“Too many people working in a corporate role lose touch with the operation. They didn’t really speak the same language as the people in the field, and often corporate expectations aren’t realistic in the operational world.”
Having worked every on-property operational role, Dominic Longo takes a unique approach to address this in his current role leading training and franchise operations at Sonesta.
“I put cross-functional committees together to think about how we can improve the guest experience end to end.”
We’ll get to how he does this – and what the results have been – but first, a bit of background.
Dominic’s journey to operations leadership
Growing up in Las Vegas in a family that worked in hospitality, following in their footsteps felt natural. When Dominic graduated from UNLV, he started work at the Bellagio as a valet parking cars.
“That was my first experience within the service industry, and I loved every bit of it. I wanted to learn more, and had a good mentor at the Bellagio that showed me the things I needed to do in order to be successful and to pursue a career in hospitality.”
That guidance was to learn all aspects of the operation, and Dominic followed that advice. After valeting for a year, he moved to the concierge desk. “My responsibility was creating the experience for guests when they arrived in Vegas. We created trip itineraries to improve their stay. We visited shows and restaurants to familiarize ourselves with all that the Vegas service industry had to offer, which was an incredible experience.”
That was the fun side of operations.
The next step was managing the Front Desk at the Bellagio Hotel and Resort, which taught Dominic how to deal with complaints and hostile situations. The key? Having the power to make decisions and not getting in the way of other teammates providing solutions. “That’s where I really fell in love with the industry – taking care of guests. Being able to take a bad situation and turn it around to create loyal guests forever was so rewarding.”
It was also the ability to create memorable experiences for those guests. “People saved up just to come and spend a few days in Vegas with their family, and really helping them create that experience was awesome.”
Dominic was finding this work meaningful, but wanted exposure to back-of-house operations, and applied for a housekeeping executive manager position to get this. “I not only learned how to clean rooms but learned this role was all about accountability. I learned how to hold my staff accountable to ensure we met cleanliness standards and passed our inspections to achieve the AAA diamond rating.” That experience got him promoted to senior executive manager at the Bellagio.
Things were going well in Vegas, but a trip to visit his brother in Spokane, Washington made him fall in love with that region. After applying to the Red Lion Hotels Corporation, he got an Assistant General Manager position at two of their hotels. “They were right across the street from one another and I managed those hotels for a couple of years before I became the area GM.”
After some time in that role, Dominic was promoted to the corporate office to run all of the franchise housekeeping department – an opportunity to create training for the housekeeping department, efficiencies checklists, and more. From there, he was promoted to director of rooms for the whole corporation, then quality assurance, and finally to Vice President of Training & Franchise Operations at Sonesta, where he is today.
Scaling guest experience with a systematic approach to quality
Dominic’s experience moving from a big box Vegas resort with multiple layers of management and resources and budget to the smaller full/select service property management role underscored the need to wear multiple hats to succeed as a hotel operations leader.
“I had to be able to work the front desk, sometimes clean rooms, and then go out and participate in sales events.” But this was also a big opportunity. “Being involved in all of these different areas provided the chance to shape the guest experience in many different ways from one position.”
Having experience at the property level and then moving to a corporate role provided Dominic with a unique perspective. “Some people working in a corporate role can lose touch with the operation. They didn’t really speak the same language as the people in the field, and so oftentimes, corporate expectations aren’t realistic in the operational world.”
“I had an opportunity to tell hotel teams, ‘I come from the operations world, and now you have a voice at the table at the corporate office. We’re not just going to implement brand standards and SOP – we’re going to provide you with a roadmap for achieving those.’”
Using his operational experience, Dominic had the opportunity to train everyone from the housekeepers all the way up to the GM on areas such as cleanliness and service. “I made sure they understood the end goal – and showed them how we’re going to achieve it.”
That included not only providing detailed process guidance but developing a robust onboarding program. The result? Housekeepers knew expectations very well and the management team knew how to hold people accountable to those goals.
“A lot of GMs, front office managers, and housekeeping managers would buy-in because they saw realistic expectations that could be met. We really made things more efficient along the way.”
Working cross-functionally to design a better guest experience
As soon as Dominic moved into the corporate role he created committees with every department in the service operation to answer the question “How do we provide a better experience for our guests from the check-in to the check-out.”
Composed of members from the front office, transportation, housekeeping, F&B teams, sales, and management teams, the committees defined and outlined their needs, including the tools and training needed to provide a great guest experience.
“Every department had a voice, but we focused on starting with a line-level up strategy. The line-level staff knows best because they’re in the trenches every day.”
Processes had to be developed to support this goal of providing a better guest experience. “We learned that our teams wanted a process for how a front desk agent checks a guest in, to the questions that they ask – all the way to delivering the expectations of that guest today and what was expected of their experience.”
Providing an exceptional guest experience requires involvement from more than just guest-facing roles. “We looked at our housekeeping process and provided new guidance: from clarifying expectations to the defining process for making a bed and cleaning a room. This ensured that every housekeeper hit every checkpoint in the process and that the supervisor inspected the room thoroughly to ensure quality.
“Everybody had a clear understanding of how our guest expectations would be met and how to hold all the staff accountable in providing that experience.”
Incorporating online guest feedback into operations improvement
The operational improvement process started with input from line staff and property managers but was also guided by guest feedback.
“We’re doing all this to meet the guest’s expectation because, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. We might think we know everything, but if we’re not looking at online reviews we’re in the dark. We don’t know what we can do to get better.”
In addition to being a valuable source of insights, online reviews and reputation have a big impact on a hotel’s financial success. “There are so many studies showing that when you’re buying anything, the first thing you’re looking at is reviews. So if you’re not looking at these as a hotel operator – creating strategies to avoid the negative ones and reinforcing the positive ones – then you’re losing.”
For these reasons, guest feedback and reviews were foundational in guiding the operating processes and training Dominic and his team at Red Lion Hotels built. The guest experience committees were useful here, providing suggestions on what could be done – as well as how they could test improvements and measure the outcomes.
Framing guest feedback as an opportunity for improvement was important for Dominic’s teams. “Don’t take it personally. Listen. Learn from it. Implement policies around those complaints that are coming in to avoid them happening in the future. Feedback is important for becoming a better hotel, and a better hotel operator. If you listen and take action, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.”
A goal of operational excellence was spreading positive word of mouth. “We put our efforts towards training and committees in order to provide our guests with a great experience. When we do that, guests inevitably go tell the world about it – and that, in turn, attracts more guests.”
That’s because one of the first things travelers look at when booking a hotel is online reviews.
“If you have great reviews and you’re engaged in those reviews by responding to them, then you’re writing your own success story. But if you’re not doing that, you’re losing. That’s where my passion is. It’s about providing an amazing experience that gets people talking. Then once you get that great feedback, go out and market the crap out of that. Put that on your website. Put that on your social media. It’s marketing that doesn’t cost a dime.”
Scaling success without losing touch with property teams
Red Lion grew from 50 hotels to 1,100 in the span of a few years. “Replicating best practices and keeping the quality of service as a company scales is challenging because everyone believes their way works. People are typically hesitant to change.”
Showing the impact of the change was important for driving adoption across the new portfolios of hotels that were being added – for both the property and corporate teams involved.
Dominic needed to continue to drive change and improvement from his corporate leadership role without losing touch, and he did that by focusing on continuing to provide value to the hotels.
“Most often general managers and hotel staff are heads down all day operating. Providing value means asking for their feedback – and also sharing insights.” Dominic would share what guests are saying, as well as some ideas he had on how to address their feedback. He also identified best practices from hotels that were succeeding operationally in their portfolio and shared stories of what worked for them – along with the results they achieved. “Sharing best practices from peers goes a long way.”
“You have to reach out and engage with hotel leaders and staff on a regular basis, making sure that they know the support they have available to them to make their jobs more efficient. Get their feedback on new technologies or systems that can help manage their job more efficiently. If you can, go out to visit properties as often as possible, conduct training, showcase the good that they’re doing, and help them with some of the property’s deficiencies in a way that shows you care.”
The results: higher employee retention, guest satisfaction, and revenue
The process of listening to guests, and working alongside property teams yielded improvements across the business in several key performance indicators.
Employee turnover was cut in half. “Our employee turnover was really high before, but when we outlined expectations and implemented incentive programs, employees would get rewarded. We saw employee retention reach an all-time high because of this.”
Guest satisfaction improved. “We realized a net gain on our review scores immediately – in key areas such as cleanliness and service, and in overall satisfaction.”
Finally, Red Lion Hotels experienced a revenue increase in correlation with the improved review scores.
For any hospitality provider looking to improve their operations, Dominic’s story provides a case study of how to achieve operational excellence through working alongside staff and with guest input.
“Our success was the direct result of constantly incorporating guest feedback into our processes – and creating new operating processes in partnership with our line staff and cross-functional committees.”