W. Chris Green, president and CEO of Greenbelt, Md.-based third-party management company Chesapeake Hospitality, has spent the past year making decisions targeted at helping the properties in Chesapeake’s portfolio weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, that focus is starting to shift from survival to recovery. “We all need to be thinking about how we’re going to lead the industry out of this downturn. We all have a responsibility to remind people why we love hospitality and why the industry is so great,” he says. LODGING spoke with Green about the pandemic, Chesapeake’s people-first culture, and why this industry is worth fighting for.
How has the hotel management landscape changed due to COVID-19?
It’s hard to quantify how fundamentally this pandemic has impacted our industry. It’s not only that RevPAR and sales dropped to lows that we had never seen before, but there were also fundamental differences in how the pandemic was handled in different regions, states, and even municipalities. The pandemic has put a huge amount of pressure on hotel managers, but there’s no playbook that applies to everyone. Your approach needs to be tailored to your location, asset class, and whether you cater to business or leisure travelers, among other factors. Some roadside properties have consistently had occupancies around 75 percent over the last year, whereas city-center properties are holding at about 10-20 percent. As a third-party manager, we have resources we need to apply different across the board. In one market we could be focusing heavily on cash management and capital conservation, but in another, we’re driving RevPAR, managing sales and staffing challenges and implementing new safety and security initiatives. Hospitality management has gotten much more difficult and complex over the past 12 months than it ever has been.
What was your focus at Chesapeake when the pandemic hit? How did that focus change over time?
Our primary concern at Chesapeake has always been our people. In hospitality, people come first, period. At the start of the pandemic, we split our team into two divisions – one was going to be focused on the care and concerns of our associates and the other was going to be on the care and concerns of our clients. We knew at that point that new business wasn’t really happening, so for our clients, we were focused on capital preservation, cash flow preservation on the owner side, and then making sure that employees – both those who were current and those who had to be laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic – were cared for. That included communication regarding government resources that were able to help people during this really difficult time.
While parts of our approach have evolved with the situation, the care and concern for our people has never changed. Unfortunately, due to the length of the pandemic, we’ve lost a lot of our colleagues to other industries. This is a hospitality-wide issue; I can’t tell you how many CEOs or peers on the AHLA Board I’ve talked to who are concerned about having enough staff to meet demand. Think about it – this summer and fall we’re expecting to see occupancy levels rise between 50 and 100 percent compared to last year. That’s just a massive gain, and it’s going to take work to get ready.
I think that we, as an industry, have to remind people how great hospitality is. Even though it’s been on the longest pause anybody ever imagined, the time to spread this message is now. That’s got to be priority one for leaders in our business – we need to be reminding people of how great this industry is.
Why is partnering with a manager important right now?
Obviously, I’m speaking as the CEO of a management company, but I’ll tell you this: Not only have we retained our talent, but we’ve gotten stronger through this. The best management companies have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to enhance their processes and retool their approach to launch strongly into the recovery. Further, good management companies simply have capacity that individual asset owners don’t have, whether it’s on the revenue generation side, revenue strategy, e-commerce delivery, or direct selling. As a code demand, we we’re look at it by specific market. As a result, we know which segments are traveling. We have experienced share gain throughout the pandemic at all of our assets. If you don’t have a team looking at the broader marketplace, and don’t understand who is actually on the road, you’re not going to be able to appropriately tailor your strategy.
What’s kept you hopeful during this really difficult period?
I’m just a huge believer in service leadership and putting others first. I’ve witnessed such an outpouring of people acting in service to others – helping people through difficult times financially and standing up and supporting friends and colleagues who were put in difficult situations or experienced horrible losses. Despite everything, the human spirit has thrived during this pandemic, and it has been amazing. I also think that hospitality people are people of hope. Travel’s not going away; when all this is over, it’s going to be better than ever.
I also want to say that I care about our business, and I care about our industry. I am a fighter and I refuse to let it lie. We’ve learned so much over the past year and I think the best management companies have gotten better because of the pandemic. That means hoteliers are going to see better results, better performance, and better hospitality as we roll forward. We’re going to see a renaissance again and I’m here to do everything I can to make that happen.
What are some steps that you’re taking to help Chesapeake hotels prepare for recovery?
Primarily, there have been two things that we’ve been helping our hotels with. First is controlling costs. Everybody has been focused on costs throughout the pandemic; you had to cut down costs and maintain a positive cash flow. The other thing, though, is people. We have never lost sight of people throughout the pandemic and made a conscious effort to ensure that our strong, people-focused company culture remains intact. How we take care of our people never changed; our benefits packages were strengthened and our wages are more than competitive in all of our markets. We need to be sure that our properties are not only attractive to hospitality colleagues, but that the culture is strong enough to retain the best people as we come out of this crisis.
The other thing I want to mention is that you have to be ready for the recovery. You have to position yourself to grab the most market share when people start traveling again. At Chesapeake, we want 100 percent of all of the rooms traveling into our market, and if we’re not getting them, we’re figuring out how we are going to get them. There’s going to be unbelievable opportunity for savvy and nuanced operators to reposition their hotels as we emerge from the pandemic. During a recovery, every great challenge leads to great opportunity, but you’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be at the plate with your bat ready to swing. We’ve been prepping our people to stand in the batter’s box and knock it out of the park.