The Walt Disney Company is one of the business world’s most admired institutions, with a portfolio of movie studios, theme parks, hotels, and cruise ships, as well as an array of television networks, including ABC and ESPN.
Generating over $40 billion per year with 160,000 employees it has been a breeding ground for top business leaders. Of course the Disney bureaucracy is so famous, its namesake founder reportedly created separate sister companies so he could keep the creative process from getting bogged down.
Having moved through the ranks to become the marketing boss for numerous resorts, multiple theme parks, the vacation club, and cruise ships, Denise Godreau, to the outside, probably appeared the quintessential Disney rising star. Like Stephen Burke who left Disney for Comcast and is now Chairman of Universal NBC, one might have expected a path leading to another multinational conglomerate if she ever left Disney. However Godreau’s entrepreneurial bug led her to abandon her post managing a team of 400 with oversight for tens of millions of marketing dollars. Now she finds herself as the Chief Marketing Officer of what promises to be one of the global travel industry’s marquee new build projects, alongside Dubai’s Palm Islands, Qatar’s Pearl, Sol Kerzner’s nearby Atlantis, the City Center/Aria complex of MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, and the original Disney World in Orlando. Working for a single owner instead of a multinational, we talked to Godreau about how she ended up in The Bahamas, how she is approaching the challenges of launching Baha Mar, and why she’s happy to call Nassau home.
Elite Traveler: Tell us about your background?
Denise Godreau: Most of my career I spent at Disney (after stints at Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, and Blockbuster). My next to last job was at Disney World in Orlando overseeing the theme parks, the cruise line, and 21 hotels, which was a great experience driving demand for a mega-resort. It’s a great position because you have so many resources.
DG: In my career development plan at Disney, I had requested to do a start up. They moved me to a small development unit where for three years I working with legendary imagineer Joe Rohde, who was one of the designers at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Aulani Resort in Hawaii. I was the business lead. He was the creative lead. When you are working with an opening team, making the tough decisions about what you can afford to do for the return you can produce, working with Human Resources, the pricing team, the operating team, getting involved in areas like labor agreements – all types of things you don’t think about when you are doing marketing – I realized I really loved the idea of starting something from scratch. We had done the demand studies, then the economy collapsed, and with Disney’s other commitments to two more cruise ships, and parks, the project was put on hold.
ET: So what came next?
DG: A former Disney boss was on the Board of Directors of Chapman University, which was a university start-up, and the word was out that “Denise really likes the idea of start-ups.” I figured it would teach me something. I did that for two and half years. In online universities, the critical model is digital lead generation. And I learned a lot about starting a team with zero people under you as opposed to 400 and learning to do a lot of things you thought you knew how to do but hadn’t done in 20 years because you had a team under you. By the time I left we had 16 people and launched it and established a brand.
ET: And then came Baha Mar?
DG: I was in California during the project with Disney and Chapman University. I am originally from Puerto Rico. My family is there and Nassau sort of feels like being back home. Of course, our President at Baha Mar is ex-Disney, and there was that understanding that “Denise likes start-ups.” Baha Mar had just got financing, the job needed to be based here, and they wanted to make sure the person who was going to do it would be happy living on an island, which was perfect for me because I am from an island. When I was growing up, every weekend we would be sailing. Everything we did revolved around the water so this is perfect for me.
ET: How was the transition from the corporate culture of Disney to working for a private owner?
DG: I got here in October 2011. When I was interviewing (Owner and CEO) Sarkis Izmirlian sent me a deck with 100 pages each with about four logos on it. He said, “We’re changing our logo. I’ve rethought how I want to position the resort.” I was thinking logo is one of the most subjective things ever, so if I pick something he doesn’t like that will be it.
ET: But you got the job obviously?
DG: With Baha Mar 1.0, the vision was that it was about the Bahamas. It was more what you would expect for an island resort. When he was thinking about Baha Mar 2.0 we sat and looked at lots of magazines and visuals and together we started doing mood boards, working on things, and getting the vision out of his head and into something we could communicate to people. Three weeks later we started working with John Schadler (a former executive for Steve Wynn, whose advertising agency SKG has been behind numerous top travel ad campaigns) and by December we had our brand and had created our brand book.
DG: We did it backwards in a way. We did test the logo. We did quantitative tests. We tested the “new Riviera” line and what it communicates to people several times. Then about eight months ago we tested the brand video. We learned some things, but it was minimal from where we were at the start.
ET: What did you learn?
DG: We want to go to international markets so you will see more diversity in the models we use, but when you are in business development you aren’t going to spend the money on doing 15 models with 15 shoots. When we shoot again against the backdrop of having bookings, we will invest a bit more.
ET: So you got it right shooting from the hip so to speak?
DG: From the time we came out till now, I made the agency think of alternative positions and lines every six months and this one kept on winning.
ET: Having experienced both the corporate structure of Disney and the start-up environment of Baha Mar, what’s the right way to do it?
DG: I don’t think there is a right way or wrong way. I like the start-up way. You move then you test, which fits my personality. One of the things my bosses always liked about me at Disney is that I had a bias for action which best aligns with a startup. You get key data points, you move, and you validate before taking major risks.
ET: And how does your owner view the process?
DG: Sarkis is very measured. He is smart so he wants to minimize the risk, but the worst risk is not opening. So we developed the positioning and then we challenged it.