LODGING brings you the first installment of our three-part Ownership Series, providing owner perspectives on various hot topics and industry trends. We speak with KouCar Management about their guiding principles as award-winning developers. Look for the second article later this month, focusing on best practices in the area of sustainability. The third installment will publish just prior to The Lodging Conference 2022, where our team will conduct a roundtable with the participating owners.
Christopher Kouza and Joseph Caradonna, cofounders and principals of KouCar Management, are both sons of developers: Kouza’s father developed hotels, while Caradonna’s father developed residential and multifamily communities. One might say the vocation was “handed down.” But independent of their familial ties to the business, the partners articulate several of their own motivations for designing, building, and operating hotels.
First, they find succeeding in that field to be a compelling challenge. “The hospitality industry is the most competitive industry in the world,” Caradonna asserts. “Changes constantly occur: viruses, economic meltdowns, social responsibility and marketing are in constant flux. What motivates us is staying ahead of the ever-changing hotel environment.” Second, they are drawn to the idea of “taking vacant land or an old building and transforming its use for the city, state, and our guests.” And last but not least, they enjoy developing talent. “On the management side, it is our creed to provide training, mentoring and pay for continuing education of our management team and staff,” he says. “Specifically, it is a great joy to watch a front desk clerk work hard and over the years get promoted to general manager. Motivation of the management team and staff is very rewarding to us.”
KouCar’s deep personal investment in the industry resulted in them winning the 2022 Choice Hotels Developer of the Year Award for designing and building four Cambria properties: Cambria Hotel Detroit-Shelby Township, Cambria Hotel Washington D.C. Capitol Riverfront, Cambria Hotel Portland Downtown Old Port, and Cambria Hotel Detroit Downtown. “Winning the Developer of the Year Award is a true honor and privilege for Joe and me,” says Kouza. “This award does not start or end with Joe and me, but rather, we must pay tribute to the Cambria team that worked with us, hand in hand, as a team, to develop all four hotels.”
Caradonna and Kouza were looking for an emerging brand that allowed a franchisee to have creativity in constructing, designing, and operating a hotel, and Cambria allowed just that. “The key word is that the management team, sales team, and operational team all listen to us as the developer/operator,” Kouza stresses. “No two sites are the same, and no two jurisdictions have the same needs. The Cambria teams understand that and work with us to develop the best possible product.”
Developing in the Context of the Site
Several criteria come into play when the partners are evaluating a new site. “Our team considers the following: SRT reports; hotel industry marketing studies; tax incentives; age of the hotels around us; emerging hotspots (e.g., Detroit, Michigan); and ‘location, location, location’—we relish being next to or near conference or convention centers,” Caradonna explains.
In addition, construction costs must be balanced with the rate limitations of the local market. “One of the things that we face, like all developers today, is that we have rising costs in terms of fixtures, furniture, and equipment that have to be installed in the hotels, and the rising cost of construction,” says Caradonna. “And sometimes, you can’t really charge more for a room in a certain jurisdiction or a certain city. So you have to look at it with a keen eye because that rising cost can put you in a bad spot.”
KouCar’s four Cambria hotels have made optimum use of their sites, and the design of each is deeply connected to its locale while retaining brand identity. “Each lobby is designed to give you a feel for the city and state you’re in, a sense of place. However, you still know your surroundings as to where the marketplace, bar, and restaurant will be placed,” Kouza explains.
Guided by Feedback and the Latest Trends
For Caradonna and Kouza, the development project doesn’t end when a hotel has opened its doors. They aspire to continually refine the hotel’s offerings and services via feedback from both staff and guests. General managers, housekeepers, and other front-line employees can identify successes as well as areas for improvement. “And last, but certainly not least, is having interaction with your own guests as the owner/developer,” says Kouza. “We spend a lot of time on all of our properties; we walk around and talk to people. We greet people as they’re checking out or checking in, asking them how [their experience] was or what they expect.”
The partners also monitor trends that can inform the design of both their existing properties and those in the pipeline. On the tech front, “we see design going into enhanced contactless check-in services, enhanced contactless room controls, and contactless room keys or using your phone app as the room key,” Caradonna observes. “We are also constantly studying air filtration systems to [make spaces] germ free and virus free.” The pandemic has led to the increased popularity of open-air venues, and thus “we are trying to have more activities outside such as gyms, rooftop bars, and courtyards,” he adds.
Embracing the ongoing changes in the hotel world is certainly one of the keys to KouCar’s success. Indeed, new trends and new guest expectations make the owner/developer role a perpetually interesting one.
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