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What I learned from my "non-fancy" but very fab dad about life + hotels

My dad was the coolest. He sold Lee jeans for a living most of my childhood, loved time with us at the beach, played basketball past his prime, worked from home decades before it was trendy, attended every soccer game, drove my friends and I home from school in his sports car, and defied my mom's preferences towards things like puppies and ice-cream. What do I mean by that? Well, it was my dad who came home one day with a puppy despite my mom's absolute insistence we couldn't have one. (We named her Buffy. She stayed).

Because my dad loved chocolate and sweets, we often got ice-cream (sometimes for dinner) as "rewards" for wins, be it a homerun on the softball field or a decent grade on a test. My dad was the ultimate old-fashioned sales guy. He loved people. Computers, not so much. He was diagnosed with Adult ADHD (don't we all have that???). My mom had to "do the books" for his at-home entrepreneurial-style business, and he clearly cared more about building relationships by connecting with people than he did about money (or so it seemed). So, there's the snapshot of the guy who led me through life my entire childhood and then left me at age 36 to figure out the rest. Ha ha, I am STILL trying to figure out the rest (thanks, dad!).

My dad was my biggest cheerleader, especially when I spent four years at Syracuse University in his hometown, and then when I made my way through my 20s from DC to NYC to LA. It was my mom, not my dad, who questioned my decision to drive x-country from NY to California. My dad was ALL IN on supporting my choices, and was also there to hug me every time THAT was needed (which was a lot). My dad flew out to help me post-knee surgery in Vail, CO 21 years ago, and his presence ALWAYS made a place better, brighter and more FUN. When he got diagnosed with cancer in 2002 at age 59, and then passed away at 63, my heart broke. In a million pieces. It took me at least a decade to feel sort of okay again. Being dad-less sucks. But, today marks the 15th Father's Day that I've had to celebrate him in spirit, and of course, the yellow butterflies showed up all weekend reminding me that he is VERY MUCH present in my life. Thankful I am for that!!!

While I was at the beach early this morning recording a short IGTV video (you can find it on my @StacyHopeSmall and @SpiritualTravelAgent IG channels) about my dad and how I embrace and celebrate tougher days like today, I realized that my dad taught me so much MORE than I realized. And, I magically connected the dots about these lessons.

Funny enough, some of these lessons are relevant to my current life as a luxury travel advisor on the spiritual path writing my second book, titled "A Little Bit Spiritual, a Little Bit CEO". I took my first trip off Maui to the mainland a few weeks ago, and had a chance to re-immerse myself in the land of luxury hotels and airports and planes after a 16-month hiatus. What's (not so crazy) are the unmissable parallels between the best life lessons Jerry Small (my dad) taught me, and what many hotels can do a much better job of implementing as life heads back to some form of PRE-PANDEMIC "normal"!!

You're probably thinking, what could my dad who sold jeans out of his trunk teach me (let alone luxury hotels) about winning at life? Here are a few solid ideas that ran through my head today as I thought about what to share about my dad that could also be fitting a "travel-themed" post. My goal is to try to stay relevant to my #NotYourAverageTravelAgent idea behind this new "just for fun but also for biz" #StacyMaui BLOG that allows me to sharpen and keep my travel journalist roots alive and well. So, let me know what you think about my theories and if you have any others to add! #AlwaysLearning

  1. First Impressions Matter, a LOT. In fact, you never get a second chance to make a first impression (duh!?).

I mean, we know this, but I've experienced a few hotels (and people, and restaurants) lately that seem to be missing the mark on this...and then having to play catch up and try to recover. As my dad pointed out once, it's like when you order a steak in a nice restaurant. Doesn't matter what it costs. If it doesn't come out cooked the way you like it the first time, it's a reflection on the restaurant's in ability to get it right the first time. And, same with hotels. As a luxury travel advisor, I make sure to let the hotel know way in advance what my clients do/do not like and then hand the business over to them on a silver platter to execute. Lately, more hotels are missing this opportunity to blow away the clients the minute they walk on the property. That's when it needs to happen. If you fail to have the pre-arranged welcome amenities in their room on arrival, then it's are no longer a "welcome surprise" and if you check a guest into a room that isn't quite ready (ie, still has unfinished work in the bathroom), that's a hell of a first impression that you can't really quickly recover from. You can try, but it's never the same as simply getting it right from the start.

My dad was the kind of guy who always made a fabulous first impression; he had an ever-present smile that lit up the room, kind eyes and gave warm hugs that made even strangers comfortable in his presence from the get go. It's hard to describe, but certain people have this gift of making others feel at home the minute they meet them.

I feel this way about hotels. Wow me or don't but it has to happen when we first meet, as I read energy and energy speaks LOUDER than words or sleek lobbies. The hotel that recently "WOW'ED" me the minute I entered the lobby wasn't a "fancy 5-star" but a VERY lovely boutique-y 4-star hotel in Denver. It wow'ed me because the service was noticeably friendly, the lobby was beautifully designed yet still warm, and they just got it right by checking me into a beautiful suite with a welcome gift of waters/healthy snacks awaiting my arrival. Check out these pix I snapped on arrival to get a sense of what I am referring to (during my stay at Kimpton Hotel Born Denver).

2. The second lesson that my dad was big on centered around being able to have what you wanted, in life, and when you travel, when you want it. This sounds weird, but I am thinking back to how he'd often make us salami-and-eggs for dinner, or have a tuna sandwich or leftovers from last night's dinner for breakfast. Not because he was crazy weird, JUST because that's what he wanted. He told me and my sister that it all ends up in the same place (our stomach), so who ever said eggs were only for breakfast? Ha ha, that's advice I live by to this day (I mean, I had scrambled eggs and lox in his honor for dinner tonight!). He was also big on ice-cream as a reward and who's going to argue with ice-cream for dinner occasionally, with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn while watching TV before bed (obvs this was when my mom was out playing Mah-Jong with her friends and left him in charge!).

How is this relevant to hotels? Well, on recent stays at luxury hotels I was told "NO" several times when I tried to order a pre-departure snack so that I wouldn't starve during a long day of travel and also when I wanted something slightly off-menu or a customized/allergen-free version of the offerings. I know hotels are JUST getting back to staffing up, but this has been annoying me for decades and I know it REALLY bothers my Elite Travel International clients paying a ton of $$ for hotels expecting to get "Whatever, Whenever" (like W hotels proclaims to offer). I am not a fan of fancy "nespresso" coffee, and am always impressed by the hotel that listens to my request for a simple coffeemaker in the room. Not so much by the hotel that recently left a tequila amenity for me, despite me updating my profile pre-stay and making it clear I do not drink alcohol and would prefer lots of water and coffee as my liquids of choice. So, thanks dad for instilling in me the knowing that I can and should ask for what will make me happiest, and not always worry about what's "on the menu" or in the handbook!

Per below, Four Seasons Las Vegas AND Joe's Restaurant in Vegas "heard" me re: my coffee prefs AND my need for a #glutenfree menu. (They both nailed the first impression, btw). It seems like a no-brainer but so many hotels miss. And, my dad was a big fan of keeping customers HAPPY---and always went the extra mile to do so!

3. The third lesson I learned BIG from Jerry Small was NOT to worry (honestly) what others think of you. Their opinions on his less-than-conventional lifestyle as a work-from-home sales guy never mattered to him. I don't think he even heard anyone who had anything but kind words. He LOVED brightly colored polo shirts and ties, like BRIGHT pink and BRIGHT purple and wore those colors long before they were en vogue. I used to get a little self-conscious for him! He never cared. And today, the last thing I worry about is what others think of my fashion choices. I live on Maui by choice, as it's easy to get caught up in the fancier lifestyle where you ARE judged by the fashion brands you wear. I'm not going to lie and say I don't still have a nice collection of fancier bags and shoes, but they are in my closet because they bring me joy. I worked hard to earn the $$ to buy them for myself. And...I detached from about 80% of my "Fancy Clothes" when I moved back to Maui in January 2020. Like my dad who liked "POLO" shirts but didn't need fancy brands to pair with his jeans, I am a simple girl with upstate NY roots and am happiest in flip flops or barefoot at the beach.

I think a lot of hotels think they know what their customers want, especially in terms of decor and style. But, I am not sure that is true. I have stayed in SO many sleek and lovely GRAY hotels with very little color. Maybe a pop of color here or there. But, in all honesty, that's kind of boring and I and my clients tend to enjoy hotels with personality---AND color. Like Hotel Born (the below is what greeted me on entry in the lobby):

A few other lessons my dad left me with that serve me well as I travel (literally) through this world, and help others do the same are: When possible, lead with kindness. Not everyone is always having a good day, but a smile and a hello to even a grumpy front-desk agent at the end of their shift goes a long way. I noticed this recently at one of the hotels where I wasn't feeling warmly welcomed.

Simple is usually the right choice. When I am choosing hotels for myself and my clients, the ones that try very hard to be "fancy" and charge a LOT more than the others are the ones that usually aren't the right fit. I remember my dad telling me that Lee Jeans fit better than some of the designer brands, and I didn't want to believe him. But, of course, he was my dad and he was RIGHT. Every time I tried on another brand, I knew he was right. Yet, sometimes I just wanted to try the fancier, pricier designer brands. So I did. And that hurt his feelings, because like he said, Mr. Fancy Jeans wasn't paying for my college education. I often make choices for myself and my travel clients based on this strategy. What is TRULY the right fit? Put aside what everyone else says is the best hotel, and ignore the higher rates that SHOULD indicate a higher level of experience and just go see what's actually being offered. Sometimes, like my dad taught me, simpler works just fine. The best things in life aren't always the priciest. And, you only get one chance to make that LASTING first impression!

The best life lesson of ALL? You gotta SMILE and have FUN. I mean, we had this one going on before we even turned 5, because what's not fun riding a Big Wheel with pig tails and your coolAF dad cheering you on? THANKS DAD. Your legend lives on as I try to have as much as fun as possible in this wild world without your (in-person) guidance. And, I am here to help you plan your travels in a way that is FUN. Email me: and follow me on Social @StacyHopeSmall + @EliteTravelIntl for more videos/tips on travel. Happy Dad's Day to all you amazing dads out there. Inspire your kids, please, like my dad did for me. xo Stacy

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