By Alison Bailin Batz
Abby Murtagh calls serving as the Arizona Biltmore’s general manager the “greatest production of her life.”
“The entire industry has been buzzing about the Biltmore and its multimillion-dollar renovation for a year,” Murtagh says. “The responsibility was great, but one I worked toward my entire life.”
The new Airpark resident has spent her hospitality career in New York, Pennsylvania and San Francisco. But she fits in snugly at the recently renovated resort.
She says true leadership is the ability to seamlessly direct a team to the performance of their lives and then to do it again the next day but even better.
“My parents were the first directors in my life, running a 36-acre farm outside of York in Pennsylvania,” Murtagh says. “The farm was a dance of sorts, and everyone had their parts, from feeding the pigs to milking the cows to cleaning the stalls.”
Murtagh’s position of choice was making lunch.
“I was always the first to volunteer for the jobs inside the house that had creature comforts while being a nice distance from the actual creatures,” Murtagh says.
The business-minded Murtagh soon realized the lack of supply and surplus of demand for cooking in the town, so she opened a catering service at just 14. Within a few months, she was catering teacher luncheons and hosting tastings in her home. She would also work as a busser in a local tavern once old enough, solidifying her love for hospitality.
“To take my love for this people-pleasing dance to the next level, I decided to pursue a college degree in the industry, setting my sights high,” Murtagh says. “I made a portfolio with sample menus, profit-and-loss statements and even comment cards and used it to apply to Cornell University, where I was accepted and graduated in 1992.”
Her first job was a doozy.
“It was as the restaurant manager on the Spirit of Philadelphia, a ship that takes passengers along the Delaware River. Five stars, it was not,” Murtagh says.
It was at this first job that Murtagh learned a big lesson about leadership.
“Most of our staff was on parole. It was a rough crowd, but finding a way to listen to their needs and get along with them taught me that in order to lead anyone, I had to speak their language, not the other way around,” Murtagh says.
After avoiding being thrown overboard for a year, Murtagh moved on to Hotel Hershey in Pennsylvania and then the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.
“After a few years, I learned another big lesson,” Murtagh says.
“If I wanted to continue moving up the ranks in the industry, I needed to get out of my comfort zone and be open to moving, even cross-country.”
She moved to Washington, D.C., and then San Francisco, making a name for herself with several brands, including Kimpton.
As her career progressed, and as she became more adept at learning and speaking the many languages of team members, Murtagh doubled down her commitment to on moving as needed, taking a leadership role at management company that required regular travel to hotels and resorts nationwide.
“Somehow, between moves, I also found love. And I found it more or less next door,” Murtagh says.
She met her now-husband Tony in the early 2000s while doing rideshare in Virginia to cut down on the often-horrendous commute to work.
The two married in 2004 and made a home in Florida. By 2006, the couple welcomed a son, Patrick, and daughter, Caroline.
“I was actually taking time off to care for the kids when I got a call with a life-changing proposition,” Murtagh says.
“I was being recruited to be the food and beverage director at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, which would mean moving the family 7,000 miles away but would also mean leading a $30 million operation, which felt like the ultimate challenge.”
The family loved its time on the island, especially Murtagh, whose commute consisted of jetting down the side of a mountain for 10 minutes in a Jeep with no doors. Soon, however, they sought a means to move back to the mainland.
“The opportunity to come back came in 2012 thanks to the New York Palace, which was undergoing a massive renovation.”
She took a job leading its culinary team and moved the family to New Jersey, effectively adding three hours to her Hawaiian commute.
All those hours in the car paid off quickly, thank goodness. After three years, the Waldorf Astoria in New York came calling with a lofty management position, which she took and excelled in in short order. By 2015, there was only one role Murtagh had yet to earn: general manager.
“The general manager of a resort is the true director and choreographer of all operations on any property,” Murtagh says. “In 2016, I got my first opportunity at the role via the Hilton Salt Lake City, a position I took sight unseen.”
She remained at the resort for several years, including through COVID-19, which was the hardest time in her career.
She started talks with the Arizona Biltmore in late 2020. By May, as general manager, Murtagh led the reopening of the iconic property after a 15-month propertywide transformation.
“Originally opened in 1929 and beloved for its Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Chase McArthur design, our team worked meticulously with Wright devotees to respectfully restore, repair and ultimately celebrate the resort’s storied legacy while elevating the guest experience for visitors from around the world,” Murtagh says. “I think what we’ve created here is the greatest production of my life.”ν