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CEOs Reflect on Lessons Learned During the Pandemic at Hunter Hotel Investment Conference

On May 12, the final day of the 2021 Hunter Hotel Investment Conference, during a general session panel entitled “Leading With Purpose,” five hotel industry leaders sat down to discuss the challenges they faced throughout the pandemic, how they responded to those, their biggest focuses over the past year, and whether they expect those to shift moving forward. Moderated by Kirk Kinsell, principal, Panther Ridge Partners, LLC, the panel began with each of the CEOs reflecting on their pandemic journey and what strategies they relied on to keep their teams focused.

Mark Hoplamazian, president and CEO of Hyatt Hotels Corporation and 2021 Board Chair for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), said that he aimed to keep his team’s focus on what matters most: people. “We feel that we’ve been a purpose-led organization since our founding 60 years ago. The modern expression of our purpose is to care for people so they can be their best,” Hoplamazian explained. “In a year that we had to see or implement the furloughs or layoffs of tens of thousands of people at the hotel level and more than a third of our total corporate staff around the world, you really get challenged. How can you care for someone if you’re putting them out of a job?”

Hoplamazian reviewed some of the resources that Hyatt implemented to mitigate the impacts of those decisions, including creating a digital platform to keep employees engaged and connected with Hyatt so they could be hired back more seamlessly and dispersing more than $17 million to thousands of people affected by the pandemic through the Hyatt Care Fund.

Leslie Hale, president and CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust and 2021 AHLA Board Secretary/Treasurer, said that “over-communication” was critical when navigating the crisis, as was acknowledging what individuals were going through on a personal level. Hale said she knew she needed to communicate calmly, transparently, confidently, and in a way that encouraged and comforted people. “I also needed to be able to communicate in a way that outlines a plan. Even if the plan evolved and changed and had twists and turns, what I realized is that people needed to understand which way to run,” Hale added.

Hale also noted the importance of acknowledging the “human side of the situation,” including asking how people are doing personally at the start of meetings and during town halls. “Normally in a crisis, you’re in a war room and you’re together, but in an environment where we’re all dispersed, the level and the nature of the communication was the essential thing that we had to do in order to get everybody to focus and to be able to move forward.”

Jonathan Stanner of Austin-based Summit Hotel Properties, who transitioned into his role as president and CEO during the pandemic, echoed the importance of “over-communication” and checking in with employees. “This is more than a cursory, ‘I hope everything is alright.’ This is, ‘How’s your family doing? Who’s sick? Who’s ok?’ We have some employees who aren’t in Austin—they’re always remote—and so we don’t have a lot of in-person connectivity with them to begin with, and so you have to manage those relationships in a different way.”

Hoplamazian sees an “elevated sense of empathy” in the industry—and hopes that trend survives beyond the pandemic and that “we all are more intentional” in the ways in which we interact. “The practice of empathy is really critical to hospitality,” he said. “Empathy plus action equals care… you can’t care for someone unless you understand what’s going on with them.”

Hoplamazian also said that his focus through the pandemic evolved to include not only the physical safety of team members but also the mental wellbeing of individuals. He noted that people have gone through and are continuing to experience significant changes in their lives—from employees returning to the office to students going back to in-person classes—and those shifts are stressful. “People have been talking about the mental health pandemic that’s going to follow the coronavirus pandemic, and I remain concerned about it,” Hoplamazian said. “These are not trivial things—they’re big things. That’s how we’re focusing our attention and this is something that is going to be with us, I think, forever. Really paying attention to holistic wellbeing is critical.”

Hale agreed, adding that it was difficult for the entire team to go through the “mental gymnastics” of reimagining the business—from shutting down half of RLJ Lodging’s hotels to reopening them—while “stepping over bodies” in terms of processing the constant news of infection rates and death counts, as well as other crises that occurred over the past year, including the death of George Floyd and violence against Asian Americans. “You’re asking colleagues to go to work in the midst of all that,” Hale said. “The lingering effects of that will be with us for a while. As leaders, we have to make sure that we are elevating our check-in points on the human capital side now more than ever.”

In terms of bringing corporate employees back into the office, Greg Friedman, CEO of Peachtree Hotel Group, said that tools like Zoom can be effective in the short-term, but, ultimately, the organization is most effective when people are interacting in person. “From an innovation perspective, I don’t personally believe Zoom is going to disrupt how we’re going to operate our office,” Friedman said, noting that corporate employees are not required to return to the office right now but the space is open to them and many have returned. “People want to be together and have that personal connection and being able to develop the team really needs to be done in person.”

As the lodging industry begins to recover and businesses ramp up their staffing levels, Kinsell noted that diversity, equity, and inclusion remain a top priority. Hale described RLJ Lodging’s strategies for promoting top-to-bottom diversity that includes representation of women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and differently abled people. The lodging industry… has all the ingredients to improve diversity… You’ve got management companies, brand companies, and ownership companies—most industries are vertically integrated—so you’ve got more opportunities for leadership. Additionally, we’ve got a workforce that is very diverse,” Hale said. In addition to elevating people within hospitality, Hale said, “there are opportunities to look with a wider lens to bringing people into the space.”

Looking forward, panelists see reason for optimism. Through the pandemic, the industry has come together and the experience of navigating the crisis as a team has, in many cases, strengthened relationships within organizations. As Friedman explained, he appreciates the ways in which his organization is stronger today, particularly the culture among the senior leadership team of having healthy debates and working together to find solutions. “No one on the team has all the answers, and our ability to come out with the best solutions as we’ve had to make these hard decisions and pivot and figure out the best path forward—that’s what gave me hope that there was a better future as we were in the midst of it all.”

Stanner said, “At the end of the day, in a lot of ways, you come out of this stronger: You develop a rapport with people having gone through a crisis and have a better relationship moving forward as things start to improve.”