Steve Van, president and CEO of Prism Hotels & Resorts, founded the Dallas-based company in 1983. Under his leadership, Prism has become an award-winning full-service hotel management, investment, and advisory services company. Van spoke to LODGING about the belief system that underlies his company’s success, especially its focus on operational excellence, personal service, and the ability to adapt quickly to changing realities.
What are some of Prism’s recent accomplishments? Our management changes and recent acquisitions, including several in Las Vegas, are part of a five-year plan to reposition the company from being one that manages 200 to 300 distressed hotels to managing 30 to 40 full-service hotels. Among our significant strides has been winning the approval of Hyatt and management of their hotels, which is no small feat, and beating out the competition—among 10 hotels—in a national search by the Carpenter’s Union, which has a phenomenal 1-million-square-foot training facility and three hotels in Las Vegas. We also have a big Hilton resort in Tucson and a brand-new Embassy Suites in Oklahoma City. Instrumental in our success in bringing in these new hotels is our new COO, Mark Van Amerongen, who leads operations performance and supports our emphasis on personal service.
You have properties all over the country now. Do you try to pursue specific markets or just the right hotel? Actually, it’s not just the right hotel we’re looking for; it’s the right owner. We particularly enjoy working with entrepreneurs who made their own money and need a great hotel management company. Our “sweet spot” is 200- to 600-room full-service hotels with meetings and banquets. We can use our expertise—especially group sales and revenue management—to turn them around. In keeping with our emphasis on personal service, we are based in Dallas, where you can get anywhere and back in a day. We seek opportunities where we can make a big difference in the bottom line by adding significant value to the owner’s hotel acquisition.
How can you tell if the owner is the kind of person you want to work with? First, you have to meet with them personally to get a sense of their goals and values. You need to go to their office and sit down with them. This takes time and a lot of travel. That’s why we live on airplanes. We’ve actually turned down some assignments because we didn’t there was a personality fit or that they shared our values. We always do a complimentary evaluation of the hotel opportunity when the owner is buying a hotel or looking to change their management company. We let them know what we think we can do.
Now that you’re working with clients more closely aligned with your values, how do you help them reach management decisions? As I see it, it helps that we’re in the “Goldilocks zone of management companies.” We’re not too big to have a personal relationship with each of our owners, but we’re not so small that we don’t have experts in every area, including revenue management, human resource liability protection, licensing, auditing, and accounting, so what we do is bring in our team to the hotel opportunity and then make a presentation about the strengths and weaknesses, based on a study using an enormously detailed checklist. Then we show in a methodical way what we think we can do for them. Owners like that we have great chemistry and mutual respect as a team. We really like each other, so although we work hard, we also have a lot of fun together, too.
In your opinion, what’s the secret of staying competitive in today’s market? If you can’t adapt to changing reality, you’ll end up being a buggy whip maker. The exciting thing about the business—and reason I’m not retiring—is that it’s fun, and reality is changing so quickly. To be a successful management company, you must embrace change. You must try to grow ahead of the market. If you’re a big institution and have been enormously successful, it’s hard to change. But if, like us, you have 25 hotels and own your own company, you can do it tomorrow. That’s what we see as our competitive advantage.