The GM of the newly opened Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach started his career in the hotel industry more than 30 years ago as a busboy trying to save for college.
HONOLULU—As John Taffin tells it, he started his lifelong career in the hotel industry “by accident.”
The GM of the newly opened Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach and former EVP at Red Lion Hotels said his original plan was to become a teacher. Taffin wanted to attend Boise State University, but he didn’t have enough money at the time to attend the school. A friend worked at the fine dining restaurant in a hotel and recommended he apply to save up.
“I became a busboy in that restaurant in that hotel,” Taffin said. “Thirty-four years later, I’m still in the hotel business.”
Prior to working at the restaurant, Taffin said, he’d never been in that type of environment before. He grew up in a good family with modest means, he said, and they didn’t travel, stay in hotels or eat in fine restaurants.
“I was curious to be surrounded by people having fun, spending money and enjoying finer things,” Taffin said. “It was just a great environment. I really enjoyed it and got caught up in it.”
Climbing the ladder
Early in his career working for Red Lion Hotels, Taffin said he went through the company’s management program to become a GM in 1986. For 10 years, he served as the GM of properties in Washington, Idaho and California.
Afterward, he became VP for Cavanaughs Hospitality Corporation, a small management company in Spokane, Washington, that went public in the late 1990s. It later changed its name to WestCoast Hospitality after acquiring rival WestCoast Hotels. Taffin later became an SVP as the company continued buying more assets. In 2001, his company purchased Red Lion Hotels, and Taffin became EVP of the hospitality division in 2003. After years away, he said, it was fun to reconnect with people at Red Lion.
Taffin continued with Red Lion until 2008 when the banking industry crashed and the hotel industry hit a low point in the cycle. He had the opportunity to take some time off and decided to leave Red Lion, choosing to work for North Pacific Management, which operates in the Portland, Washington, and Vancouver areas. He migrated to a starting electronic distribution company, CoHo Services, holding the position of COO for five years over management services for independent and branded hotels.
At this point in his career, Taffin said, he thought back on all of the traveling he had done and the positions and responsibilities he held.
“I really wanted to get back to my roots as a GM, but in a market that was exotic and fun and dynamic,” he said. “My wife and I wanted to wait until the kids were out of college to do that. They’re all grown. I found the opportunity … We sold everything we had and moved to Honolulu.
“I’m just going to enjoy the next several years in Hawaii,” he said. “My career has given me more opportunities and fun and a good life than I think I would have had in any other industry.”
Taffin started his job as the new GM of the soon-to-be Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach for Evolution Hospitality in April 2015, when crews had just started demolition of the property. The only thing they kept was the concrete skeleton of the property, its exterior and the steel walls in between. They removed its entire infrastructure.
“We really have, other than the skeleton, the organs and skin of the building all brand new,” he said. “We have new AC, new internet, the newest electrical and plumbing, the best glass. It is essentially a brand new property.”
Before the property opened on 20 June, Taffin spent time as a taskforce GM in Minnesota and San Diego to learn about the company and its operations. He started full time at the Waikiki Beach property in October 2015.
Having to choose almost an entire staff was a source of anxiety, Taffin said. He had four or five in the management team, and then he had to hire all the associates. Honolulu has about a 3% unemployment rate, Taffin said, so he was concerned how many people would apply. By offering a competitive wage and benefit package and promising a good working environment, more than 400 potential candidates applied through a job fair.
“I was really happy with that outcome,” he said. “I met many of them then. I wanted to hire all of them. They all were eager to begin work … We chose the best 120 candidates to come work with us.”
As he settled into his new role, Taffin said he’s found his management style parallels that of Evolution Hospitality. When he first started in the industry, companies had structured organizations with a command and control system with one leader at the top delegating power through the organization. Times have changed, he said, and his company has embraced that.
Employees have more autonomy and the opportunity to engage with guests to improve the work environment, Taffin said. It’s a self-organizing process, he said, and it gives employees more flexibility and the feeling of being more in control of what they do.
“I’m not necessarily telling individuals how to do their jobs from a tactical standpoint,” he said. “They’re telling me how to remove barriers to make them more productive.”
From a style and design standpoint, the property is a good fit for Waikiki Beach, Taffin said. It’s a leisure destination that people might only visit once in their life after months or years of saving up.
“They want an experience,” he said. “What I’ve learned about the people in the area we hired, they have that sense and spirit of ‘aloha.’ We’re trying to maximize the potential of how to help the individual customers enjoy their stay. The Hilton Garden Inn doesn’t have to be the destination, but the experience has to be something they remember.”
Editor’s note: Hilton Worldwide Holdings paid for all travel expenses and comped two roomnights for the grand opening of the Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach, where the interview for this article was conducted. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Hilton had no influence on the coverage provided.