE HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS

Latinvex put Diago on the spot by asking him to name his three favorite hotel properties and IHG restaurants in Latin America.

Interestingly enough, his response was the same in both cases.

At the top of the hotel list he names the InterContinental in Buenos Aires.

“It’s an hotel that reflects all the qualities that you expect from our brand,” Diago says. “Not only is the product exceptional, but so too are its people. The team that we have at that hotel is exceptional.  Whether you arrive for pleasure or business, you feel at home. I hear that permanently from clients. They have good food, good administration. And it’s also located in Buenos Aires, one of my favorite cities.”

Diago also singles out the InterContinental in San Jose, Costa Rica.

“It’s one of the best hotels in infrastructure, food, a great scenery, important location next to Multiplaza Mall – the largest upscale shopping mall in San Jose – and entertainment. So the synergy is important."

Diago also adds a property in his native Cartagena, the Colombian city known for its colonial architecture and for hosting one of the busiest convention businesses in Latin America.

“The moment you step inside the Cartagena Holiday Inn it has a soul, an incredibly welcoming feeling,” he says.  “A large part of that is the incredible dynamic of the staff. After so many years in this job, my eyes work like a scanner and I can see how guests feel pleased at the hotel.”

He adds that he feels the other IHG properties in Latin America also stand out in terms of management.

When it comes to food and beverage – a passion of Diago’s – he singles out restaurants at the same hotels.

In Buenos Aires, he likes the Mediterráneo. He also likes the steakhouse at the IHG hotel in San Jose and also praises the food at the Holiday Inn in Cartagena.

RETIREMENT

Although he retired in March, IHG asked him to stay another year as a consultant to help advise new leaders and transition his extensive network of contacts.

A key difference from his pre-retirement is that he travels less and can spend more time with his wife Carmen and family and his passions, which include fishing.

“I am enjoying retirement to the fullest,” he says.

While pleased with his career, he only has one regret – that he wasn’t able to spend more time with his wife and family because of his hectic travel schedule.

He was able to ensure that even when traveling to Latin America on a 2-week trip he could spend the weekends back in Miami.

“The most stressing thing was the travels although they were necessary to do business,” Diago says.

“That was traumatic, the constant separations from your wife and children, that has left a void which you later have to fill. There were moments that were very hard for my family. If I could roll back time that would be the thing I would change.”

Fortunately today, technology makes connections easier than when he started his hectic travel schedule, Diago says.  

He will also continue spending time with key IHG partners. Case in point: When Latinvex started research for this article, Diago and his wife were on a boat trip with Bern.

And now is preparing a major fishing trip in The Bahamas. “I’m a fisherman,” he says. “Anything that has to do with the sea and boats, count me in.”

A MODEL, AND HELP, FOR THE NEXT GENERATION

Bern says Diago’s career can serve as a model for new generations. “Alvaro has been a leader in all of Latin America,” he says. “His loyalty to the company is a great example. His personal life and experience serve as a point of reference for new generations.”

Hoe Knudsen praises Diago’s focus on the future, specifically the next generation of leaders at IHG.

“What impressed me the most was his desire to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to succeed,” he says. “This really hit home during his retirement remarks, when his focus was not on his past successes, which it easily could have been, but on encouraging the next generation to work hard and help the generation after them to continue to succeed. That spoke volumes about his character.”


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