Check that one off, move to the next Chapter

In May of 2015, I wrote about always keeping your eyes open for “windows of opportunity” that might pop up and offer the opportunity to do something totally profound or unexpected. At the time, I was starting down a path toward my MBA, reigniting my academic side, after a four-decade hiatus. I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to reenter academia after such a long time away, but I had the time and the resources, and it was clearly at the top of my “bucket list”, so I jumped into the abyss. Now, just over two years later, I can tell you that it was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! It stretched my mind and put pressure on me to look at things differently, often through the eyes of the millennials that comprised the majority of my classmates. I am very proud to tell you that I graduated this past month at the top of my class at Johnson & Wales with a Masters in Business Administration, with Hospitality emphasis. Check that one off the “bucket list”, done!

Now, I am off to the next chapter, the next “window of opportunity”. My wife Ruth and I, along with some truly wonderful partners, are going to build a hotel in downtown Ellensburg, Washington, a great little town that we call home. This hotel will be an independently operated, 59-room boutique hotel, attached to an award-winning, recently restored Elks Lodge building. The hotel will make use of the former Elks magnificent 3,600 sf ballroom as its primary meeting space, connected by a signature sweeping staircase from its Main Street facing lobby. The hotel will have all of the modern conveniences and amenities of a 21st century hotel, with the charm and design to complement the adjacent historic Elks building. If all goes as planned, the hotel should start construction in early 2018 and open by the end of the year.

Life is full of windows. Always keep your eyes open as you never know when the perfect “window of opportunity” will come along. When one opens, and you know it is right for you, jump on it, make it happen. I have, and I am very glad that I did.

Something Completely Different

My humble apologies for the lateness of my February message. Other than being really busy, I have no excuse. But, in any event, the month isn’t over yet, not quite, so here goes!

Most months I use this forum to talk about something related to the Hospitality Industry, and this month is really no exception, since the topic has quite an impact on travel. But instead of talking about great service or some other pertinent topic, this month I am going to offer some perspective on gasoline prices. Yep, that’s right, gas prices. We all have to deal with them, and everyone has an opinion about whether they are too high. The quickly approaching summer promises to be the most economical for travelers in a long time. Good news for Hospitality no doubt. Gasoline prices are at levels that we haven’t seen in a long time. The oil companies and Wall Street would have you think that oil prices are too low, and in fact the downward spiral in oil has had a seriously negative impact on the stock market. My question is “why”? Certainly, lower oil prices will generate more car travel. Airline ticket prices are more reasonable then in recent memory. The oil that becomes the myriad of plastic things we use in our everyday lives is cheaper, which keeps lots of prices down, including shipping prices, since all those trucks and trains burn fossil fuels. So, who exactly is the downturn in oil pricing hurting? It would seem that it is primarily the oil companies, and I just don’t think that anyone should lose much sleep over that. They weren’t worrying much about us when we were struggling with near $5 a gallon gas pricing a couple years ago.

Some perspective might help. I have this really nice financial calculator that I bought for one of my graduate Finance classes, made mostly from plastic by the way. That plus a little quick Google research produced some fascinating trivia. I started with a look at gas prices in 1971, because that’s when I started buying gasoline for my folks 1967 Plymouth, which I got to borrow occasionally. Gas cost about 36 cents a gallon back then. The average inflation rate over the 45 years since is 4.14%. Based on that rate of inflation, gas should cost $2.23 per gallon today, which isn’t far off from reality here on the West Coast, where I live. So, based on my extensive 15 minutes of research, all is well!  Things are just as they should be.

So, what are you waiting for? Get in your car or on a plane, train or boat and go somewhere this summer! The great deals won’t last forever!

 

New Year, New Opportunities

As we approach mid-January, by now you have probably recycled (or God forbid, disassembled) your Christmas tree and stored away the decorations. For me, it is the toughest part. I love everything about the Holidays, except taking them apart, putting them away and moving on. But, while each New Year brings its own challenges, it also brings opportunities, the chance for a fresh start, and who knows, maybe the best year of your life!

While I can’t predict with any certainty if this is going to be “your” year, there is one thing I can tell you for sure. If you don’t go into it with the idea that it can be, it won’t be. Optimism is a wonderful thing, and it is contagious, but so too is pessimism. There is no shortage of great opportunities out there. Notwithstanding those who will tell you different, the economy is generally strong, as is the job market, especially in the Hospitality Industry. Think about your future, where do you really want to be in five years? Is your current path going to get your there? There is no time like the present to explore all of the wonderful opportunities that are out there.

I would also suggest that you take inventory of your education and skills. I made the decision almost a year ago to go back to college to get my MBA. Now, I am well along and couldn’t be happier for having made the commitment to go after something that I had as a back burner goal for decades. If you don’t have the education or skills needed for that next step, find a way to go get them. Do your best to not let life get in the way. When the sacrifice pays off in the future, it will be well worth the effort and focus that it required of you, and you will be a better person for it.

The New Year can also be a new beginning for family. Take this opportunity to show your family how important they are to you, and that you couldn’t get along without them. Make that most important person in your life more important than you. There is no greater gift to them, and yourself. You will be glad you did.

What are you waiting for, make 2016 the best ever. It’s in your hands!

 

The Unwrapped Present

With the Holidays nearly upon us, this month I have the great pleasure of sharing a wonderful story, written by a mentor and former colleague of mine, Rob Hebeler, with his permission. Nowadays, Rob is the Assistant Dean of Rollins College in Florida. Rob first published this story on his own site http://www.thefridaystory.com/  .

At this time of year, I often reflect on the Christmas mornings growing up in New Jersey. The opening of presents, the wrapping paper flying everywhere, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sound of bacon sizzling on the stove, Christmas songs playing on the stereo, and the many hugs and smiles from my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends dropping in throughout the day. But there is one Christmas in particular that I recall each year. A Christmas morning that changed my life.

I was eight years old. My only desire was that I wanted a “Johnny Lightning Racing Set” for Christmas. I had sent no less than five letters to Santa Claus asking and pleading for the gift. I remember writing all the reasons why I deserved the racing set, and how “I would never write to him again if he didn’t leave it on Christmas Eve.”

Well, times were tight that year (... I only realized this sometime later), and instead of opening up the Johnny Lightning Racing Set with automatic lap counter and a lifetime membership into the Johnny Lightning Racing Club, I received two pairs of pants, a sweater, a small red truck, and a letter from Santa which I crumbled without reading.

So instead of rejoicing on Christmas morning, I yelled, screamed and said I hated Santa Claus “the big fake” with all my might. My mother cried. My father said I didn’t realize what I was saying. I was sent to my room with the crumpled Santa Claus letter in my hand.

There in my room, I cried and cried. But somewhere between planning to write the President of the United States not to let Santa Claus into the country, and writing a nasty letter to Santa Claus, I picked up the crumpled letter from Santa now laying on my floor.

“Let’s see what this big, fat jerk has to say,” I remember yelling at the top of my lungs.

I sat down at my desk and read the letter from Santa Claus.

Dear Robert,

I am sorry if I have let down one of my best friends – you. I was not able to leave the gift you asked for, and I am sorry. But there is a present that you may have overlooked. It is not under the tree and it is not wrapped. It is not something you can plug in or assemble. It is with you every day of the year, and gives and gives even when it hurts.

Remember when you struck-out in Little League this past season? Who was there to give you a comforting hug? Remember when you won the spelling contest? Who cheered the loudest you when you were awarded the winning prize? And remember when you were very sick this past fall? Who stayed with you all night long, held your hand, and placed a cool cloth of your forehead?

You have probably never thought about it in this way, but Robert as you continue to grow and cast doubt on much (...even on my very existence), realize that the most precious gift is one that is not wrapped or found under a tree. The unwrapped present is the love of a parent; the love for their son.

This very special gift is waiting for you right now—your Mother and Father. Go and hug them tightly, and try to never let go. This Christmas day will pass all too quickly, but their love for you is timeless and beyond worth. And, it is this love is what Christmas is all about.

Your friend,

Santa Claus

Now many years have passed since that Christmas morning, and the letter remains carefully preserved. I often reflect on how my Mother would stay by my bedside when I was ill, and I laugh when I picture my Father fast asleep snoring in the easy chair waiting for me to return home from the high school prom so many years ago.

“Thank you Santa for showing a selfish eight year old boy the true meaning of Christmas. It has made all the difference in my life and in the lives of my children. I just wish I could have that unwrapped present right now.”

 

Bang For Your Buck

This edition of “Winning Ideas” is all about closing out 2015 with some well thought out impactful action. Amazing as it may seem, we are well into November. Seems like the year just got started! As the last of the fall colors give way, you are likely facing that point in your year where you are putting the finishing touches on your budgets for 2016 as you endeavor to finish 2015 strong. This is a good time to reflect on what you can do both personally and for your business to finish strong, and set yourself up for a winning 2016!

If you are in the hospitality business, this is a good time to focus on “hospitality”. Seems reasonable, after all that is your business! This is a great time for Guest Service training. Indigo Solutions can put together a round of training sessions that are designed especially for the needs of your hotel or business. For a small investment, we can help you get your staff ready for a great 2016! Maybe you have some remaining budget for 2015, or perhaps this is a good fit for the first quarter of next year. Either way, contact us today either through this website or by phone, so we can start working on a program for you.

For all of the hoteliers out there, this is a great time to look at the areas of your hotel that are most important. Every aspect of your property is important, but there are two that stand out. Not every guest uses your pool or your spa, restaurant or business center, but they all use your beds and bathrooms. Are they tired or do they sparkle? This is a great time to evaluate your beds, bath linen and terry. Your guests spend between one third and one half of their visit in your beds. If you truly want to get some bang for your end of the year bucks, this may be the very best place to start. Follow up with an honest review of the fixtures and the terry in your bathrooms. If most of the terry was around when you started 2015, you’re not putting your best foot forward. Some money spent here at year end is a great way to set you up for success in 2016!

This leads to my last piece of shameless self-promotion. For a very nominal investment, Indigo Solutions can provide you with a year end checkup for your hotel or hospitality related business. We have the advantage of being able to be a second set of eyes that can focus on whatever needs the most attention, whether it is the guest/customer facing aspects of the business or back of the house.

Lastly, don’t forget to take some time between now and year end to assess your own personal progress on goals for 2015, and some realistic goal setting for the year ahead. A little time for self-reflection now can provide some bang for your own bucks as we race toward 2016. Have a great month!

 

Managing For Stakeholders

Imagine an environment where the goal of every business is to create “win-win” situations with everyone it touches in the community. Why not? Many of those people have a stake in not only your success but the success of the community. That is the concept behind “Managing For Stakeholders”. Your stakeholders are all around you. They are your stockholders or owners, your customers, vendors, employees, the local government and the neighboring businesses. If you are a hotelier, they are counting on your guests to visit their businesses while staying at the hotel. Your success is their success!

Next time you have a major decision to make, take the time to consider how all of those stakeholders would respond to that decision if you were to consult them. Are your rates structured so that your guests believe they got good value, or are they high because you’re the only game in town and it’s a busy weekend? Do your vendors love doing business with you, or have you driven them down on price so much that there isn’t anything left for them? Are your owners or stockholders just pleased with the profits or are they proud to own a piece of the business? Are you paying your core staff a living wage and providing some competitive benefits, even though your competitors are not? Similarly, is the local government pleased with the tax revenue, or are they excited to call your business part of the fabric of the community?

I’m not suggesting that you should consult all of the stakeholders every time you set rates, make an offer to a vendor or decide on a marketing campaign. What I am suggesting is that you consider the impact on each and every one of them, with both a short and a long term viewpoint. Think about it this way. If the rate on the busiest weekend of the year is still a good value, maybe that same guest will think of you next time, when it isn’t the busiest weekend of the year. Maybe that vendor will be more inclined to go open up his warehouse to get you supplies on a cold winter night when you run out. And, maybe, just maybe those core employees that you count on to be there when you need them and make you successful will kick it up a notch and make you not only successful, but the best in your community and proud of your business. That is what “managing for stakeholders” is all about!

Lessons from an "old friend"

I quite unexpectedly got a phone call yesterday from an old friend, and because I suspect she would demand clarity, I don’t mean that she’s old, I just mean she’s been my friend for a very long time. She has been through a very difficult medical challenge where there was some real concern along the way that she wasn’t going to make it. Thank goodness, she is coming out the other side of this “cluster” as she described it, and is likely to make a full recovery. There were a couple gems that came from this conversation that I thought were worthy of sharing, that have some application not only in our personal, but also in our professional lives. With that in mind, I changed direction on this month’s topic.

The first gem is her indomitable spirit. She has always been the brightest light in the room, for the many decades that I have known her. This experience didn’t visibly shake her, didn’t make her cynical about life, nor does it seem that she is dwelling on it. She is looking ahead. There is an obvious lesson there, about all of the big and trivial things in our lives.

She also talked about being humbled by this event, in learning how many friends she had, how many people were rocked by what was happening to her, and how they responded. She doesn’t even remember an entire week of the worst of her ordeal, but knows now how many people stopped in their tracks and wanted to know how she was doing and how they could help.

The most important, most profound point that she made was when she said that it was like seeing your own eulogy. She had the opportunity, through direct interaction and social media to see what people really thought of her, how important she was to them, and how the thought of losing her impacted their world in a way that she didn’t realize. This is really quite a gift. Depending on your view of the hereafter, you may or may not think that you will have this opportunity when the time comes.

The ironic parallel of this entire event is that it occurred just 3 weeks before her scheduled retirement after almost 39 years of dedicated work for state government. At her retirement parties many of the same people would have said many of the same things. The parties will now be rescheduled and they will get to say them all over again. What a blessing for everyone involved that she gets to continue being the brightest light in the room for years to come.

 

Don't Worry, Be Happy!

This month I want to talk about guest facing staff. Every one of us who has ever been in that role falls somewhere on a scale. Let’s use a hotel front desk as an example. At one end is the Agent who knows the guests names immediately, chats with them about their day, knows someone from their home town, and takes way too long to check them in, followed by misplacing their paperwork. This one’s anthem is “Don’t worry, be happy!”  At the other end is the technically efficient, highly structured agent, who always balances to the penny, figuratively and literally, and can check a guest in and get them on their way in mere seconds, without ever changing expression. His slogan is “don’t be happy, worry!”  Think about the last time you checked into a hotel. Where did the Front Desk Agent fall on the scale, and which do you prefer?

The obvious answer is to maintain a front desk staff that falls somewhere in the middle of the scale, perhaps tending just a bit toward “Don’t worry, be happy”. This wouldn’t be the case in every department. For instance, you might prefer that your Maintenance or Engineering departments fall somewhere on the other side of the middle of the scale. In other professions, there are jobs that you might very well want at one end of the spectrum, for example Airplane Mechanic, Secret Service Agent or Walmart™ greeter.

At the end of the day, all of these staffs are a reflection of their leaders. Often, mid-level department heads in a hotel have a bit less experience and tend to hire in their own image. So, it seems to be that you as the leader or owner of this hotel should hire department heads who are somewhere near your vision for that department. Otherwise, it is likely that you are going to be fighting an uphill battle to get where you want to be. Then, once you have the right person in place, you can go about the task of training them to hire a range of staff with complementary skills.

Next time you observe the staff of a department in your hotel, picture that scale. Then think about where you believe they should be, and where they actually are. Maybe you’ll be pleased, or maybe you will decide that you have work to do.

Don't Miss Your Opportunity

The topic this month is the incredible impact, good or bad, that a hotel can have on guests, and the responsibility we have as hosts to do everything we can to honor and exceed their expectations.  Among the earliest of hospitality stories was one particularly well-publicized episode just over two millennia ago, involving the turning away of a soon to be very well known family. If offered a “do over”, I suspect that Innkeeper would not have missed the opportunity to somehow improve the overall experience. The point of my story is that hotels are critically important; they often make impressions that last a lifetime, or longer!

If you have the wonderful fortune to own or work at a hotel, you are fortunate. Other than the medical profession, there is no other that has the potential to impact its customers any more significantly. Think about it. People come to hotels for all kinds of reasons. They might be on their “dream vacation”, one for which they saved a lifetime.  Or, they might be in town to visit their first grandchild, or attend a family wedding. They might even be there to prepare for the most important job interview or business meeting of their lives. Perhaps, given the pace of our daily lives, they might just be celebrating their first weekend off in “awhile.”  Or, maybe your guests are touring the USA, something that they dreamed of all their working lives, and now have the opportunity to do in retirement. Whatever the reason for their visit, it has the potential of being incredibly important to your guests, and you have the responsibility as a host to give it the attention it deserves.

This responsibility is the same regardless of whether the hotel is a five-star palace or a limited service freeway property. The basic expectations of the guest may change depending on the market segment, but the experience and the obligation on the host to make it a positive memory are the same at every level. Hotels have the opportunity each day to improve lives, maybe just a little, maybe life altering. Don’t miss your opportunity to be a world-class host.  

Looking For Windows

Most of us have a hidden passion, something we have always wanted to pursue, but haven’t. This could relate to a job, hobby, travel, fitness, education or a myriad of other possibilities. The reasoning for not moving ahead is usually sound, often related to real life realities, such as the demands of a career, raising a family, paying the bills, it goes on and on. It would be easy for me to scream “carpe diem”, that we should always “seize the day”, that one should always pursue their passion. Life is short, and no one deserves to deny themselves that one thing that will most fulfill their goals or complete their “bucket list”. That however, would not only be unrealistic, but in my case fairly hypocritical. I have a fairly long bucket list myself, with more items unchecked than checked.

The good news is that life often provides “windows of opportunity”. The important thing is to do your best to not miss their opening. They often don’t stay open long, and it may be a long time, if ever, before they reopen.  It isn’t always easy to identify the openings, but we usually recognize them when they appear, and then our rational side and natural resistance to change goes to work to try to talk us out of seizing the opportunity.

One such window has opened for me in the past year and I am pleased to report that I recognized the opportunity, and have seized it. I received my Bachelor’s degree at Florida State University a long time ago. I won’t say how long ago, but as a hint it was two football coaches ago, and Bobby Bowden was there a very long time. I had the opportunity then to stay in school and work on my MBA, but instead chose to jump into the real world with both feet. The window for the MBA closed. Life immediately got in the way. Fast forward to present day. Nearly a year ago now, I left a job that I alternately loved and hated for over a decade. That forced me to reevaluate, to decide what to do with the next chapter, whether I really wanted another corporate job, or to go in a different direction.  Lo and behold, there was that same old window, the opportunity to pursue my MBA. It reopened.

This week I will begin an exciting journey.  Academia has changed plenty over the ensuing decades. I barely recognize it, but I’m going to jump in with both feet, as I pursue my MBA online through Johnson & Wales University.

Keep your eyes open as you travel your journey. Look out for those windows, both new and familiar, and if the time is right, don’t let anything get in your way of pursuing your passion.

Find Your Pineapple

Have you found your pineapple? Anyone that truly embraces hospitality has one. You may have one and not even know it. To understand what I am attempting to convey, one must look back into history.  The first account of the pineapple was given by Christopher Columbus and his men, who landed on the island now known as Guadeloupe on their second voyage of discovery. To the “Caribs”, the pineapple symbolized hospitality, and the Spaniards soon learned they were welcome if a pineapple was placed by the entrance to a village. This symbolism spread to Europe, then to Colonial North America, where it became the custom to carve the shape of a pineapple into the columns at the entrance of a plantation.* This of course, was the inspiration for the Indigo Solutions logo. So, back to my original question, have you found your pineapple?

 

For me, the pineapple was my pineapple. When I was the GM at the Whaler on Maui, we placed a fresh Maui pineapple in the refrigerator of each suite on the day of arrival. Going one step further, the luscious fruit was precut, but then reassembled, so that the guest didn’t have to struggle to prepare to enjoy it. This gesture was wildly popular with our guests, and became a standard which remained long after I had moved on.

 

Think about all of the “pineapples” you have experienced in the course of your travels. They might have been in the form of a chocolate chip cookie, presented upon arrival at a Doubletree hotel or something as simple as a cool wet washcloth upon returning to a cruise ship after a long hot day of touring. If you truly understand hospitality, you know that it takes many forms, some of which you cannot hold in your hand. It might be as simple as a sincere handshake or the hug that everyone gets when arriving at a relative’s home. The most memorable and cherished are the ones that you didn’t expect, the gesture that came out of nowhere, that was above and beyond, the one that you didn’t see coming, but it made an impression.

 

When my son Zachary was young, he often traveled with me on business. This generally meant staying in corporate hotels, often not so exciting for a young boy. However, one experience was a genuine exception, one that neither of us will ever forget. On one such trip, we were staying at the Westin-SFO. On the way out the front door on an outing we had a chance encounter with the Sales Manager for the hotel. She met Zachary, wished us well on our outing, and we were off. Upon our return, several hours later, Zachary found a plate of fresh, warm cookies and a cold glass of milk, on the table in our room. This was the most unforgettable, above and beyond “pineapple” ever for that six year old.

 

So, back to the original question, which matters not if you are in the Hospitality business. What is your pineapple?

 

                *L. Patrick Coyle, The World Encyclopedia of Food, Facts On File, Inc., New York, NY, 1982, p. 517.

Everyone Wants To Win

The theme of this first edition is my conviction that in all things we do in life we should seek a “win-win” outcome. Simple enough, and probably not altogether controversial, but in practice, life and business often collide and conflict with this simple premise.  The origins of my philosophy come from my lifelong love affair with hospitality. I was one of those uncommon kids who knew early on what they wanted to do, and then went and did it.