HB on the Scene At NABHOOD, industry execs discuss talent, trends

MIAMI—Several industry executives on the “A View From The Top” panel took the main stage at NABHOOD’s annual summit in front of a packed ballroom of developers, owners and students to discuss a wide range of timely industry topics, including hiring, finding and preparing talent; who’s really controlling industry trends; and how to invest when the industry’s at the top of the cycle. 

While properties are in need of talent for day-to-day operations, hospitality executives are searching for candidates to fill open positions—especially strategic ones—within their organizations.

“I think you need people who are well-rounded in what they do,” said Julius Robinson, SVP/global brand leader, classic full-service brands, Marriott International. “They need to have a perspective of the global business. It’s not just about your local city anymore. I think we need people who understand how operations, sales and marketing all come together to make these experiences what customers want to pay for.”

There’s a lot of work that goes into becoming a well-rounded individual. Not everything is so black and white in the hospitality industry. Often, skills overlap, and they can be used at various points throughout one’s career. This is the homework many in the industry fail to recognize until later on.

“I think what’s most important is preparation,” said Norman Jenkins, president of Capstone Development. “There’s no way I could do what I’m doing today had I not taken a series of jobs 20 years ago, 15 years ago.” 

The panel encouraged students in the room to try different roles in the industry to determine what they’d be good at before committing to a particular path.

“I didn’t like hotel operations, but I was pretty good at finance, management and accounting, and got on that track,” said Bill Fortier, SVP of development, Americas, Hilton, when sharing his story about how he first began in the industry. “You just have to jump in and try different things, and you’ll figure out what your passion is.”

He also suggested students find mentors who can assist with opening opportunities in the right places. These mentors can provide valuable insights into best career paths. 

When it comes to industry trends, things have changed. Even though the brands used to set the stage for what customers want, they are no longer the ones in control. “It’s really not the big brands, I think, that start trends,” Fortier said. “It’s the developers, entrepreneurs, who start the trends.” 

For example, when lifestyle hotels began gaining traction, brands like Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants took notice and began developing properties designed to fit the growing consumer need for something other than the typical cookie-cutter property; consumer demands forced brands to adapt.

“We figured it out because the consumer started going there and stopped coming to the Hiltons,” he said. “They told us, ‘I really want this cool hospitality—great restaurant, different type of building, different type of feel’—so then, the brands kind of jumped in.”

Unlike years ago, the brands are now giving hoteliers some breathing room, allowing them to provide their own suggestions, typically based on the feedback given by customers. “The brands have done a really good job of allowing us—hotel owners, operators and developers—to bring ideas that we see out in the marketplace, and the brands are starting to say yes,” said Warren Fields, CEO of Pyramid Hotel Group.

Hospitality groups are also gathering their own data from customers and adjusting efforts accordingly. “The customers are really telling us what they want,” Robinson said. Even though customers are sharing personal data, they want the brands to actually do something with the information submitted. 

“The future of our guests is all about personalization,” he said. “All of you, when you travel, you don’t want to tell a hotel three times that you like feathered pillows or that you like something else. We need to make sure that, for the future, personalization allows us to know what you want when you want it, so that it’s in your room or that it’s at the front desk when you arrive; how we get to that across the portfolio requires us to know a lot about you.”

The executives also discussed the investment cycle.

“The first rule of thumb at the top of the cycle is don’t over invest,” Fortier said. “If you’re building a Hampton Inn or you’re building a Fairfield Inn, build the prototype. If you want to make it a Taj Mahal and you’re going to spend an extra $40,000 a key, well, that might be the wrong time to do it, at the top of the market when occupancies are flat, ADRs may be declining. You’re going to get in trouble with your lender very, very quickly.”

Compared to years ago, it’s taking a lot longer today to build or renovate a property. The hospitality industry isn’t the only industry faring well. Other industries are also building, so everybody is competing for the same electricians, plumbers, etc. This is “driving up costs of construction, and it’s also delaying the time frame in which construction gets done,” Robinson said. 

Being that the lodging industry is cyclical, there are going to be good and bad times, so sometimes the best way to invest is by walking the line and figuring out what works for you and stick with it. 

“What we try to do, in our company, is we try to build in the middle,” Jenkins said. “We never try to play in the luxury space. There’s money to be made in luxury; it’s just not to be made by us. We also try to stay out of the budget category. We really try to play in the middle. What we’ve found is if you’re in the middle—even during times of economic disruption—those hotels will hold up a little better than some of the others.” HB