Red Lion Hotels Corporation (RLHC) has seen significant growth in the last two years. They’ve more than doubled their portfolio, going from 55 hotels to 125, and have hotels 28 states, up from 8. Revenue jumped 57 percent in Q1 2016, and the company is on track to open 20-30 properties per year. At the 2016 NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, Greg Mount, RLHC’s president and CEO, and Brian Quinn, senior vice president and chief franchise officer, took some time to talk to LODGING about the company’s recent expansion, long- and short-term goals, and overall philosophy.
A lot has changed for Red Lion in the past few years. Can you talk a little about that journey?
Brian Quinn (BQ): 2014 brought in a new management group, and one of the opportunities we had with that new group was pursue business out east. And we had been wanting to do this for a while because the way travelers book their business has changed. The world has gotten flatter and flatter with mobile, so we wanted to leveraged that new group and use leading-edge technology to add properties in a previously under-tapped region. We started by deploying company capital to acquire a hotel in Baltimore and secure ties to it later, but it really lead the way and demonstrated to the broader hotel community that we have the confidence that we could deliver there.
And how are your East Coast expansion plans progressing?
BQ: We have a strategy, and that strategy is working. We are very pleased with where we are, having multiple hotels in New York, either open, under construction, or soon-to-open. And if we look down the East Coast, many of our properties are looking at a refresh, like in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. We just opened an Atlanta property for renovation, and on the franchise side, back-filling with our Red Lion hotels in Harrisburg, Penn., Jackson, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla., which join two other Florida properties. It adds up to about 1,100-1,200 rooms.
What is your overall strategy in the growth period?
Greg Mount (GM): We want to make sure associate and guest interaction is not contrived. We are very focused on being authentic, so we create an atmosphere in the lobbies that allows the guest to be alone but not be alone and interact on the level they want to interact on. In our experience, that approach is most conducive to bringing people out of their rooms and experiencing our hotels.
What role does technology play in RLHC properties?
BQ: Technology is important to our customers, so we think about new technology in terms of what the guest wants. We’re partnered with Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, and their technology is a huge part of our properties. When we talk to our owners and describe the value proposition of our tech capabilities, that’s an exciting part of the process, because we can do so much. Then there’s also the guest perspective: Like, when we to sit in the lobby of the Hotel RL in Baltimore and watch the guests start to enjoy it and live it and breath it, and tell the stories, you know you’re onto something.
Do you think the technology is only important to millennial travelers or everyone?
GM: I think it’s anyone carrying a smart phone—even folks in our generation embrace and enjoy technology—so it’s across the board. Over time, the millennial generation has been a significant paying customer, but I don’t think it’s as significant as everyone has made it out to be. If you look at our Hotel RL’s, we don’t have front desks, you check in with your phone and get a QR code and go to a kiosk or go to one of our guest agents in the lobby with an iPad and check in. Everyone has embraced that process—not just millennials. We’ve made our hotels more adaptable to what people are generally looking for in their hotel experience, so we’re closer to their lifestyle.
What do you see in RLHC’s future?
BM: A lot of competitors are already built out, and we are at a different stage in our journey, which affords us some flexibility in how we grow. We are going to have fun with the way we communicate with our owners. We’ve taken a different path with frequent guests and loyalty, and making it more about recognition, which is something the bigger brands cannot do on our level. I mean, how do you make 40 million people feel special, like individuals. We want to turn the dynamic on its head and be really thoughtful about how we recognize the guest.