We recently spoke with Liz Uber, SVP of Operations at Aimbridge Hospitality, about her journey in hospitality. We discussed how experiences working in sales, marketing, and asset management guide her operations philosophy today, and how to lead operations at scale.
How did you get started in hospitality?
Like so many, I sort of fell into the hospitality world. I graduated from Texas A&M with a psychology degree, and after graduation, I ended up getting my first job at a hotel in D.C. as an HR manager. I had no intention of entering the hospitality industry at the time. In fact, I remember in high school, a fellow student said she wanted to go to the University of Boulder and go to the hotel program, and I remember thinking, “that’s not a career path I was aware of!”
But I ended up moving to D.C. and took the job as an HR manager. It was a 200-room Holiday Inn. This felt like a 20-hour a week job. After doing it for a couple of months, I went to my boss and said, “All the files are in place. Payroll happens every two weeks. I’m bored. I need more things to do.”
I was very, very blessed. I worked for a gentleman who is still my mentor to this day, and he gave me an opportunity. He said, “Why don’t you go work at the front desk for a while and help them out?” So, I did that, and then I went into housekeeping and helped them for a while. Then he moved to Philadelphia, and I moved to Philadelphia as well, as a Front Office Manager. From there, I moved around several times for different opportunities, but really got bitten by the bug of hospitality in a way that I never anticipated.
Now I can’t imagine doing anything different.
Why do you continue to work in hospitality today?
Every day is different!
When I wake up in the morning, I generally don’t know what my day is going to be like. I have my list of things to do, and some days they even all get crossed off. But it’s fun, and I think in hospitality you have an amazing opportunity to impact a lot of people’s lives, whether it’s the lives of people coming to stay at your hotel, the lives of your associates, or the lives of your co-workers.
You have the ability to positively impact people, and that’s probably the piece that I love the most. Whether it’s just calling somebody and saying, “Good job,” or helping them in their career path, and figuring out where they’re going to go next.
Right now as we speak, there are 30 general managers in our office who just joined Aimbridge in the last 90 days that are going through a week-long experience we call GM Connect. They get to understand all the support they have, our Aimbridge culture, and they meet lots of different people. They’re all so excited and so eager. We invest a lot in them and they invest a lot in us. Spending time with people like them is what I love most about hospitality.
How did your time leading sales and marketing at Pillar Hotels & Resorts inform how you think about operations leadership today?
It all starts at the top-line. “Money hides all sins” is how I think the saying goes in the hotel industry. I loved my time at Pillar driving top-line revenue. I would say my approach even today is we need to figure out how we drive top-line growth. We have a lot of systems that help us manage expenses from a business perspective, but if you don’t have the money come in on the top it makes it very difficult to flow through and maximize profit.
My approach from my time at Pillar was to figure out where the business is coming from and how do we get that business to pick our hotels. Also, how do we provide service so good that they keep coming back again and again? It doesn’t always come down to cost; it comes down to how we are able to anticipate their needs and, more importantly, how we are able to meet and exceed their needs.
You also had experience with asset management for Blackstone. How did that experience shape your operations philosophy?
I loved my time at Blackstone as well. I had the opportunity to see the business from the other side. This time on behalf of a major global real estate investor. I had an opportunity to underwrite hotels, visit hotels, and conduct due diligence on them.
What I took out of that experience was understanding what owners are looking for from a management company, and what makes a good deal from their perspective. I think that it was interesting to learn how everybody approaches the business differently depending on their end goal. Everybody buys real estate with an investment goal in mind. Many may hold real estate for shorter terms as part of an investment portfolio, while other owners may hold on to the asset for 50+ years. We (Aimbridge) understand the nuances, and so tailor our management services to meet the individual goals of each owner.
Let’s talk about Aimbridge. How would you describe the company in your own words?
I actually worked at Aimbridge twice. I worked for two different companies that were purchased by/merged with Aimbridge. Most recently, I started with Interstate just prior to the merger with Aimbridge.
Aimbridge has scale on par with some of the brands, but it still feels like a very small family. It feels like people are approachable, and you can pick up the phone and call somebody in a different department and we’re all here to support each other. We have a strong culture of collaboration.
Aimbridge is unique in the sense that we have over 1,500 hotels under contract at this point all around the world, with 84 brands and sub-brands, plus approximately 100 independent/lifestyle hotels. There is a lot of exposure in markets, and a lot of things that I’ve learned since I’ve been in this role that I would not have had the opportunity had I worked at another company. For example, we have a very large footprint in Europe and as leaders, we hear weekly updates from our EVP of International about market conditions, investment outlook, and more. It’s a unique insight. For example, as we were recovering from the pandemic, Europe was ahead of us on the COVID curve. They shut down before we did and they rebounded before we did. We were able to take some learnings from how Europe recovered and apply them to the United States.
I think working at Aimbridge gives you limitless amounts of opportunities. Obviously, we have great benefits and perks, including a great 401(k) with company match, and the Aimbridge Passport employee discount program so you can stay at other Aimbridge hotels. From a career growth aspect, there are lots of opportunities to make lateral, matrixed, or upward movement.
We have so many folks here that have started as a hotel front desk agent that are now general managers. The great part about our scale is there’s a fairly good chance you’ll be able to move around, move up in your career without moving away. You’ll be able to stay in the same town.
With Aimbridge it’s a great place to grow, learn and create a path that works for you and your interests, whether at corporate or a property.
We love promoting from within, so we celebrate every week the internal promotions that we’ve had because we think that is huge. We do this not just for our hotels, but also from teams across our corporate office.
What would you tell someone considering a career in hospitality?
It’s a great career for people of all ages, wherever you happen to come from, and whatever education you might have. There are lots of people who are super successful in the hospitality world that never spent a day in college. There are very few industries that you can rise to a fairly high level within the organization as a high school graduate, and hospitality is definitely one of those opportunities.
How would you define exceptional hospitality?
Exceptional hospitality is very specific to what the guest is looking for.
Exceptional hospitality, when I go on a trip with my children, looks very different from exceptional hospitality when I go on a business trip or when I go on a trip with my husband.
Our biggest opportunity and what we’ve tried to focus on is ensuring that we give our associates the training so that they can best understand what is important to that guest at that moment. Empathy is important. What is meaningful to you and to me is probably not the same. And what’s important to me is going to change based upon whom I happen to be standing next to or not or if I’m traveling by myself.
When we talk about exceptional hospitality, I think it’s anticipating the guest’s needs, which might look very different depending on whom you’re traveling with. It’s going above and beyond and if I’m traveling with my three kids and my seven-year-old is melting down, it’s finding a lollipop to give him to make my life better.
I believe you can provide exceptional hospitality at every scale and in every vertical.
Our biggest opportunity is to ensure that we are training our associates with different service techniques, including the LEARN model.
What’s the LEARN model?
The LEARN model is more than 100 years old. It stands for Listen, Empathize, Apologize (where needed), React, Now!
It starts with training our associates to hear what the guest is saying, to listen, and to empathize.
We teach them how to listen and provide guests with what it is that they’re looking for, and if things go sideways, which occasionally they do, how do we empathize with them and then try to solve for what will be able to turn this situation around?
It’s a huge opportunity for us to continue to train our associates to listen and empathize and to understand where folks are coming from and then try and solve their problems. Often, it’s not that difficult to do.
How do you think about providing great service at scale? You mentioned earlier 30 new GMs coming to learn together. What systems or programs do you use to ensure consistent excellence?
Providing great service at scale starts with people. Then it’s our tools, resources, training, and support to instill our values into our people. We consistently commit to our general managers so they can be great leaders and supporters of their staff and provide the best service to our guests.
Hiring the right people for the right job, with an ongoing focus on training and developing our talent the Aimbridge way, leads to excellence. I mentioned our values, and it starts with that. They are the guiding principles that are important to us as a company:
- Think We. Not Me. – which I think very much talks to hospitality,
- Become Better. Every Day. – how do we find new and creative ways to exceed expectations today above what we did yesterday
- Be Respectful. Be Inclusive. Be Curious. – promoting diversity both within our workforce, within our organization, making sure that we are opening opportunities to everyone
- Think Like a Guest. Act Like an Owner. – which should be the most important one
In a tight labor market, we have great recruiting tools and technology to ensure we are able to hire folks quickly. We want to make sure our GMs have the support they need to hire the right people. We also have Payactiv, a same-day pay app, so any associate can access 50% of earned wages the very next day instead of waiting two weeks. We’ve talked to our associates about what’s important to them, flexibility in scheduling, the Uber model, where you can pick your schedule. We’re really trying to be creative and find different ways that we can create a work environment that is conducive to our labor force.
The last thing, and one of the most important things, is rewarding and acknowledging our associates. We do a sales award every year for the top sales winners in the company and this year they and a guest are going to the Bahamas for a week. We’re rolling out our new bonus plan and I think it’s almost unmatched in the industry. We give our general managers the autonomy and the ideas to make their employees feel like they are appreciated, and they want to come back to work every day.
Personally, there is a lot I want to get done and see implemented, but we have to keep in mind that our GMs are also running hotels. It’s key to stay focused on the things that tie back to our values. What’s going to help us be better today than we were yesterday? What’s going to help us think like a guest or act like an owner?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the three pillars of the stool. Does it help the associates? Does it help the guests? Does it help the owners, and is it going to have a large enough impact to move the needle better than maybe something else?
What are you most proud of achieving? Any kind of project or initiative or thing that you’ve been working on recently that you’re especially proud of?
I’m most proud of the team that we have built.
I try to go above and beyond to recognize my associates. For example, today we have a “You Rock” call, where our teams join and recognize associates within the region that have best exhibited the Aimbridge Values. In addition, we recognize associates with 10+ years of tenure or hotels that have achieved various recognitions.
It is not unusual for one of our VPs to send cupcakes to a hotel that did a great job, or for someone from our Operations team to show up with donuts and join the morning huddle, just as an opportunity to say thank you. That’s a culture that I’ve really tried to ingrain in my team, and then I think my team has further ingrained into their teams.