Like every generation before us, my age group is worried about the future. Those of us who remember the long-gone days of VHF, UHF and (gasp!) typewriters, don’t believe the generations after us have the wherewithal to sustain the momentum we have built. Of course, we don’t recall what the generation before us thought about our shenanigans in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and what effects those, ahem, actions would have on what they constructed.
Second-guessing the next generation’s abilities and intentions is as common as a bar full of hoteliers during an industry conference. But after watching and listening to a recent panel discussion of the hotel industry’s next generation of leaders, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief. Our legacy is in good hands.
The panel, called “Fresh Voices, Bold Choices,” was held during the Southern Lodging Summit @ Memphis and conducted by industry icon Mike Leven. The panelists consisted of a who’s who of up-and-coming executives:
- Kelly Poling, the high energy, matter-of-fact VP of distribution strategy and e-commerce for Choice Hotels International.
- McLean Wilson, the outdoor-loving VP for Kemmons Wilson Companies—he happens to be the son of Kem Wilson Jr. and the grandson of the legendary Kemmons Wilson—the founder of the Holiday Inn chain.
- Nelson Knight, the ever-analyzing senior VP of development for Apple REIT Companies—the son of real-estate guru Glade Knight.
- Jess Petitt, the data-chomping senior director of business analytics for Hilton Worldwide and the son of Jerry Pettit, an industry icon who helped build Best Western and Choice Hotels into the global giants they are today.
- Ravi Patel, the entrepreneurial senior VP of Hawkeye Hotels who is following in his father Bob’s footsteps as a leader in the company that was founded in 1987.
Throw in Leven, who once considered giving up a career in the hotel industry to sell brassieres and girdles in New York and who now is the president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, and the panel provided plenty of optimism.
One of the great takeaways from the panel was how the adult children admired what their parents accomplished. They don’t shy away from past success; they want to build upon it.
Wilson was pragmatic when he said this of the current state of Kemmons Wilson Companies: “We’re trying to ascertain the strategic vision of where our business is going in the future. We’re building on what my grandfather started and my father built on.”
The outgoing Patel even played the humor card when asked what he is trying to accomplish: “Every day trying to convince my father to retire,” he said with a laugh.
But leadership is no laughing matter, and these young executives know it. They have jobs to do, and they take them seriously.
Petitt said crunching data has far-reaching implications.
“We’re trying to understand the globalization of the industry,” he said. “We need to understand a much wider range of markets and understand a much wider range of data.”
Knight, meanwhile, said he spends 80% of his time searching for assets to buy. That’s quite a job for someone employed by a company that owns 288 hotels.
Poling spends a lot of her time analyzing how hotel distribution ecosystems are changing over time, and how Choice can reap bigger dividends while mitigating threats.
“The rapid adoption of mobile technology is amazing,” she said. “Every single day (Android) is activating 500,000 new users. … By 2015 there will be 500 million tablets in the marketplace.”
Figuring out how to take advantage of this rapid adoption of mobile devices is a big part of her duties.
The young executives addressed many other issues, ranging from digital media buys to the impact of social media to future opportunities for their companies.
Turning the tables
They also had a chance to turn the tables on Leven, the panel’s moderator, to ask him questions.
Patel: “What advice do you have for us on how we should progress?”
Leven: “You shouldn’t stay in one job more than four or five years. Sometimes you have to force yourself and force the people you work for to give you other opportunities. If you stay too long at one stop, you’re going to get stereotyped into it.”
Wilson: “Personal or business, what was your biggest failure?”
Leven: “U.S. Franchise Systems was my biggest failure. My strategy was to develop a franchise conglomerate. We couldn’t grow the company fast enough. I didn’t stick to what I thought was the best strategy. I failed to stand for what I believed in.”
Poling: “What’s the best advice you ever got or a pivotal moment for inspiration?”
Leven: “My father said to me, ‘You can’t take the bra and girdle job. How am I going to tell my friends my son is selling bras and girdles?’ That was the best advice that I ever had.”
Knight: “What leadership skills fit best at the micro level and the macro level?”
Leven: “I treat every single human being the way I want to be treated myself. I have to make hard decisions, tough decisions. … The pillars of my leadership skill have been that people trust me and I’m not going to do something that’s not right for them.”
Petitt: “What are the biggest challenges coming for the hotel industry?”
Leven: “Supply and demand. The cycle is going to cycle one way or the other. You can play the cycles, but at the end of the day the difficulty is whether the end user can afford to pay for the new development.”
The Q-and-A exchange was the pinnacle of the discussion. It was a blend of experience, exuberance and a genuine quest for knowledge. I realize that it takes more than just being an extrovert or dynamic speaker to be a good leader. But after listening to the young execs on this panel, I’m convinced the industry will be in good hands for years to come. Finding more like them isn’t an easy task, but it can be done.