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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 15, 2016 2 years ago

Build-a-Brand

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A business with 90 years of history certainly has plenty of stories to share. McKibbon Hospitality is ready for its storytelling moment.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Executive Summary
Company. McKibbon Hospitality Industry. Hotel management, hospitality Key. Company is undergoing a long-term rebranding effort.

Randy Hassen recently came across his first job application to McKibbon Hospitality — it was at a Days Inn in Athens, Ga.

It was 1991. Hassen sought a part-time job while going to college. When asked which position he was looking for, Hassen filled in, “any.” For his available start date, “now.”

Hassen was hired. He earned $4.50 an hour, helping hotel guests carry luggage up and down the stairs. That Days Inn won hotel of the year among 1,500 Days Inn nationwide. A year later, when Marriott started to franchise, the owner of the facility, John McKibbon, decided to convert the Days Inn Athens to the Courtyard Marriott. In 1993 it won hotel of the year among all Courtyards.

Hassen was clearly onto something working with McKibbon. The company, closing in on 100 total hotels in its portfolio, is now one of the largest hotel management firms in the region and one of the most respected high-end hospitality companies in the Southeast, says industry analyst and consultant Lou Plasencia, CEO of the Tampa-based Plasencia Group.

But like many peers in the industry, a core challenge at McKibbon to continue the growth is to pinpoint new and innovative ways to attract millennials — both as customers and as employees.

“The team that John McKibbon brought together is comprised of a lot of experienced, street-smart people who are now taking the organization into the next generation.” Plasencia says.
“They have managed their investments wisely and have developed a loyal following from investors and employees alike. The company is really ideally poised to grow exponentially in the next real estate investment cycle.”

One of those executives is Hassen, who worked his way up the privately held company's ranks. First there was the desk. Up next: management; leading development and openings of new hotels; to general manager; regional manager; and vice president. Today he is president of McKibbon Hospitality's hotel management division, part of a Tampa-based company going through a major rebranding.

Hassen took on the president role in 2012, and has since led portfolio growth from 60 hotels to 85 in 13 states, with eight more hotels in active development. The company has posted double-digit percentage revenue growth every year since 2012, and has had growth years in 24 of the last 27 years. Executives decline to disclose specific sales figures.

Hassen is one of many who have been promoted from within at McKibbon, which is on its third generation of family leadership that dates back 90 years. One of his chief tasks for 2016 has been to lead a major rebranding of the company — a project executives hope will go a long way toward attracting new guests and employees.

Sharing stories
The rebranding effort has already been a two-year process that includes a significant investment. It spans from updating office space to improving ways of sharing the company's culture to advertising for additional business.

“It's a new platform for us to grow on; we already had a great foundation,” Hassen says.

But the company has been advised to steer clear from using the term “rebranding” by its Portland-based marketing firm, Fine, which also manages Kimpton hotels' marketing.

“You've got a great brand but you're not telling your story,” the company told them, according to Hassen. Fine is helping McKibbon capture stories, like Hassen's career, to show how much the company embraces providing opportunities for young employees to grow careers. “We can broadcast it,” Hassen says, “instead of hiding it.”

The don't-call-it-rebranding rebranding project was initially launched internally, with a new intranet and human resources information system for employee development. Two of the top reasons people leave a company, Hassen says, tracking research and personal experience, is they are not a fan of their boss or they don't see growth opportunities.

But McKibbon works hard to ensure employees don't have those reasons. Five of seven vice presidents were promoted from within, and more than half of the corporate team has been promoted from other roles.

Culture is also important. Even though the 2,500 associates are spread across 17 brands, there's one thing that ties them all together — being part of McKibbon. Building brand recognition, so people don't feel isolated to their property or region, is key. The company, adds Hassen, wants employees to know they have the “same opportunity for growth nationally that I had in 1992.”

McKibbon, part of the new initiatives, plans to tell the stories of employee growth and corporate culture through online marketing and videos. We're talking about what people are looking for...why you want to work for the company,” Hassen says.

The company is also creating a video to share its culture and a brand video to explain what McKibbon is all about.

At the same time, Hassen haggles with another conflict: Making sure employees stay true to the company's 90-year-old foundation without missing technology-based opportunities. He
preaches evolving with the technology. Says Hassen: “We hire to embrace the change.”

The company is a family-oriented group, involved in local communities nationwide around its properties. When a new hotel opens, the company throws a picnic for the opening crew and their families, along with the local contractors and vendors on the project, to celebrate the success of working together. That's a feature of the company executives say should make a video of the strong culture. “It's a badge of honor to be selected for an opening crew on a hotel,” Hassen says.

Another unique part of the culture: The company hires photographers to take pictures of staff at different properties. The goal there is to make sure the focus of the company is on the people — not on the hotels.

“Competitors focus on the hotels,” Hassen says. “We want to be authentic and real.”

New space
At the corporate level, McKibbon has added more than five positions every year since 2012. Today, 50 employees work out of the Tampa office. The company is projecting that growth will continue, which is one reason why the company is moving a couple spaces down, to a 10,000-square-foot building in its office park in Tampa.

The new space, following commercial real estate trends, that make workspaces more inviting for younger employees, is another way for the company to showcase and carry out its brand and culture. There will be more collaboration space, stand-up work desks, flexible work space for people who work remotely part time and a refreshed look and feel to “bring the brand to life,” Hassen says.

Partnering with architectural firm HOK and EWI Construction, known for its work on the Oxford Exchange in Tampa, the new corporate office will feature exposed concrete and steel features, a big training room with a rolling garage door, a lot of natural light and a living wall. The build is expected to be complete in November.

Marketing Move
In addition to building out the brand internally and to prospective employees, there's the other side: new customers and new clients who hire the firm to manage hotel properties. McKibbon, say executives, is well known for its real estate acquisitions and management, but not as well known for management for third party owners.

With an eye toward that side, McKibbon promoted Wes Townson in April to vice president of business development, where he will build relationships with “ownership groups, brand executives, investors and commercial real estate brokers,” according to a company release. Townson's new role includes more networking to overcome industry perceptions about what the company does. The firm, for example, never previously dedicated resources to attending industry tradeshows and lodging conferences.

And in Asheville, the company is working on its first repurposed project and first independent property, which will be a high-end boutique hotel, in Starwood's Tribute collection. It's an opportunity for the company to learn how to find customers without just plugging in to an existing brand's website. It's also symbolic of how the company has grown the last 30 years, through being nimble, entrepreneurial and opportunistic. Says Hassen. “Growth through a property (like this) pushes our limits.”

Serve Others
Tampa-based McKibbon Hospitality promotes the “hospitality mindset in everything we do,” according to company president Randy Hassen. It's one reason why an internal core value is to serve the communities where its hotels are based.

The company also wants to prove it isn't an absentee investor in its markets, Hassen says. That's why at least 12 months prior to opening any property, McKibbon sends a team of employees to

immerse themselves in the culture and market. It also hires local PR companies, local food vendors, designers, contractors and more to partner on the project.

In addition, the company allows each property's staff to pick a charity to support, for which McKibbon matches funds. For example, the Aloft Asheville Downtown supports Homeward Bound, a local charity that assists homeless people to find permanent housing. The hotel staff worked together to collect furniture and household supplies to assist with the move.

Current Projects
Tampa-based McKibbon Hospitality, one of the largest hotel management firms in the region, has several projects in the Southeast in development. The list includes:
Hampton Inn & Suites Atlanta Buckhead;  
AC Hotel Asheville Downtown, McKibbon's first AC hotel, which is a new Marriott brand;
AC Hotel & Residence Inn Charlotte City Center, which will be McKibbon's first dual-branded tower;
Tribute Portfolio Hotel, McKibbon's first independent, boutique hotel;

(This story was updated to reflect the correct name of McKibbon after a rebranding, the amount of investment in the rebranding and the current and future hotels in the company's portfolio.)

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