Hotel Business: Operating Independents Requires Tenacity

9 years, 2 months ago - June 15, 2013
Having been told I was being promoted and could look forward to my first posting as GM on a small sunny island in the Caribbean, I said “Thank you very much” and quietly cringed. As hotel manager at the prestigious The Drake Chicago, transitioning from Armani-Hermes to Tommy Bahama, from Michigan Avenue to the Leeward Side, from the Palm Court to the pool bar, was not my idea of a promotion.

This was exile.

So after 14 years with a major brand, I called a recruiter and quickly landed my first official posting as GM at the Raphael (now Raffaello) Hotel in Chicago, just two blocks away from the oak-paneled offices of The Drake. But in a sense, I was on an island of a different sort.

The Raphael, purchased from Starwood Hotels & Resorts, was to be fully renovated to 4-star standards and would operate as an independent boutique hotel with 175 rooms. A walk in the park, I thought. With designs being finalized and until we closed the hotel for the renovations, we would continue to operate as a 2.5-star unionized hotel. For the next six to nine months it was to be business as usual.

I reported to work and found a big office and a phone with 30 speed-dial buttons, just like The Drake. A large closet near my desk was locked and emitted a dull humming sound. I reminded myself that I needed to get the key and see what was in there. As part of the handover, Starwood Hotels shut down all proprietary software programs and scrubbed the database. The link to central reservations had been cut. We were on our own.

I toured the hotel from top to bottom. My only concerns on Day One had to do with technology. Reservations were being received via fax and manually input. The Internet was slow throughout the building. All the interfaces to the various sub systems kept going offline. We had no revenue-management program; all rates were being manually adjusted through various extranets. And alarms kept sounding in the computer room in the basement.

My initial thought? Call information systems management and investigate. But there was no ISM. In fact, all 30 lines on the speed dial just rang to the front desk. I got a sinking feeling. What happens if we lose our T1 line? What if the fax line goes down? Who the heck am I going to call for help?

At that very instant, as I calculated infinite possibilities of failure, and realized that I was alone on a different sort of island, the dull humming sound from the nearby closet stopped. My computer was no longer connected to the Internet. Guests were calling down about no Internet. Access to reservations was halted, but we still had phones. I shuddered. Friday at 5 p.m. and we had no tech support, no brand support, no one in the whole world could help us.

The engineer unlocked my mystery closet and all I could see was a wall of computers, screens and wires—lots of wires. I thought the computer room in the basement was the brains of the hotel but this must be the heart. And what a mess! Lights flashing, bells ringing, warning messages on every screen. And lots of machines that seemed to be dead.

I was crawling around on the floor, breathing dust bunnies that have been growing for years. Tracing cords from one terminus to the other. It was rather like when a car breaks down. You open the hood to look for what is wrong, but really have no idea what you’re looking at. I found a plastic plug hanging nearby some sort of hub. This plug had to go somewhere, but where?

That’s when it dawned on me that no one is going to show me the way or tell me what’s right or wrong. And not trying is simply not an option. I plugged it in to 20 slots until something began to stir. Lights started to blink, fans started to whirl and that dull humming sound became a heartwarming melody all over again.

“Mr. Jordan, Mr. Jordan,” the desk agent yelled, “the Internet is back on.” I crawled out of that closet, dusted off and slipped into my chair. I could live on this island, I thought. It was 8 p.m. and finally I felt like I could leave.

Leaving meant taking time to reflect on the excitement of the day and what tomorrow would bring. I concluded:

  • Independent hoteliers have autonomy—autonomy to succeed or fail.
  • Autonomy requires agility, flexibility and strong analytic skills.
  • Leadership skills and risk tolerance drive decisions.
  • Independents are not constricted by a brand standard, but they also have little support.
  • “Notes to self” must be followed up right now, not later and certainly not tomorrow.

Ultimately what I learned is operating an independent property can be exhilarating and challenging all at once.


Text by Hotel News Now

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