David Duncan is the president and CEO of First Hospitality, based in Chicago. He has over 25 years of global operating experience in managing high performing teams and in executive roles in both private and publicly held organizations. In the midst of the pandemic, First Hospitality rolled out the Emerge Stronger campaign, which drove the company’s hotel portfolio to lead performance across different markets in the United States. Throughout 2020, First Hospitality saw STR results that included a 122 percent RevPAR Index and a 443 percent group RevPAR Index. Duncan shares with Kevin Ramsey, member manager at the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), how First Hospitality has employed data and analytics to remain agile as the landscape continues to change for the hotel industry.
Can you tell us a bit about your company?
First Hospitality was started with a strategic vision to create value for all stakeholders through excellence on fundamentals and openness to doing things differently. Over the past 36 years, First Hospitality has grown into a nationally recognized hospitality investment, development, and management company. We’ve successfully invested in nearly 100 hotels throughout the country and delivered IRRs of over 22 percent on fully realized investments.
In 1985, Stephen L. Schwartz established First Hospitality with a single hotel and the company has grown to over 50 U.S. hotels. We’re still building on our legacy of success and believe in cultivating innovation. Each leader at the helm of First Hospitality has known we are a generational organization, and our goals are bigger than any individual year. Reflecting on 2020, I’m grateful to lead a company that’s agile, forward-thinking, and takes such pride in caring for its people and partners. As a partner, we understand what owners expect and hope to achieve because we are owners, too.
How did you first hear about AHLA and what made you want to get involved with the organization?
First Hospitality has a long-standing relationship with AHLA on the corporate and property level. Many members of our organization are actively engaged with the national and state chapters as council members. AHLA has done incredible work for the benefit of hospitality stakeholders and employees, and I’m proud to be a member of an organization that has advocated for all of us throughout the pandemic. Not only did AHLA successfully advocate for relief funding for our industry and ensure the inclusion of hospitality provisions in COVID-19 ordinances, they were key to ensuring hotel workers were some of the first groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
They’ve also taken the important steps to develop a DE&I task force. We hope to be involved in AHLA’s efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the hotel and lodging industry, and we have taken similar steps at First Hospitality with our Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. With combined efforts of organizations already on this path, we’re excited to champion meaningful change in our industry.
How do you see the hotel industry evolving over the next five years?
There is no doubt that the pandemic and the civil unrest we experienced last year has changed the trajectory of our industry forever, and might I add, for the better. These changes led to a rapidly shifting business environment. This past year reinforced the multifaceted challenges that will continue to face our industry over the coming years. We know that a strong foundation ensures long-term resiliency and success. We re-invested in our core operating structure by launching the Emerge Stronger plan, which built upon our proven systems with improved technological efficiencies, more robust data analysis, and refined support processes. Over the coming years, these advancements will help us remain agile, scalable, and resilient.
As business begins to come back, a competitive approach to staffing is imperative. Associate satisfaction directly impacts our performance results. This past year, we invested heavily in improved communication tools, workforce management programs, and recruitment and hiring processes to ensure that we are attracting and retaining the highest-quality talent. We also continue to reinforce our company culture and take action on our DE&I goals. Candidates are increasingly seeking rich and diverse workspaces, and that trend will continue.
In addition to traditional management positions, I think highly specialized roles will continue to emerge to address every guest need. We’ll have in-room music curators and wellness guides, perhaps even interior designers to customize the color palette of a suite. I think the work-from-home trend is also here to stay and will shift how we market to business travelers. We’ll have more use for the communal spaces and smaller meeting venues in hotels.
We’ve found that data has been instrumental to navigating unstable periods such as the pandemic. We rolled out FIRSTAnalytics, a proprietary revenue management system, in January 2020 to bridge the gap between third-party revenue software. Even during the most unstable times, we were able to anticipate demand changes and revenue opportunities, which allowed us to grow share throughout 2020. We continue to refine and improve this system, which now includes sales and marketing performance metrics, so our managers can make quick and strategic decisions as conditions continue to change. Data will continue to be significant for our industry as we navigate the pandemic recovery period and beyond.
What was your greatest takeaway from the past year?
After a year with historically low occupancy, we really began to miss the hustle-and-bustle of our hotels and sharing in the hospitality experience with our team members and guests. Through all of the upheaval, we were still able to provide safe havens for travelers. We realized how rewarding it is to greet the familiar faces of our business travelers, witness joyful wedding celebrations, and see our cities through the fresh eyes of first-time visitors.
The hospitality business is a gift, and we are ready to unwrap it again. We’ve built great teams and seeing the renewed enthusiasm across our associates as they come together again and get back to business has been incredibly energizing.