CMO profile: One marketer's journey from Rockefeller Centre to Australian hospitality

We catch up with Australian-born and New York bred marketer, Michaella Solar-March, about her work on connecting community, culture and brands, plus her latest CMO role to build a dynamic Australian hospitality group brand

Michaella Solar-March
Michaella Solar-March

It’s not often you hear of an Aussie taking charge of rebranding a New York cultural icon. But that’s exactly what Michaella Solar-March did when she landed the CMO role at the Rockefeller Centre.

Having spent two years overseeing global programming, events, marketing and brand experiences for private members hospitality group, Soho House, Solar-March was tasked by Rockefeller Centre owner, Tishman Speyer, to take charge of the iconic property site’s rebrand in 2018.

“It was an exciting opportunity and major challenge – Rockefeller Centre just wasn’t considered in the cultural lexicon and didn’t have a voice,” Solar-March tells CMO. “It had lost its resonance with locals and was not seen as a place where creativity could be really sparked.”

Rockefeller Centre is in fact a ‘mini city’ encompassing the main 30 Rock building, one of the largest privately owned land masses in New York, multiple cultural attractions and NYC’s largest outdoor public art collection. 

“Hospitality and real estate are somewhat adjacent and the opportunity to rebrand and reposition a globally recognised icon like that, which is truly mixed use, was an opportunity to diversify what I’d been doing,” Solar-March says. “As an open and free art gallery, it’s also a place to connect with your community and represent the best New York culture. Plus it’s a deeply diverse platform for work.”  

Solar-March helped spearhead a full strategic repositioning, rebranding including a new logo, and a reimagining of how Rockefeller creatively shows up.

“It’s still a real pinch me moment – who let an Aussie girl do that? But reflecting on that time, my international perspective helped me,” she says. “I wasn’t beholden to pre-conceptions of what Rockefeller was. I was inspired by the idealism and promise Rockefeller had when he first imagined the campus and bringing that to life in a modern way that would attract the new creative class.

“And you see it coming to life now – new restaurants opening, events and programming, a reimagining through renovation. It was a full repositioning including updating a lot of the base buildings and reimagining the public spaces and plazas. We even put a 1-acre park on top of one of the buildings.”

It’s this combination of hospitality and property smarts, community, experiential and cultural connection Solar-March is now bringing to her latest role as CMO of MA Hotel Management. The hospitality platform sits within MA Financial, an investment bank, and consists of several funds, all of which are property-backed, hospitality businesses. Core in this mix is the Redcape Hotel Group portfolio, which owns and operates 36 pubs and venues with a diverse mix of entertainment that cater to local communities.

“The more I heard about the organisation, the more excited I got,” Solar-March says of the latest role. “Hospitality has been in my resume, and I think what I do really well is connect communities through cultural experiences that drive meaningful change in hyper-local ways. That is what this organisation is all about.” 

Career progression

At first glance, Solar-March’s resume appears eclectic, full of varied industry experiences and roles. But the connection between commerce, culture and community is a clear through line.

“It’s how those three come together in meaningful ways that inspire positive change and catalyse creativity through the connection of those things,” she says.

Solar-March commenced her career in the music industry and broadcast journalism as host of a breakfast radio program on FBI Radio. She moved on to music events and record label management, covering PR and increasingly, marketing. Scouted by American record label, Beggars Group, she wound up run brand marketing based in New York.

“I thought I’d do it for a year, but I stayed in New York for more than 12 years, setting up a family and home there,” she says. “It was at a time when experiences and original creative content were burgeoning. Brands were recognising the way to connect with consumers in really authentic and meaningful ways was through in-person events and real-life content and experiences.

“The record label represented the top independent artists at the time, so many brands were interested in campaigns, experiential activities and 360-marketing strategies that integrated their brand values with artists that felt closest in affiliation. I really loved that part of what I was doing and leant heavily into that.”

Michaella Solar-MarchCredit: Redcape
Michaella Solar-March

From there, Solar-March led experiential and brand strategy for a PR and marketing agency before switching client-side. The first job was with speaker brand, Sonos, where she helped build out its inaugural B2B and retail strategy. Solar-March then joined Soho House, overseeing brand experience, members events and programming globally.

“That was about connecting members with unique experiences that spoke to current market trends, their values and the reasons for their Soho membership in the first place, which was about connection, creativity and community,” Solar-March explains. “It was an interesting business model – Soho House is a collection of members-only clubs, hotels, restaurants, bars and more. It’s the first time I had been in the hospitality environment.

“It was a high-growth period, firstly overseeing the manifestation and articulation of that brand, then how it came to life in experiences connecting its community.”

Then came the role with Tishman Speyer to rejuvenate Rockefeller Centre’s relevance as a world-class destination for culture and community. Having spearheaded such work, Tishman Speyer asked Solar-March to also become its global CMO. The role overall encompassed marketing for all properties and assets under management plus enterprise businesses including a co-working platform, tenant amenities platform, real estate investment portfolio and a proptech arm. The newly created position came with an initial priority to reposition the group’s corporate identity.

Six months later, Covid arrived. It was the nudge Solar-March and her partner needed to start exploring opportunities back to Australia. The result was a newly created CMO role with MA Hotel Management across its hospitality platform and property portfolio.

Solar-March notes recent diversification of the group via acquisitions in more traditional food and beverage spaces. Key venues in the portfolio include the Beach Hotel in Byron Bay, Hotel Brunswick in Brunswick Heads, plus Kinsela’s and the Courthouse in Taylor Square, Sydney.

“The vision of the organisation is to be a global leader in enriching hospitality experiences,” Solar-March says. A key way this manifests is in the groups’ social impact membership platform, Publinc Communities. Customers earn points in venues, pledged to local communities nominated by them. The program launched in late 2020 and in 18 months hit the major milestone of $1 million in community pledges.

“Many companies have values on the wall. This company truly lives its values of care, courage and collaboration with integrity and authenticity,” Solar-March comments. “These neatly aligned to my personal values and purpose in professional life. The borders between your personal and professional life are crumbling. Whether it’s at home or in the boardroom, it’s important we live with integrity and a clear sense of self that is emboldened and can manifest in all we do.”

MA Hospitality Management’s world-class leadership and values alignment also presented fresh opportunities to learn. That’s something Solar-March sees as vital for any CMO.

“It’s critical you have a continuous learning mindset and be open to new opportunities that stretch you and push you to reimagine customer centricity. We need to constantly find ways to ignite and inspire advocacy in customers by tapping into what they value,” she says.

Combining culture and brand thinking

Solar-March cites a sophisticated digital platform, deep digital marketing capability and strong customer segmentation and journeys capabilities within the business.

“Our custom enterprise tech stack drives digitally enabled marketing solutions like AI-powered customer conversations and loyalty offers. But it’s not just martech - there are several active business transformation projects powered with insights from our digital infrastructure,” she explains. “Our leadership team have been leading development of this for quite some time and we’re well placed to accelerate.

“The long-term goal is to further enable a culture of change that is comfortable with decision-making supported by technology and informed by data to automate drudge tasks and free-up creative thinking and business innovation.”

Within the wider MA Hotel Management organisation, staff satisfaction is a primary lead performance indicator and something that’s culturally well-ingrained and well-operationalised, Solar-March continues. Monthly staff satisfaction surveys are shared via SMS feed to insights dashboards with qual and quant insights, which teams evaluate daily to identify opportunities for improvements.

“By nurturing our relationships with staff, and genuinely acting on their feedback in our commitment to continual and enhancing business performance, our teams see a direct impact in their experience,” she says.

What’s now being prioritised is brand to enhance growth. “We have recently begun development of an integrated and comprehensive hospitality brand for MA Hotel Management to design a world-class hospitality brand that aligns to the world-class business we are leading,” Solar-March says.

“This will empower our teams and the organisation’s strategic initiatives. The project is complex given our structure, and the effort will deliver an all-encompassing world-class hospitality brand supported by a family of unique venue brands that are bespoke to their markets and informed by local customer values.” 

While MAHM will never be a consumer brand, as an employer / employee brand it’s an important manifestation of the culture internally.

“Having a brand that represents us authentically and captivates our values is really important. That’s the first exercise and is due to be done in the next couple of months. As I’m building out a team, that brand is also going to be key,” Solar-March says.

Two key senior roles are open right now: GM of marketing and head of communications. More broadly, Solar-March stresses her desire to find marketers who combine modern digital capability with brand execution.

“There is a breed of marketing generalist who skew one way of the other – I’m more a brand marketer than digital marketer but I play nicely in digital marketing understanding its value,” she comments.

“I don’t know how any CMO can be successful without a growth and performance mindset – you need exposure to brand strategy and leadership experience across both to harness and lead effectively. If you can’t run the nuts and bolts of performance marketing without the halo of brand and long-term strategic thinking, you’ll struggle. The two need to be closely intertwined otherwise you won’t be successful.”  

Professional executive mentorship and management is a personal passion of Solar-March’s. During her time in the US, she launched the free peer-to-peer network, Other Company in America, for executive women to confidentially connect and share learnings with one another. She also hopes to pursue these efforts locally as she re-establishes a local network.

Other major priorities for Solar-March in the next 6-12 months include advancement and refinement of brand communications. Compelling storytelling and purposeful, personalised and values-led conversations with staff, customers and investors are the clear objectives. It’s also about evolving and elevating MAHM’s relationships with customers, in venue and digitally, by leveraging learnings from conversations to ensure excellence at every touchpoint. This includes elevating stories of local social impact through its venues.  

As to the scorecard for her first year as CMO, Solar-March points firstly to an energised and motivated organisation empowered to deliver excellent experiences for their customers.

“As CMO, my aspiration is to lead a customer-centric world-class brand that transcends the organisation’s values and attracts values-aligned leaders and investors,” she says. “For 2022, I have a long list of strategic initiatives we’ve prioritised as a team, including appointing senior marketing leadership and developing brands for our iconic local venues that enrich their communities and empower organisational decision-making on scale.

“However, my main priority for 2022 is to continue to learn our business and invest my time in nurturing trust with my teammates. From my time with the organisation so far, I know that if I focus on that first and foremost, everything else will naturally fall into place.”

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