The Hotel Moment podcast — episode 44
Taking care of your staff to deliver exceptional guest experiences
Episode #44 dives into the core of the guest experience.
This week on the Hotel Moment podcast, Revinate’s CRO, Karen Stephens, and Paul Hitselberger, COO at First Hospitality, talk about why people are at the heart of the hospitality industry. We hear how Paul got his start, and how that shaped his view toward hotel operations to value both staff and guests. Paul also shares insights on how to develop your guest experience strategy.
Tune in to find out how you can increase the value of your guest experience.
Meet your host
Karen Stephens is Revinate’s Chief Revenue Officer and runs the sales, marketing, and customer success teams. She has more than 20 years of experience in the industry alone.
On the Hotel Moment podcast, Karen speaks with leaders to draw out their experiences and insights. She is also a Francophile and Prof K — a coach, a mentor, a guide to the people who work with her.
Karen Stephens: Hello everyone and welcome to the Hotel Moment podcast. I am your host Karen Stephens. And each week when we have this podcast, we talk to industry experts about what’s going on in the hospitality industry. So today I have the great pleasure of being joined by Paul Hitselberger with First Hospitality.
Paul Hitselberger: Hi, Karen thank you.
Karen Stephens: We are so glad to have you here. You know, it’s, we’re, we’re heading into Q4 now of 2022 and, uh, as you know, we’ve had a pretty fantastic summer in terms of hotel recovery, um, certainly for the leisure segment. But now as we’re coming into the fall, we’re starting to see some green sprouts in terms of group business, and also corporate business starting to happen.
So that, that’s been pretty exciting. So I’d love to jump into that topic with you here in just a minute. But first, I thought I’d let the, the audience know a little bit more about you, if that’s okay. Paul.
Paul Hitselberger: Sure, go right ahead.
Karen Stephens: Okay, perfect. So I’ve got five questions to tee you up, and the first one is, when did you start working in the industry and do you remember your first day on the job?
Paul Hitselberger: I do. I started in the industry in 1982 at Resorts International in Atlantic City. I was taking time off after college, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I had cooked at the Jersey Shore in the summer and I started at Resorts International as a line cook.
Karen Stephens: Oh wow, that’s fantastic at the Jersey Shore in the summertime.
Paul Hitselberger: Yes ma’am. I’ve worked there from probably 78 until, after school until 82.
Karen Stephens: Alright.
Paul Hitselberger: Atlantic City was up and coming back then, so it was a great time to get in.
Karen Stephens: Wow. Fantastic. And what is the most uplifting moment so far in your career?
Paul Hitselberger: Wow, that’s a big. I’ve been doing, let’s see, 40 years most uplifting moment. Maybe it’s a broad answer, but when I see people who we’ve worked with achieve higher things in their lives. You know, at First Hospitality we have a program that’s called, and I don’t wanna get too deep into it, but it’s called, “Live Free, Drive Free”.
Our hourly associates have an opportunity to win either the rent or mortgage paid for a year, or the lease of a new car with insurance for a year. And when you see the impact that that has on people’s lives, it’s overwhelming. It, it’s a very emotional moment, and it’s probably in my 40 years, one of the greatest things, uh, that I’ve seen.
Karen Stephens: That is the coolest thing I’ve heard of in a very long time. So tell me a little bit more about that. How does, how does somebody qualify and win for that?
Paul Hitselberger: So every, in every First Hospitality hotel, all of our hourly folks are, they go into a drawing for every quarter that they have perfect attendance. Each hotel then sends two winners or four winners, depending on the size, and we have an annual gala. They are sent to the gala. They, they come in with their general managers, they get all dressed up.
It’s really a lot of fun and everyone wins a prize, you know? And then, the, the five finalists, there’s a drawdown, sort of like just a, like a Miss America pageant or something like that.
Karen Stephens: Yeah.
Paul Hitselberger: Uh, where they get increasing amounts of money. And then the last, the grand prize winner, gets the chance to win either a brand new car leased for a year. Again, insurance paid, oil filter, all that kind of stuff paid for. They can have their renter mortgage paid or they can take a lump cash option. There have been so many heartwarming stories. We had a, a room attendant one year who chose the cash because it allowed her to bring her son in from another country and, and get the cost paid for.
I mean, it, it, it just, you choke up when you see things like that, and it’s been going on at First Hospitality for 25, 30 years. Our chairman, Steve Schwartz started it and it’s just a fantastic program. I love it.
Karen Stephens: That is the coolest thing I’ve, I’ve heard of. That is really one of the coolest incentive programs. And I mean, wow. That’s, I love it. Fantastic.
Paul Hitselberger: Yeah, and it’s for the, it’s for the heart, it’s for the heart of the industry.
Karen Stephens: Right?
Paul Hitselberger: I mean, these are the people who come in every day and make it happen.
Karen Stephens: That is amazing. Blowing my mind. Okay, great. So the next one, and this is also, you gotta think back on a lot of experience here, but what’s the most striking experience you’ve had personally in terms of a restaurant experience or, staying at a hotel, or a vacation? So what is the most striking experience in your personal travel and leisure life?
Paul Hitselberger: So way back in 1986 when my wife and I got married, we’ve been married now 36 years, I sent a, a letter, snail mail, to a general manager of a hotel in Cancun. Cancun back then did about 250,000 tours a year. I think it does 40 million now.
Karen Stephens: Million, right?
Paul Hitselberger: Uh, so I sent, I sent a letter and I just said, “hey, you know, my wife and I are gonna be down there, for our honeymoon”. And, and we got in, and we were checked in, put in a suite on the beach, champagne in the room, and I thought, “wow, this is great!” I’ve only been in the industry for about four years, and I thought this is a pretty cool industry. Nice perk! Blew me away. Blew me away.
Karen Stephens: Ah, that’s wonderful. And your wife must have been impressed, right? Right out of the gate you come up with a…
Paul Hitselberger: Absolutely.
Karen Stephens: Upgrade on the beach.
Paul Hitselberger: Of course she married the right guy.
Karen Stephens: That’s right. That’s fantastic. All right. Here’s the next one. Have you met any celebrities while working in the industry?
Paul Hitselberger: Many, uh, certainly in Atlantic City, guys like Roddy Dangerfield, and, uh, you know, I had the opportunity when I was in Atlantic City to work a lot of the celebrity events and banquets. So, I mean, I’ve, I’ve seen and met people from Don Rickels to Luciano Pavarotti. So it’s been a lot of fun, you know, later on in my career.
Gosh, I mean, you, you just run into people. You meet people who were staying at your hotels. We’ve had a lot of celebrities at our hotels. I’ve had, I’ve met politicians, uh, presidents, you know, just had that opportunity, throughout the industry. So, yeah, I think it’s been, it’s been great.
Karen Stephens: That’s fantastic. Very cool. And then lastly, who are the women at work you’ve been most inspired by?
Paul Hitselberger: You know, it’s funny. My, my first general manager, uh, was a woman. Back in again, this is probably in 84, 85, I guess, after I left Atlantic City. I haven’t spoken to her in a long time. Her name was Peggy Barton. There was a woman who I partnered with, a woman named Anne Williams. You know, I’ve worked for, Betty Procaccianti of the Procaccianti Group.
Just, I’ve had all sorts of women that I’ve worked with. I mean, I currently at First Hospitality, my SVP of, of commercial strategies is a woman named Jenna Fishel. So just, it’s constantly been opportunities. I think that’s the one of the beauties about our industry. Some of the cultural diversity that, uh, we have and, and I’ve always seen, at all levels.
Karen Stephens: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I love the cultural diversity as well in hospitality. And being we, you know, we’re a tech company within hospitality. We also have a lot of diversit,y and a lot of women in senior leadership positions. And I think it just makes for a more interesting company, right? You got a lot of different perspectives and hey, it’s, it’s more opportunity for growth. And oh, that’s excellent.
Paul Hitselberger: Yeah, I mean, diversity of people get you diversity of ideas, diversity of opinions, which I think only makes you better.
Karen Stephens: Me too. Me too. Absolutely. All right, cool. Well thanks for that, Paul. So let’s go in a little bit farther. So you’re the Chief Operating Officer of First Hospitality, and where are you joining us from today? Are you based in Chicago?
Paul Hitselberger: Yeah. We’re in Chicago, and I’m in our downtown Chicago offices.
Karen Stephens: Awesome. That’s great. And can you tell me a little bit more about your role as COO? So what, what’s your day to day look like, and and how did you get there?
Paul Hitselberger: Sure. Well, I, I, I, I got here, as I said, I started out as line cook in Atlantic City.
Karen Stephens: Gone up the chain.
Paul Hitselberger: Uh, uh, you know, and, and, and then became a COO.
No, uh, I had a lot of stops in between Food and Beverage Manager, General Manager, Regional Manager, Opening Manager, VP. You know, SVP, EVP, you know, it’s been, it’s been a great opportunity.
It’s what I love about our industry. A guy who was line cook in Atlantic City 40 years later can be a COO. I think it, it says a lot about our business. My responsibility really is the overall business of the hotels. I’m responsible for operations, sales, marketing, revenue, food and beverage. Uh, I work very closely with HR.
You know, obviously recruiting and some of those things are huge issues right now. I’m sure we’ll talk about, some of that in a little bit. I also work with the accounting folks here. Uh, so you know, anything that has to do with the hotels and, and the, the business of running those hotels, falls under my domain.
Karen Stephens: Awesome. That’s great. And, and I know I, I kind of started the, the podcast talking a little bit about, you know, we are in Q4 now, just started into Q4. We’re in budget season for a lot of hotels. We’re coming off of a pretty, good summer in terms of, of rate and occupancy. So, what are you seeing out there as we, you know, in terms of corporate business coming back, or group, or what, what’s on your mind as we head into the last quarter of the year and looking into 2023?
Paul Hitselberger: So group has been a godsend for our industry. We, we’ve certainly group, group leisure, leisure traffic. You know, we’ve, we’ve now in the second quarter surpast 2019, which has been sort of our benchmark, know, pre, pre pandemic. Not for the year, but for the quarter, we’re anticipating doing the same in Q4.
It’ll be through group activity, group efforts. We are seeing a return of some of the corporate business in pockets. We’d like to see more. We’re also seeing some return of conventions. We’ve seen some fairly large events take place at McCormick Place in Chicago. We’ve also seen some other events, you know, in Toledo, in, uh, in Minneapolis. So as that comes back, there’s hope. We saw significant, like most people, we saw significant rate growth. This year, occupancy has lagged a little bit.
Karen Stephens: Mm-hmm.
Paul Hitselberger: See as we go into 20, into Q4 and into 23, that occupancy should catch up. We expect a little more occupancy growth as that corporate traveler, starts to return.
And that will probably result in rate not growing at the levels it grew this year. But I think it’ll be a, another good year where there’s a lot of challenges out there. I mean, you know, you hear the talk about the R word, recession. Uh, inflation, certainly from a profitability standpoint. But we’re, we’re optimistic about 23.
And I think some of the strategies that we implemented, frankly, even during the pandemic, are paying dividends for us now.
Karen Stephens: Yeah, can you talk a little bit about those strategies? Cuz I know that First Hospitality in particular, saw some pretty awesome growth, uh, during the shutdown, so can you let us know what were some of the strategies behind that?
Paul Hitselberger: Sure. I’m happy to. So at First Hospitality, we looked at the pandemic and we said, we need to make sure that to, to come out, And we had a philosophy called, “emerge stronger”, from the pandemic. And so we really assessed all of our different areas of business. A lot of our peers we’re letting all their salespeople go.
You know, cuz quote, “there was no one to sell to”. We held onto all of our best salespeople. Maybe they drove vans, maybe they made beds, but they also stayed in touch with our clients. Our objective was to return on the front end of the recovery curve. And in most our, our hotels we did. We currently are number one or number two in almost all of our comp sets as a result of that focus.
You know, we, we also looked at how we did business. You know, whether it was the way we do budgets, to the way we do accounting, to what I think was our biggest focus was, emerged stronger sales. We have created what we call, ovingly internally, called “First Analytics”. And first analytics is, is an enhanced revenue management sales program hat’s proprietary. And it, and we really believe, it takes and, and our sales, and marketing, and revenue folks all work collaboratively. That’s why they’re under one, person, which is that Jenna Fishel, who I mentioned earlier. And it really comes together to allow us to get the right business, at the right time looking at total revenue management.
Karen Stephens: Wow. That is, that is really cool. I think one thing that you hit on was taking care of your best sales people. And I know that you, you’ve talked a lot. I have a quote from you here that says, “we take care of the staff to deliver exceptional guest experiences.” So obviously sales people are staff and you’ve got the hotel staff and, and then, and you hit on it when we talked about the five questions, that amazing program that you have.
So would love to hear a little bit more about your philosophy about taking care of people and how that pays dividends in terms of taking care of guests, et cetera.
Paul Hitselberger: Sure. And I mean, at First Hospitality, we look at it and, and, and we really do believe in taking care of our associates. We really have across the portfolio, an employee first mindset. In, in the simplest of terms. And I remember, you know, my, my father was a Harvard MBA and he, you know, looked at me one time and he said, “Paul, I could never do what you do, I wouldn’t have the patience.” And I said, “dad, it’s simple. You take care of your employees. Your employees are gonna take care of your guests, okay?” Because they’re happy to be there. The guests enjoy the experience. They come back. You have repeat customers. Bottom line will take care of itself, and I genuinely do believe that, you know, after 40 years of doing this, it really does come down to those basics, to those fundamentals.
Take care of your folks who are there. Care about, you know, show them that what they do matters. You know, and, and, and it really does matter. I mean, I, I, I learned a long time ago I can’t flip every egg. I can’t make every bed, I can’t check everybody in. It takes that team and, and you need a good, strong, dedicated team, cuz it’s hard work.
Karen Stephens: Yes. It’s very hard work. It is very hard work. And I think, um, you know, now when you’re, you’re talking about the cost of labor going up, and also the fact that a lot of people aren’t returning to hospitality. I mean, we see some, some of it is better than we thought it was gonna be. There’s some indication that some folks are coming back, but can you talk a little bit about how you attract talent to kind of cover for that staff shortage and bring them in?
Paul Hitselberger: Sure. So I, I think, you know, and, and our, our first effort in attracting talent is internal. It is, it is taking care of our folks, making sure that the team members really enjoy their jobs, because then they refer people. You know, we want, we want our line folks, our, our management folks, everybody to refer people to us and we, we incent for it.
And, and believe me, those are the happiest checks that I ever cut, are incentives for referrals, and sales bonus checks. I mean, those are the ones, uh, that you really love. But we’re also very aggressive. We, you know, we wanna know what’s going on in all our markets. We wanna make sure that, that we know that, that we have the talent.
One of the things we do, to that end, we’ve got a very aggressive training, in-house training program. Personally, I’d like to see us have about 75%. It’s a goal that I have of our general manager roles filled internally. You know, I think we’ve, we’ve now created a company where you can have an entire career.
You know, you can go from being a, a Front Office Manager, to Fairfield, into the General Manager of an Autograph to, to a VP. And as you know, someday I’m gonna retire, so take my job. If a guy who is a line cook can became the COO, anybody can.
Karen Stephens: COO. Yeah. Wow. And that is, that is such a cool trajectory. And it’s nice to know that, that people have an ability to move and grow within their career within the same company, and that company takes care of them. Yeah. It’s, that’s, that’s really phenomenal. I have a similar trajectory at Revinate. I started as an individual salesperson, an individual contributor, just kind of rose through the ranks.
Um, just hard work. But it’s, it’s a company that I feel very loyal to because they’ve, they’ve looked after me, so.
Paul Hitselberger: A great story in that regard, is Jenna Fishel, who I know I keep bringing up, but she started out, in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a Front Desk Agent at a Hampton Inn. Okay, while she was going to school. And now with First Hospitality, now I think it’s 19 years later, she’s the SVP of Commercial Strategies.
So it’s a great story. We have countless stories like that within the organization. I’ve been here six and a half years, and I still feel sometimes like I’m the rookie.
Karen Stephens: Yeah. That’s so great. Well, it’s, it’s, it’s that, that, knowledge that you can’t, you can’t teach, right? It has to come from experience. That’s really cool. We’ve got a, we’ve got a woman at Revinate, her name is Courtney Witherspoon, who started in our, we have a, a contact center business, so she started in our contact center, aand now she’s the director of Solutions Engineering. So she runs all of our technical sales calls, and same deal, you know, she’s been with us, she’s a young woman, she’s been with us for 10 years, so started her career with us, but, fantastic trajectory. So I love to see that.
Paul Hitselberger: Don’t you love when that happens?
Imean that again, to me, that’s the exciting part of this business. Seeing people grow, developing people, it’s great.
Karen Stephens: It’s very cool. Oh, that’s amazing. so as we’re, as we’re coming into the, the final quarter here, what advice would you give the other hotelier out there when they start? You know, there’s, there’s a lot of moving parts. As you said, we don’t wanna say the R word. We can see some signs of life coming back, but we’ve also got, kind of got an election coming up and that’s always, who knows what’s gonna go on.
And, you know, we’ve got a lot of crisis going on in Europe. But what advice can you give to, to our colleagues out there as they start to think about how they plan for the future? How, how to kind of navigate this next period of time.
Paul Hitselberger: I, I, I think, and I, and I always tell our people this, at the end of the day, we are a people business. It’s about our guests. And I think as an industry sometimes we tend to, oh, let’s stop cleaning the rooms, and let’s, let’s get, you know, maybe not replace some of the amenities. I think at the core, we have to take care of the guests, and let’s never forget that.
And the way to do that is to take care of your team. You know, you’ve gotta have a team that really wants to be there. You’ve gotta have a team that, that is inspired to be there, and you do that.
Look, we’re all dealing with wage inflation. Okay? Everybody is. So, you know, forget about, you know, I, I sort of laugh when, when I see things about minimum wage.
We haven’t paid minimum wage in a long time anywhere. Uh, you know, and, and so it’s that, to me, minimum wage is sort of a moot point. So is dip minimum wage. I mean, you don’t, you know, the service industry, the servers, and bartenders and what not are making more money, and that’s okay. As long as we’re providing the service, because if we’re providing the service, you know, we can increase our rates, we can revisit our menu pricing.
And I, I fundamentally believe that there’s not a guest that comes into any of our hotels at any level that isn’t willing to pay for a quality product with great service. And I think if we, just as an industry, remember that. Yeah, there’s too many times when I’ve travel, over the last couple years when, when I’ve seen, you know, the cuts and the, the limited staff and it’s like, oh, you know, I’m sorry. We don’t have enough people. And, and I feel bad for the folks who are working, because they’re being left out, and hung out to dry. In some respects, we’ve gotta be better than that. We’ve gotta get to the core of what we do. And, you know, in 40 years in this industry, that has never changed. It’s about taking care of the customer, taking care of the guest.
Karen Stephens: That’s a great, great way to wrap it up. Well, um, thank you so much Paul. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. If our listeners would like to learn a little bit more about First Hospitality, where should they go?.
Paul Hitselberger: They can go to our website, firsthospitality.com, which is actually currently being revamped and rebranded. So, they can always reach out to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s my email. Our CEO, David Duncan always takes calls, and again, same, methodology email@example.com.
We’re very accessible. Our website lets you know how to get ahold of us, and, and we love hearing from folks. We really do.
Karen Stephens: Awesome. Well, great. Thank you so much Paul. It’s been a pleasure. And remember, you know, put your, put your employees first and your guest experience will benefit and everybody’s happy. And I, you know, I just have to say again, your incentive program, the best I’ve ever heard. I absolutely love it. So thank you for sharing with that with us today.
Paul Hitselberger: Yeah, I wish, I wish I could take full credit, but Steve Schwartz implemented that. It’s been, it’s, it’s been a, a cornerstone of First Hospitality’s programs for our associates. And believe me, when you talk to the folks who have been winners or who have been nominated, it’s a memory of a lifetime.
Karen Stephens: Ah, fantastic. Well shout out to Steve. That was a great program.
Uh, thanks very much Paul. I wish you the best and, uh, good luck through the rest of the year.
Paul Hitselberger: Thanks Karen. I appreciate the time.