Jose Montoya is currently the Director of Leisure Sales at Jumeirah Essex House, one of New York’s finest luxury hotels. Montoya has always been out at work. His affable nature, which belies a rock-solid confidence in his sexuality, has helped him turn a few instances of homophobia in the hospitality industry into “teachable moments.”
Q: What is your role as director of leisure sales at Jumeirah Essex House?
Montoya: Within the sales department, there are three main focuses: corporate travelers, groups, and individuals coming on a leisure visit. I manage the relationships with travel agencies and international tour operators. I’ve been here since Jumeirah took over the property in 2005. I love it! It’s such a unique product — the quintessential New York City experience: the location, the legacy, and Central Park across the street.
Q: How did you end up in the hotel sales profession?
Montoya: Going back a bit, I was born in Colombia. At age 17, I went to Spain. Then I went to Miami, Washington DC, New York, California, and back to Miami and finally back to New York. I worked as a waiter, bartender, and tour guide before and after my graduation from Hunter College. I was the sales manager for Latin America for New York City’s CVB [Convention and Visitors Bureau] then. Prior to working here, I was at the famous Plaza Hotel in New York and for 10 months at the Fairmont Mayakoba in the Maya Riviera, Mexico.
These jobs in New York taught me how to sell the city as a destination, which is really what you are selling before you sell the hotel. You can’t walk into any travel agency talking only about pillows, spa, square feet without really knowing and selling the destination. I need to be able to tell my clients how truly unique and authentic my hotel is as an experience more than a hotel. With our programs that include walking tours, bike rentals, picnics in the park, they realize I make my living selling something authentically and honestly. Clients don’t choose hotels to sleep in but to dream in.
Q: Is there a difference when you sell outside versus inside the U.S?
Montoya: Yes, this message resonates more outside the U.S. The domestic market is so familiar with New York. For them the park becomes relevant. Foreign visitors make an instant connection between New York and Times Square. They think Times Square is the center of the city, and first-time international visitors need to be near it. Brazilians love this hotel. They don’t book products; they book friends. They have to trust and know you.
Q: Are you out at work?
Montoya: Yes, and I’ve always been out at work. I remember getting drunk with friends at college and I went through the whole idea of being in the closet. But, I just never had one personally and I never had a closet professionally, never! I left home early and became me, on my own, with no family pressure.
Q: Did you leave Colombia because of homophobia there?
Montoya: Nowadays, Colombia probably has one of the best gay communities in Latin America. But before, it was so homophobic; machismo was rampant. When I was in high school, I felt very connected to literature, I read Faulkner and felt I knew him. A professor told me, “You think you know Faulkner? You don’t know him till you read in English; what will you do to make that happen?”
That was very powerful. My family and I went on vacation to Mexico. I was reading a fantastic book by Yukio Mishima: Confessions of a Mask. Before leaving Mexico the Mexican customs official violently ripped the cover off the book saying, “We don’t accept faggots in this country.” At that moment, I worried that if I didn’t run away from Colombia, I could be harmed. I was entering back into a country that was even less tolerant than Mexico (which after that gesture was obviously horribly intolerant).
I realized I needed to escape to someplace better. My brother was a priest in Spain, which is why I went there. Then, on my way back to Colombia, I ended up staying in Miami. My closet was the size of the boundaries of my country. I’ve never been flamboyant or public; my expressions and emotions are mine. I’m not big on PDAs. It’s easy for me to be very comfortable without being super flamboyant. I’ve never been “in.“
Q: You have traveled extensively and frequently for your work over the years. What are some of the changes and trends you’ve seen with respect to the attitude of hotels around the world towards LGBT guests?
Montoya: I’m on the road 200 days of the year, traveling all over the globe, sometimes visiting a different country every week, and I’ve been doing that for years. I’ve seen many changes! Back fifteen, ten or even five years ago in some places, two men or two women checking in at a hotel desk could cause confusion among clerks who may not understand why two unrelated members of the same sex would only have one bed in a room.
Sometimes, they would even automatically change the reservation to two beds assuming a mistake had been made. But thankfully, the awareness of gay people traveling together has reached even the farthest corners of the globe, especially among more global hotel brands. Many such hotel brands have spread their “best practices” around the world in terms of treating LGBT employees and guests with the same respect, dignity and protective laws that their guests enjoy.
There are hotels that offer gay-specific hotel packages (like honeymoon packages or ‘his and his’ romance packages). Western Europe and North America are more explicitly welcoming to LGBT guests than other parts of the globe. It’s far from perfect out there for gay travelers and employees in the hospitality industry; but it’s definitely getting better.
Q: How do you sell the Jumeirah Essex House?
Montoya: It’s very challenging to be part of a group that is not extremely well recognized in the United States. We are the only Jumeirah property in the U.S. (A brand usually needs to have four or five properties in key markets in the U.S.) So, we are competitive on rates. Due to the nature of our room inventory, we are able to offer spacious suites and rooms with astonishing views of Central Park often at lower rates than our nearest luxury competitors.
For the same price, you could be in an interior room at one of our competitors in a newer building or you could enjoy a breathtaking view of the park in a light-drenched room or suite on the 30th floor of a historic Art Deco building. With our recently completed $90 million dollar renovation the hotel and rooms boast a beautiful design and lots of high-tech touches.
Q: What’s the general atmosphere with respect to LGBT people at Jumeirah Essex House?
Montoya: The Essex House is in New York City. You cannot make an attempt to be a leader in anything if you aren’t conscious of the place that you are in. That applies to hotels. This hotel couldn’t be so close to such a vibrant gay community and in a city so important to the gay movement. When I tell you the hotel is authentic that’s not separate from the outlook of all of my colleagues. I never thought about being gay at work until we started our recent LGBT marketing and communications initiatives. It had never been an issue. I’m perfectly comfortable whether I tell you I’m gay or not.
I sell Jumeirah Essex House as a unique and authentic hotel. I don’t have to preach to the gay community to demonstrate that this is an appealing place to make home. It’s home to all of my clients. It’s always appealed to gay clients and friends.
The formula that defines who I am is this: If you know 10 people well, then you know humankind. We are the same. We are of course affected by different customs, the way we dress, by the musicality of our language, but we are all the same.