Changes for the Better: GF Hotels & Resorts’ Presidents on Smart Growth Using Talent, Systems, and Processes

GF Hotels

Among the management companies LODGING recently featured is GF Hotels & Resorts, which recently promoted John Rubino and Vineet Nayyar to assume the presidency of the company’s Managed Division and Owned Division, respectively. While speaking to LODGING, the two newly minted presidents traced their respective paths in the industry, described their priorities and the company’s growth strategy, and, of course, how the pandemic impacted their outlook and plans.

What were your respective paths to your current positions?

Rubino: When I decided to consider career opportunities other than accounting at Penn State, I learned that the university had a highly regarded hospitality management program, where, I also learned, my cousin Pete was a professor. Since then, my son and several nephews completed that same program and have followed Pete and me into the industry, where, before coming to GF in 2019, I held various operations positions, including executive vice president, regional director, area manager, and general manager.

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Nayyar: Although my family was firmly established in the medical field, my dad recognized that I was a people person and encouraged me to look into hospitality. With my parents’ support, I applied to and was accepted at the Alpina School of Hotel Management in Switzerland. Back in the states after graduation, I worked in nearly every position, from bellman and all the way up to being president and COO of GF Hotels & Resorts’ Owned Division.

What are some valuable lessons learned from the pandemic?

Rubino: Of course, the pandemic was a tragedy, but the takeaway for us was that we needed to re-evaluate how we do business as a hotel company. We had always been an office-centric company, but when stay-at-home orders were issued, we were forced to leave our Center City Philadelphia offices and work remotely and for much longer than expected. As it turns out, just prior to the pandemic, we had put in place an infrastructure of people—including top talent in human resources, sales, and marketing—because we had plans to grow. So, while many companies laid off their top people when the pandemic hit, with the support of our CEO and founder, Kenneth Kochenour, we kept them on and moved quickly to acquire programs and issue equipment to allow our team members to remain productive throughout the pandemic. We used those early months to meet virtually and to collaborate to develop plans, programs, and processes to make us even stronger.

Nayyar: What John is describing is how important it was to keep our best people even during the pandemic, when larger hotels especially were struggling without catering, corporate business, and conventions. We’re in the great position we are in now because we kept the right people, the ones that are helping us rebuild together.

How have these lessons informed how GF Hotels & Resorts will continue to operate as a company?

Rubino: Everyone talks about the importance of recruiting top talent and treating all team members with respect and providing them the support and training they need to succeed in their jobs, but, it seems to me, the Great Resignation was really about retention, and therefore, investing in our people is the most important thing we can do. We’ve realized that we can’t just find leaders; we need to create leaders. That’s why GF has rolled out our Career Advancement Program (CAP), which is designed to give training and education to hospitality team members at every level—for example, room attendants can become supervisors and inspectors; desk clerks can become front office managers; general managers can become regional managers, and so on. Although we did finally return to work in our Center City office, there is now a hybrid work atmosphere to enable more flexibility for those whose positions allow it. We’ve also moved several positions to be permanently remote, which has enabled us to tap into talent all across the country; we’re not just limited now to talent in one geographic location.

In what ways have your plans, including your growth strategy, changed during this period?

Rubino: Our core business has been loan workout strategies and receiverships, but we also provide asset management and advisory services for a variety of individual, private, institutional, and financial clients. Our goal now is to use that core business to build our third-party business, i.e., adding management contracts. Right now, about 12 percent of our portfolio consists of owned hotels; but third party is where we’re heading with our growth, with some investment in properties that we feel are really good fits.

Nayyar: We’re an entrepreneurial company, so what we do is not just about management; it’s about providing the right support to whoever we’re working with at whatever level—individual owners, ownership groups, lenders, etc. In all cases, the approach is the same: maintaining the cash flow and hiring the right people to service the right customer. Our focus going forward will be on full service. We feel we have the right team in place to go after larger assets, such as hotels with large meeting spaces and resorts, where we can provide the right service, like food and beverage components.

What are your biggest priorities right now?

Rubino: While growth is a priority for us, the priorities that come with that include ensuring that we have the infrastructure to grow smoothly and successfully. And, to me, that infrastructure is our talent, which we need to retain, and the processes and systems we need to grow smoothly. l Nayyar: Also underpinning growth are the things that enable us to operate to provide guests and employees with the things they need and want. We must continue to meet the most current health and safety requirements, and the labor challenge through recruitment and training. We also need strategies for managing supply chain issues; to ensure that enough supplies and essential items are in place, we need to focus on alternative products.

What are you expecting the year ahead to look like?

Nayyar: Given recent events, we are prepared for uncertainty but encouraged to see that corporate travel is finally starting to come back, although we don’t expect the big conventions to return for another year or so. We believe we are in a very good position to succeed. We have the right infrastructure and the right support.

Rubino: We’re confident about the future and excited about what it holds for us. Throughout the pandemic, we experienced growth in our asset count as a hotel company, and we have a healthy pipeline of assets that we’re currently evaluating either to bring into our portfolio on an investment basis or to manage them for owners that are looking to enter the hotel space. As we see hotels continue to trade, we’re finding buyers new to the hotel space that are attracted to what we have to offer—a company that is large enough to offer them depth in talent and economies of scale for purchasing, but small enough for them to be a priority to every team member, including Vineet and me.

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Christine Killion is the editor of LODGING Magazine, and Ellen Meyer is a recurring contributor.