Operating lessons from a top-rated hotel owner

Scott Curran is the Chief Operating Officer for Reneson Hotels, an owner-operator of branded and independent hotels in California. The company consistently tops guest satisfaction charts, with their Best Western property #2 of more than 2,000 in the system, and their IHG and Hilton properties all in the top 10% of the brand. 

I recently spoke with Scott to learn how Reneson achieves the results they do today, and we covered what he’s learned about hotel operations from his career journey, managing across properties and brands – and how to attract, develop and engage his teams. 

Let’s jump into it….

Scott’s career journey in hospitality

“I never thought I was going to be working in the hospitality business,” Scott told me with a laugh. The son of an early Intel employee who grew up in Silicon Valley, Scott grew up in and around the world of technology. “I studied business in school and wanted to be around business people back then.”

But he ended up getting a job at a hotel close to the college he went to in Santa Barbara, and that led to another role back in San Francisco as the head of the concierge department of a downtown Marriott hotel. 

“It was a lot of fun because I was running a team of concierges and had access to bars, restaurants, and things like that. We had a really great time as a team and a great time with our guests getting to know the industry and getting to know people around my hometown.”

Scott had fallen in love with hospitality and realized if he wanted to continue his journey he needed to understand the front office side of the business. “I saw an opening in the group I was working for at that point, Reneson Hotels, for a front office manager in Marin County. I hadn’t been up there a lot, but quickly fell in love with the people there.”

Though the job was a step back pay-wise it was a step forward in learning the skillset Scott wanted to build in operations. He fell in love with hospitality even more to the process, and after three years, shifted to a role in sales to understand that area of the business. He continued his journey in the years that followed to a role as General Manager at one of the group’s hotels, and today Scott serves as Chief Operating Officer, overseeing Reneson’s seven hotels – with an eighth hotel in development.

Why work in hotel operations?

For Scott, operations provides an ability to affect change in a hospitality business unlike any other role.

“There’s just something about being able to walk into a hotel, see all the things that are going on, listen to people, and make the changes that need to be done,” he told me. 

“For me, it’s always been about having great team members. It doesn’t need to be people with a lot of experience in hospitality – you just need good people. If you can get good people working operations that benefits your guests.” 

In Scott’s experience, operations is more important to rates and pricing power than anything else. “If you have a bad experience at a hotel and it’s not operating correctly, it’s going to be really tough to get anyone to come back. Operations is an extremely important factor in hotel revenue performance today.”

The benefits of effective operations

The number-one benefit of running a strong hotel operation is you’ll have happier employees, Scott shared. “Happier employees leads to happier guests, which leads to more money for the business.”

“There’s nobody that likes dysfunction, being yelled at by a guest because something didn’t get taken care of. In any hotel business, you need to start with operations in order to be able to get guests coming back and guests that are willing to pay what you’re charging based on the experience they’re having at the hotel.”

Managing consistent excellence across brands

Scott’s position as Chief Operating Officer for an ownership group is a unique one, and I asked him what latitude he has for operating his hotels across brands.

“Operational processes vary brand by brand, but coming out of Covid, brands have released some of the strictness for operational details,” he said. “What I really try to do as COO is make sure that our operations – whether it is at a Hilton hotel, a Marriott hotel, an IHG property, or an independent – are all operating in the same way. If you stay at a Reneson hotel, you’re going to get the same experience, the same greeting, and be taken care of in the same way regardless if you are in one of our Napa or McKinleyville properties. Doing that requires doing some things operationally above and beyond the brand standards.”

Operating properties consistently between hotels and across brands also enables people to move around as needed between their hotels. “We want to take a person from McKinleyville that’s working at a Holiday Inn and move them to an independent hotel or vice versa without missing a beat.”

What Scott looks for when hiring

“We’re in the relationship creating business,” Scott told me. “For me, hiring is about finding the right people with the right personality. We’ve hired people from Target and Starbucks and it’s worked out phenomenally for us. I have a great team member that used to be a doorman at the building I live in. I told him you would be perfect for hospitality, and he’s loved it ever since.”

“We’re not looking for hospitality experience as a number-one factor. We’re not looking at education, even for general managers. At the end of the day, we’re looking for good people. People who want to serve others and have a good time with guests. People who want to provide our guests with memories they can take home with them.”

That’s the criteria Scott hires for and has been able to attract and retain. “We get text messages all the time from people that don’t even look at what the rates are. They just text us and say ‘book a room for me next Thursday for whatever the cost is – I’m coming back.’” 

This is the gold standard of hotel operational excellence – to eliminate price sensitivity because the guest experience was so good they’re not even looking at that.

Developing career paths in hospitality

Scott believes hospitality sometimes gets a bad reputation and that view misses what this industry can provide.

“Hospitality is such a neat industry. I’ve made so many friends from my days working the front desk to today where cool people from around the world will call me when they’re coming to the San Francisco Bay Area and we get drinks or have dinner. Hospitality opens the doors to relationships like this.”

Hospitality also provides rapid growth opportunities, which Scott experienced himself. “In a relatively short amount of time, you can move from the front lines to management leadership positions. “I have a general manager now running my Hampton Inn Daly City, who started working the front desk right out of college six years ago and has now been a general manager for 2 1/2 years. Within four years she went from working the front desk to the front office manager to assistant general manager to general manager – and she is absolutely terrific at what she does.”

“I always tell people if you’re willing to put in the work you can move ahead pretty quickly and hospitality.”

Taking care of your teams

Another reason Scott has been able to attract and retain top talent is the way he thinks about taking care of his teams. This perspective has been shaped by his own experience as a General Manager. 

“When I was running Napa, at one point, they had fires up there and we had to evacuate the hotel. I didn’t leave the property for three days straight. It was unbelievably stressful. Experiences like that help me feel for what our teams have gone through during Covid.”

Dealing with natural disasters like wildfires is highly stressful, Scott told me, but they were over in 10 days and the teams could recover.  “Today, you have this long situation where everyone from the front line staff to the managers have been so overworked because they’ve been so understaffed. People that have been in the business know how hard it’s been to deal with. People have been difficult. If you go back a year and a half ago, people wouldn’t want to put a mask on or would be yelling at staff.” 

What Scott and his leadership team knew is those providing hospitality in this tense and stressful environment needed to be supported. “We needed to make sure they got some time to take off. We told them ‘just go somewhere for a weekend, take it off, and we’ll pay for it.”

Staying in touch with the needs of the team

Spending time with Scott quickly showed how deeply he thinks about taking care of his teams, and I wanted to know how he stays in touch with those on the front lines of providing hospitality at his hotels. 

Technology plays a key role in this, as the company has digitized operations through GuestEQ

“By using this platform our staff can reach out to anybody at any time. Anyone, at any level of responsibility, can reach out to the president and the COO of the company. They can send me a note – they even have access to my cell phone number.  They can call me and believe me, they have!”  

But regular site visits also play a key role. “I think it’s just regularly checking in, regularly sitting down with the team. I like to have meals with the teams when I’m at our locations. I’ll grab a pizza and just sit in there with them and hear what’s going on with everybody there. A lot of the time, there will be something that you’ll find that maybe they weren’t comfortable with telling their own manager, but they feel somehow a little bit more comfortable telling me. But a lot of the time, I just hear about their kids and things that are going on and just family things and we’re able to have these conversations.”

“I think it’s all about making sure everybody knows who you are, can see your face, and feel comfortable talking with you.” 

Encouraging teammates to open up and share

Site visits are great, but I wanted to know how Scott got people to open up and tell him the truth about what’s going on. He said it’s because he has a naturally easygoing personality, but it’s also how he shows up and engages in these conversations.

“When we sit down at first, I’m not going right into ‘what do you guys see that’s going on here?’ I’m asking them about what their kids are doing in sports, what grade they’re in, and where they’re going to school. A lot of these people I’ve known for 20+ years.”

The company culture starts at the top. “We’ve just really a neat environment and culture that comes from our President. He’s an amazing person who is very open, and so I have a great example to follow. We just try to create an environment that feels family-ish.”

“We just want to make sure that if anybody has a problem, they feel comfortable that they can come to any of us and that it gets taken care of. That’s the most important thing to me in our work environment. Nobody would come to work if they didn’t have to. As long as we’re all going to be here, we might as well have some fun, and be respectful to each other. And I think all of that leads to a bigger bottom line.”

Scott has learned success in hotels is all about showing hospitality to staff and associates as well as to guests. Happier employees mean happier guests, which means more business profits.

Connect with Scott here on LinkedIn, and learn more about Reneson Hotels here

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