Leading the charge When hotels go beyond the boardroom

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the industry like no other crisis, but as it always does, the industry stepped up to help its team members, vendors and communities with new programs and initiatives to support those in need.

During the Hotel Business Executive Roundtable “Leading the Charge: When Hotels Go Beyond the Boardroom,” held in Columbus, OH, at Smith & Wollensky restaurant, in conjunction with Rockbridge RTRX, which has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, six industry executives gathered to discuss their philanthropic activities during the pandemic, and how they will continue to offer their support when needed. The roundtable was hosted and sponsored by Rockbridge and moderated by Hotel Business Senior Editor Gregg Wallis.

Jim Merkel, cofounder/CEO, Rockbridge, has been impressed with the way the industry has looked out for its own during an unprecedented event.

“Everybody was struggling in this unknown environment—some a lot more than others—and I just saw a lot of people reaching out, rolling up their sleeves and helping others,” he said. “I think that’s one of the best things about our industry, and while it was a really tough time for all of us, it was a tougher time for a lot of others, and it’s just heartwarming to see the industry come together in so many ways.”

Roundtable participant Mike Deitemeyer, president/CEO, Aimbridge Hospitality, spoke of two initiatives that the management company launched during the pandemic.

“We took the opportunity to redistribute food and to make sure that it was going to places in the communities that we all work in and make our living,” he said. “The second thing that we did is,  about 60 days after the shutdown, we launched a 501(c)(3) [organization], Aimbridge Aid, solely for the purpose of benefiting our associates. And we put a process in place where, through the hotels, we could help those in need. We were able to raise $1 million and redistribute that. We continue to use that now as a core part of our culture. Through payroll deductions and other things, employees and associates of the company can directly benefit those that are working beside them.”

Christine Magrann, CEO, Makeready, said her company created a family pantry for those in need. “What we found is our team members and our leaders were most worried if they had young children or were taking care of elderly parents,” she said. “So, we created a pantry at all of our locations, which we still have today, and I think that’ll be something that we do forever. Reduced hours or furloughed team members can come once a day, and it’s all dry goods that come from local donations, our purveyors and our farmers, and then just leftover products that are unopened. They can come and then stock their pantry at home with groceries.”

“What happened—especially immediately after the start of the pandemic—is that our frontline associates were essentially almost at war,” said Robert Cole, president/CEO, Hospitality Ventures Management Group (HVMG) on the toll the pandemic took on those onsite at the hotels. “They had to be concerned for their health and safety, and had to be concerned for their financial well-being and emotional well-being.”

So his company focused on helping “the workers we had to unfortunately lay off and the ones who got reduced hours and wages,” he said. “We did the Associate Relief Fund and augmented our health benefits around mental health and creating paths for folks to get help when they needed it from a counseling perspective and an emotional perspective.”

HVMG rewarded general managers at its hotels for their efforts during the crisis with some well-deserved time off. “What all of our frontline associates did, it’s nothing short of miraculous, and we encouraged all of our general managers to take time off with pay, and we could supplement that with corporate staff,” said Cole. “We would come and stay at the hotel. Our VPs or [regional directors of operations]would work just to give these guys a break because they only have one speed—nonstop.”

Teague Hunter, president, Hunter Hotel Advisors, said he was impressed with the brands and the owners who, early on, were housing the first responders. “When the hospital workers couldn’t go home because of the risk of bringing COVID home to their families, all the brands and owners were offering free hotel rooms for [them],” he said.

Face-to-face goes virtual

For Chris Diffley, managing director, investment, Rockbridge, the lack of face-to-face engagement took its toll on the mental well-being of the company’ associates.

“In a moment’s notice, our daily engagement with our team and the Rockbridge community went away,” he said. “That became hard not only for our hotel employees, but for even our corporate employees. So, we had to focus on getting that engagement back—face-to-face Zoom calls is where it all started—and then trying to get people back to the office. It was tough on a lot of team members to have to lose that sense of community, whether it be at the hotel level or at the corporate office.”

Aimbridge, Deitemeyer pointed out, launched what it called “virtual power hours,” where the company would give COVID updates seven days a week to general managers and other executives for hotels within its portfolio.
“They would listen to the updates and then there would be a period where they’d ask questions, and that was certainly well received,” he said. “It was really just trying anything to show people we were there with them. What was hard, and what I struggled with, is everybody corporate was at home and these people didn’t have a choice. At one point, we had one out of five of our hotels closed; all the rest were open.”

Magrann and Merkel both stressed that it was communication with team members and other companies that enabled them to get through the most difficult times. Makeready instituted a quarterly town hall via Zoom for its staff, which continues to this day.

“It’s humbling and optimistic when you see how many team members actually join those calls today compared to even where we were a year ago,” said Magrann, who added, “Also, on a monthly basis, we sent out a link that’s a database of mental health [literature]and free certifications and lessons that are out there. We were focused on how we could keep people busy and focused on something more optimistic than just all things pandemic. So, we really tried to dig deep into creating this library of great books and great resources. We’ve continued to do that, and I think that it will continue as we move forward, and we’ll keep improving on it.”

Merkel was inspired by the way companies have shared information with each other throughout the pandemic, something rarely seen in other industries.

“We have more than 18 management companies that we work with, and we felt like we could be a central source of information because there’s so much information coming out,” the CEO said. “It really was great to see everybody just helping each other in the process and communicating more.”

While Zoom—and other video conferencing software—was the primary mode of communication, Merkel noted, “It’s so hard to lead through Zoom without that feedback and interaction in between questions and that comfort that comes from being in the same room… There’s really nothing that can replace face-to-face [meetings]and people being together. Zoom’s better than a conference call, conference calls are better than texts, but in person is better than it all.”

Magrann got a lot out of those Rockbridge calls. “We would all join and I would learn from Robert [Cole] about what he was doing at his company,” she said. “That was good because we don’t sit around and have these types of best practices [meetings]as management companies.”

Merkel responded, “Our industry is special as it relates to collaboration amongst competitive firms, and the sharing of information and best practices. I haven’t seen it in other industries. It was on display in a big way during COVID, and I know that from just our calls that other management companies called each other to learn more and elaborate on whatever was said on the call.”

The meetings were also a place where struggling team members had a voice, noted Cole. “Having the ability to bring the team together [serves as]a sounding board—people can vent, they can cry, they can tell their stories,” he said. “It wasn’t like barking out orders or directing; it was just giving folks the opportunity to explain their day and what’s going on at their properties or with their team. I think a lot of the team got through it just being there. In any other downturn, we weren’t having that kind of communication.”

Supporting staff members

Deitemeyer said that supporting its own is what this industry does. “This industry is different from most,” he said. “It provides opportunities and personal developmental growth like no other. It is a business about human interaction and not anyone here would be successful without a bellman or a housekeeper or somebody at that level doing their job well.”

Hunter’s company is small compared to the others on the panel; fortunately, he didn’t have to lay off any of his staff.

“They’re family members, and I wasn’t about to let them go because it is hard to get everybody back,” he said. “I said to the entire team, ‘I’m making a terrible decision right now. We’re not letting anyone go,’ and they all came [to me]and said, ‘We’ll take a pay reduction, we’ll take no bonuses, we’ll take all the above.’ And I said, ‘Let me worry about the dollars. You guys just do your jobs.’ They feel it for me and we feel it for them, but that’s what got us through. That’s the DNA of this industry.”

Magrann said that, being in the people business, companies like hers want to do anything for their employees. “You want them to come back and work for you,” she said. “They’ve been loyal for years—some of us have people who have been working for us at a hotel for 25-30 years, and personally for us for 15-20 years. They follow you, so you want to do everything you can to help them personally, not just professionally.”

Diffley pointed out that “it’s only human to [support them], especially for an industry that is so focused on hospitality and taking care of people,” adding, “They wanted to be there for each other, even when we couldn’t in terms of keeping them employed.”

If employees do end up leaving his company, Deitemeyer hopes they leave with “good feelings” about their time at Aimbridge. “They’ll end up in other places and still be advocates for us,” he said. “We’ve won hotels because somebody worked in our organization earlier in their career, and they had a good experience and want us to get the hotel to manage. Everyone at this table is entrusted with people’s lives and livelihoods and careers. If you’re good stewards of that, they come back to you.”

Cole, whose company employed 3,300 team members before the pandemic started, and within two weeks had only 500, said he was brought to tears by some of those who were let go, adding “We had associates that were laid off that would call apologizing and feeling bad for us to have to lay them off.”

Merkel expects hotel companies to be more empathetic and more prepared for something like a pandemic or other crisis in the future. Cole agreed, adding, “​We all will emerge that much stronger because of what happened. If you try to look at the positive of a very, very negative, terrible situation, I think we all improved as organizations, and as leaders. I know I did; I learned a lot from our people.”

Hunter saw the appreciation of hotel staff when his company hosted the Hunter Hotel Conference at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis in May. It was the first major industry event in the U.S. to return since the onset of the pandemic.

“When we [finalized]our budgets and we were going to lose a fortune, our team members were begging us to cancel it,” he noted. “I said, ‘No, we need to do it. The industry needs it.’ A self-storage business probably would have a different opinion. But we needed to lead from the front, and it was a raving success. We walked in and people [working at]the hotel—the valet guy, the bellman, the front desk person, a waitress—were hugging me. [One said,] ‘Thank you. I haven’t worked in 14 months. We were brought back just because of [your conference].’ About 7,500 people were brought back just for the conference.”

If nothing else, the pandemic has opened the eyes of team members as to what others working at the hotel do every day. “The glorified salespeople are now in housekeeping, and they’re cleaning rooms week after week,” said Magrann. “And they’re working in the dish pits, and they’re working in the back of the house. So the feedback has been tremendous about how much housekeeping appreciates the sales team now and how much the sales team appreciates what the housekeepers do and what the dishwashers do.”

Rewarding the staff

All of the panelists’ companies went above and beyond to show their appreciation for what their team members have done through the crisis.

Cole’s HVMG has traditionally held an award ceremony recognizing its top performing hotels, general managers and sales performers. This year, the company changed things up and honored its frontline associates.

“It seemed shallow that we’re going to recognize financial results or revenue results,” he said. “So, we focused our efforts on the people who put their lives in jeopardy. In May, we did what we called our Hidden Heroes celebration. Our three regional VPs each picked one associate within their region. Those three winners received a pretty large financial award, among other things, and we had one overall Hidden Hero. These were housekeepers, servers and front desk associates. It was a virtual meeting and they explained their story and their history and how they got nominated. It was very compelling and something we may continue doing every year.”

Rockbridge historically has held the High Impact Challenge around the RTRX Experience, where its hotels raised money in their communities for cancer research. The team that raised the most money would be flown up to RTRX. But this year’s challenge was a bit different.

“We wanted to do something to give back and recognize the winning team,” said Merkel. “We’re going to give money from Rockbridge to that hotel’s [leaders]or its management company to give to its team members.”

The ownership company also created the High Impact Heisman. “We have the most hotels of any year that participated in the High Impact Challenge this year,” said the CEO. “We created this High Impact Heisman to recognize some heroes in a hotel and share stories about what has happened at their property and which people went above and beyond for their team members and for their property. The stories that have come in are overwhelming.”

Deitemeyer told the story of one particular team member who was honored at the American Hotel & Lodging Association and AHLA Foundation’s “Night of 1,000 Stars.”

“In advance of COVID, we participated in the [AHLA Foundation’s] Lodging Manager Apprenticeship Program,” he said. “We had a young woman, Tiffany Holland, who was abused as a child. Her GM at the Microtel [in Marianna, FL], Tanya, saw something in her and put her in the program. This woman dealt with depression and a lot of issues, but she got to a point where she realized and understood she could be more. In advance of the function, she saw me and said, ‘I can do anything now.’”

He added, “The GM, with tears in her eyes, told me a story about how she could not have made it through COVID without this woman who never thought she had value or self-worth. And because of our industry and the tools of the association that supports us, she believes she’ll be a general manager of a hotel someday. That’s pretty powerful.”

Where do we go from here?

As the COVID crisis wanes and the industry is on the road to recovery, hotel companies will continue their philanthropic efforts.

Merkel, who conceived RTRX as a platform to raise funds for Pelotonia and its mission of a cancer-free world achieved through innovative cancer research, talked about the annual event and its impact.

“We’re happy to be able to continue to grow what we started 10 years ago with RTRX, and we have brighter days ahead,” he said. “I’ve been really humbled by the response this year.” The event drew almost 80% of the attendance that it had in 2019.

He continued, “Cancer didn’t slow down during COVID; in many ways, it got worse because people were not able to get to the hospital to get diagnosed. Pelotonia is doing amazing things. They funded a $100 million immunology center here, which is bringing the biggest talent and cancer research to this center.”

The Rockbridge CEO has one clear objective with RTRX: to end cancer. “One in two men and one in three women get cancer, and it affects every one of us,” he said. “And, we make a difference in the process. Do good business and grow as humans.”

For Makeready, and Magrann personally, supporting smaller organizations within the communities it operates is its focus. “Some of the larger organizations can make it too complicated, so really listening to local influencers was a big deal for us,” she said. “It is about how we can make an impact on somebody’s daily life that is more simple and more impactful. I still believe in the large philanthropic causes because I think there’s a lot of them out there that are great. But, we’ve shifted to, ‘How do we make a more immediate impact than we did previously in the local community?’”

Merkel believes that the pandemic showed Rockbridge that it could give back even more that it already had done. “I think everything that we’re doing is only getting bigger and getting more focused,” he said. “We’ve had a philosophy that if you are involved in an organization and you’re part of the leadership or board, or you’re volunteering, we will support it. But we can do a better job of encouraging that and making that happen. I think we’ll just continue to, as an industry, make a bigger impact.”

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