with Tamara Mims
President & CEO, Four Sisters Inns
Tamara owns and oversees Four Sisters Inns, a management company with 17 boutique inns in California.
Josiah’s note: I recently spoke with Tamara about how her background in operations, marketing, and technology guides the way she runs her unique approach to boutique hotel management and operations. A summary of our conversation is below.
Can you share a bit about your evolution with Four Sisters and how you’ve gotten to your role today?
I started my career with Four Sisters Inns over 20 years ago as the marketing director. Although my focus was marketing, being a small company, I naturally overlapped into technology and operations.
At that time, nearly everything at our hotels was managed on paper. All reservations were handwritten and organized on dry-erase boards. After a few years, I devised a plan to digitize operations, overseeing each hotel’s software installation and training.
One of my other responsibilities was to read and review all guest comment cards and follow up with our teams and the guests, particularly if something was off-track during their stay. I was able to personally connect with our guests, listen to their expectations, discover what we did right, and identify areas where we could improve. I learned that when a guest did have a negative experience, it was an incredible opportunity for us to earn their loyalty for life. I believe our company’s character is defined by how we respond when we have missed the mark.
Being involved at that level naturally propelled me to ask operational questions in an attempt to discover the root cause of a guest service-related issue and solve it to ensure it didn’t happen again. Working directly with the teams at the hotels gave me a better understanding of their challenges and allowed me to establish protocols to better support them from the home office.
I was promoted to Vice President in 2012, and my position expanded more directly into operations, strategy, consulting, and new hotel openings and transitions. In 2013, the luxurious Milliken Creek Inn joined our collection. It was the first hotel I began directly overseeing all aspects of, working with the general manager and team onsite.
As the years went on, Shelley Post, our previous president, began to talk about the need for a succession plan. There were many long conversations and a few leaps of faith on everyone’s part, but we ended up putting a two-year plan in place that allowed her to retire. I purchased the company with our long-standing CFO, Joni Costa, and a silent investor in 2018.
I am naturally creative and love to come up with solutions that may be unconventional. I push my team and our vendors to do the same. Our company is technology-forward, and I am always open to new products to help us work more efficiently or improve our guest’s experience.
It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the evolution of Four Sisters Inns over the last twenty years. Our team of over 300 employees, our small group of investors, and our long list of loyal guests keep me inspired and motivated. I am lucky to be able to do what I do and wake up every morning reading countless stories about how our team went above and beyond to create memorable stays. It’s a great feeling to know we can make a small difference in people’s lives, and I enjoy sharing that feedback with the team.
Tell us a bit about Four Sisters and how you create individualized experiences at each location while maintaining an overarching brand.
We manage a collection of seventeen independent boutique hotels and inns, plus two non-branded limited-service properties. Our goal is to offer consistency in specific areas of the guest experience while embracing each property’s unique character inspired by its location.
Our guests visit to explore the region and make new discoveries. We have positioned our properties in the best destinations in California, such as Wine Country, the Monterey Peninsula or Southern California. There is nothing cookie-cutter about our hotels and inns. Some feature beautiful historic architecture, others have been built to fit the experience we want our guests to enjoy, and some are indulgent and luxurious. You won’t find the same experience across our portfolio, which is the essence of who we are.
For instance, Gosby House Inn is a historic building, over 100 years old, that recently underwent extensive renovations. It feels completely different from the quaint French country vibe in Yountville or our soothing coastal atmosphere in Dana Point. Our guests enjoy the different experiences we provide.
What is consistent across our company is the personal, friendly service that we provide. We hire people who love hospitality and enjoy connecting with guests and traveling themselves. Our associates understand how important a getaway is to our guests, and they go above and beyond to make it truly special for them. Our portfolio’s uniqueness, great locations, personalized service, and added value encourage them to seek out our brand when traveling.
Speaking of added value, what do you provide guests to earn their loyalty?
A key part of the Four Sisters experience is a great value. We never want our guests feeling nickel and dimed. It is a critical aspect for us in creating brand loyalty.
When you stay at major higher-end hotels, not only is the room expensive, but so is everything else – a bottle of water, onsite parking, breakfast, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, etc.
Our hotels range in price, but we’re always looking for ways to make our guests feel like they’re getting a good value. With few exceptions, we never charge for parking, internet, in-room water, coffee, breakfast, wine hour, and our signature cookies. Whether you’re paying $200 a night or $700 a night, the goal is for guests to return home feeling like they received tremendous value because of all the thoughtful touches included with their stay and the exceptional service they received.
We also provide fun amenities that are low cost to our company but provide a high impact to our guests. For example, most of our hotels have complimentary bicycles for guests to borrow. At Newport Beach, we offer guests beach chairs, umbrellas, and coolers because no one wants to travel with those bulky items.
How do you think about driving financial performance in your business?
There are many critical aspects of running a profitable small hotel but controlling expenses is at the top. We monitor and approve every purchase, even the most inconsequential items. Cost control is deeply rooted in who we are as an organization.
One of the largest controllable expenses in a small hotel is salaries. Staying on top of scheduling is critical. When you have 30 rooms, the schedule has to reflect how busy you are. If occupancy is low, you might only have one or two associates at the front desk. During busier times, you adjust up and have two or possibly three people working at that front desk. The same is true for housekeeping and other roles. The hours that you schedule associates must remain fluid and change according to the needs of the hotel.
Our managers regularly adjust their schedules to ensure we are appropriately staffed when busy or slow. This way of scheduling motivates them to keep their focus on revenue management to maximize the number of rooms sold and offer our associates more hours, which helps maintain consistency across the team.
In evaluating performance, we review monthly financials, net profit margins, and the cost per room for key expense categories. For example, we look at breakfast expenses on a cost-per-room sold basis. We compare that category at all 17 inns to analyze trends or patterns. We drill down into the details to determine why unforeseen changes or abnormal increases occur. This kind of deep analysis extends into many other controllable expenses, including amenities, cleaning products, and room supplies. We constantly work with vendors to ensure we get the best possible pricing. We leverage the number of hotels we operate to negotiate price breaks.
We provide a complete set of financial reports to our onsite managers monthly rather than just limited financial data points. This sets them up for success, allows them to see the bigger picture, and fosters ownership. They really gain an understanding of what it takes to run a small business.
We also control all aspects of hotel improvement projects, both big and small. Hotel owners rely on us to ensure their capital investments are well thought out and executed in a way that will net the highest return for them.
What key factors do you look for in the hiring process at Four Sisters?
We owe our success to our team members. They are at the heart of our company and truly what sets us apart.
Our recruiting process starts with our core values. We seek out people naturally inclined to show adaptability, attentiveness, grit, and grace and who constantly strive to go above and beyond.
When recruiting, we explain that to thrive at Four Sisters Inns, you must be adaptable and willing to pivot at a moment’s notice. At these small hotels, every day brings something different, and it won’t be a good fit for someone that prefers to sit at a quiet desk and stick to a daily routine. It is also imperative that team members be attentive and keenly aware of the details, able to anticipate a guest’s wants or needs before they ask.
At our hotels and inns, we all wear many hats and help out wherever needed. It is an entirely different environment than a large, full-service hotel. We look for someone that is a team player and resourceful, showing grit and persevering to get the job done. That means jumping into problems and not just skirting them. It takes someone who enjoys working through a problem to come out in a better place on the other side. Additionally, we hire people who operate with grace at all times. Encountering a number of challenging issues at once happens occasionally, so we need people who can navigate stressful situations with the right tone and disposition. Lastly, we are looking for people who seek to go above and beyond; someone who is always finding ways to be more efficient, improve processes, and exceed the expectations of those around them.
These values are used to recruit, acknowledge, and counsel employees. They also guide our operations. Since introducing them, they’ve helped us communicate who we are as an organization and ensure our workforce works as one team with the same goal.
What is your perspective on remote work, and how has it affected the Four Sisters group?
Like many offices, our corporate office team was forced to work from home during the pandemic. We were busier than ever as we navigated through hotel closures, expense reductions, employee communications, and more. The team was incredible, and productivity flourished. That established a great deal of trust in remote work, and now, team members are given the option to work from home or from the office. Half prefer the office environment, and half feel they are able to focus more when working from home. We come together once a week for an in-person executive meeting. This flexible, hybrid model has worked very well for us and helped us retain the best people.
What’s next for you and the business?
It’s been five years since Joni and I transitioned from employees to owners of Four Sisters Inns. We have redefined the culture of the company, focusing on our people first. We have created key positions and restructured departments and team leads. We have navigated a number of unforeseen challenges that have helped us define our vision, who we are as leaders, and where we want to take our organization.
Today, we value our team members, deliver healthy bottom lines for our owners, and create memorable experiences for our guests. We are ready for growth and are always looking for the next unique small inn or hotel to join our collection. Our goal is to expand by adding a new property, in a beautiful West Coast destination, every year or two.
Learn more about Four Sisters Inns here.