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Craig Leitch, Vice President of Operations, Vantage Hospitality

He helps provide a consistent guest experience in hotels that don't look alike.

Monday, March 08, 2010
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The family business for Craig Leitch was food. His father owned a catering business and his two brothers went to culinary school to become chefs.

Leitch knew he was destined to join the hospitality industry -- just not in food. Instead he graduated from hotel school at Florida International University and moved into management. After running properties in the Fort Lauderdale area and in Aruba, he ended up at Vantage Hospitality, where he has served as the vice president of operations for the past five years.

Vantage's Americas Best Value Inns includes 900 locations and 50,000 guestrooms throughout North America.

Leitch spoke with Buyer Interactive about the chain's unique -- and growing -- niche in hospitality.

What amenities are your guests looking for?
At our hotels, the average length of stay is 1.1 nights. It's a “drive-up, park your car in front of your room, stay the night and leave” place. The biggest amenity our guests are looking for is clean and safe, no doubt about it. After that it would be high-speed Internet, and then the flat-panel TVs. If you go in a guest room now and you see one of those old TVs, it almost looks ancient, doesn't it? Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, there isn't a lot of money for owners to go out and buy 60 flat-screen TVs.

You are a limited-service hotel, and budget accordingly. How do you keep consistency among your brand?
We take a variety of other brands [for conversion]. Right now the most properties we're taking is Super 8, and we also take Best Western, HoJos. We don't have that cookie-cutter hotel-in-a-box type of thing. We have so many different architectural styles and different shape hotels. As far as consistency among product, we have ten of what we call SSAP directors. That stands for Sales, Support and Assurance Program. Instead of it being an inspector coming to try and take points off, we're going there to increase sales and help the property. What used to drive me the craziest was, an inspector would say, "I want you to put the matches in the ash tray like this." So you get housekeeping to change that. Then a year later they come and say, "The matches have to be like this." I grew up in Jersey so I tell my team of 10 they have to be like the Rockettes: Everybody has to be kicking in line. If in California you're taking off because of this, it better be the same in North Carolina. We do monthly sales calls, take pictures, and I travel with them twice a year. That's how we get some consistency.

You provide your own ratings system of checkmarks for your properties. How did it develop?
It was developed initially by Roger [Bloss] and Bernie [Moyle] when they started the company. We've tweaked it over the years. It's developed by what your quality evaluation score is. It goes from A to F. Four checkmarks would be an A property. If a property fails our property evaluation inspection -- it can fail for life safety issues immediately -- but if it fails for cleanliness or something, that same day we shut them down. It comes off all reservation and OTA sites.

Why do you make the ratings public?
Not being a cookie-cutter brand, we do it to let the consumer know this is what we think is an outstanding property, and this is one we think needs some work. If I come and inspect your property and you score a two-checkmark, before the quality evaluator leaves he writes you an action plan on what you have to do to get to four checkmarks and a timeline. In this economy, if we see your carpet is shot and you have to replace it, we'll give them a bit more leeway. We strive for every property to get to four checkmarks.

Many properties offers free wireless Internet. Is that a brand standard, and why is it free?
We ask each property do that. They can choose to charge if they want. But the way the competition is, you had better give it for free.

What qualities do you look for in suppliers you do business with?
We're not looking for any fly-by-night. It's got to be national as opposed to just regional. If they can't sell to North Carolina, Texas and California, it's no good to us.

What do you look for when you are deciding on new products to purchase?
We have a preferred vendor program. We only pick a certain number of vendors in each product line. We have a vendor coordinator in the California office. We research the companies before we let them in as a vendor to see what their product is, who has bought from them in the past. We ask our owners before they're buying something to give our vendors a last look and let them know, "This is what I'm buying -- can you beat it?"

What are some of the toughest items for your brands to source?
Probably the toughest thing is, with our hotels having an average stay of 1.1 nights with a lot of drive-up business, is durable stuff. Our hotel rooms take a good beating. A lot of truck drivers, construction workers are on the road. That's our biggest thing: getting something that is durable, that looks good and is going to last. Carpet is always tough to buy. The other thing is, you don't want to buy something that a year later is outdated. Being limited-service hotels, it also has to be cost-efficient.

What industry trends do you see emerging?
Reducing employees. Automated phone switches where you don't need a phone operator to answer the phone. Kiosk check-ins. When you go to the airport, do you even talk to anyone anymore? That's where it's headed.

What would you change about your current suppliers?
Pricing -- that's the biggest thing. The other thing is to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. A lot of our owners [will say], "I'm buying towels and they're $26 a dozen. Your vendor wants to charge me $32 a dozen." But look at the difference. This towel you can see right through, but this towel you feel like you're wrapped in a robe. Vendors have to explain their product. If they are a little more expensive, explain why.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone who aspires to a similar job as yours?
Treat people the way you want to be treated. It drives me nuts that some people think they're above everybody else. The other thing is, I have 30 people directly under me, and they work with me for a common goal: provide customer service to our members. You have to make it fun. We have a blast at work. We make it fun. That's it: Make it fun, treat people the way you want to be treated, and know their job. If you're a restaurant manager, you should know how to tend bar, cook and wash dishes. If you're walking through a restaurant and see the busboy struggling, help him out. You do stuff like that and you'll have employees walk through a wall for you.
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