By David Berman | March 14, 2023
This article is the second entry in our Engaging with Executives series. We conduct one-on-one Q&As with executives around the hospitality industry, breaking down recent trends and news in their companies and the industry as a whole.
Today’s interview is with Kurt Alexander, President of Omni Hotels & Resorts. Alexander didn’t start his career in hospitality; he first worked in public accounting for Ernst & Young. After working for seven years in investment banking, he joined Omni in 2014 as Director of Strategic Planning. Alexander held the roles of VP of Finance and Chief Financial Officer before assuming the role of President last May.
Alexander sat down with Hotel Interactive in February to discuss new projects in the Omni pipeline, his first year in the position and trends for 2023 and beyond.
Hotel Interactive: In your first year at Omni, you rotated around all the different divisions within an Omni hotel to learn more about ground-level operations. What did you learn from that experience, and what from that experience are you still using in your current position?
Kurt Alexander: Yeah, it’s a good question. I would say I learned a couple things. The first thing is just, we have an incredible family of associates throughout our company who make the guests’ experience come to life. And so kind of seeing that firsthand and learning from them was hugely educational and eye opening for me. The second thing is, you know, sometimes I think hospitality can be glamorized. Heads of state and celebrities and athletes are staying at these hotels, and a lot of people are really attracted by that. But a lot of jobs in hotels are really hard, and they’re not glamorous. And so the laundry department, the housekeeping department, some of those jobs are, they’re just really hard. So I think my appreciation for some of those jobs was amplified.
And then maybe another lesson is, I’m a numbers guy by training, and so, being a numbers guy, being a spreadsheet guy, it was hugely eye opening for me. Our business is far more complicated than a spreadsheet would lead you to believe. We have incredible people all throughout our company that really animate the guests’ experience. I really have an empathy and appreciation for how difficult some of these jobs are and how people are able to balance their lives to do that and then (also) just recognizing and not losing sight of the operational complexities involved in any different decision. And I think it was Steve Jobs, don’t quote me on that, but he said no good idea was ever born in a corporate boardroom. You know, it’s all kind of at the user level, it’s all at the field. And so I think that it is easy in a corporate setting to say, “well, what if we just do X, Y, and Z?” But if X, Y and Z end up adding four keystrokes to front desk agents’ check-in process for each person, it can completely become ineffective.
HI: Next, kind of a similar question, but I’d love to just hear about your experience since starting the position — what are some highlights and challenges of this last year?
KA: This is for your edification, and potentially for your readers as well, but let’s just talk a little about what makes Omni different as you think about the landscape of hotels. We are vertically integrated — what I mean by that is, we are a real estate owner, we are a real estate operator, or hotel operator, and we are a hotel brand. Typically in the industry, the brands want to be brands. They don’t want to manage, they don’t want to own. I’m speaking in kind of generalizations here. The management companies are managing the assets, and then the owners don’t want to manage, and so the owners are holding the managers and the brands accountable.
So for us, we’re vertically integrated, which provides, we think, greater quality control around the guest experience. We control brand standards, we execute to those brand standards, and we own every piece of that experience, which is different from a lot of folks. I think that that’s been really fun for me, over my time at Omni, but probably more magnified in the last year, is just getting to balance all those different kinds of constituencies when you think about the brand, the management company and the ownership and approximate balance across those. And look, we’re a relatively small brand in the landscape of hotels, but we believe that through an enhanced guest experience … people will choose us because there’s 100% transparency on the internet. People want to stay where there’s the best experience which we believe we do and can consistently provide.
HI: I’ve heard there are some new openings and projects that Omni is working on. I’d love to hear a little bit more about those.
KA: Yeah, thanks for asking. I put them into a few different buckets, all of which are exciting, but I’ll start with kind of the new build construction hotels. So in the next 90 days, we’re opening two brand new hotels, one of which is in Tempe, Arizona, on the campus of Arizona State University, and one of which is in kind of North Texas, north of Dallas in Frisco, which is a suburb of Dallas. Tempe is the first one, Omni PGA Frisco is the second one. Two hotels may not sound like a lot, but it is in aggregate, you know, probably $650 million of investment across those two projects. And we’ll be employing probably 1000 people across those two, so it’s a big lift for our organization to get those open. Tempe’s a 330 room hotel, PGA Frisco is a 540 room luxury resort with 36 holes of championship golf, a 10 hole short course, full service spa, 13 food and beverage outlets, it is incredible. So we have kind of our new build openings, which like I said are coming in the next 90 days.
Then the second category I would talk about would be large scale renovations and restorations. A couple that we’ll talk about there, one of which was done at the end of last year, which is Omni Tucson National. It was an extensive overhaul renovation of that hotel. We have really cool casinos that we did extensive renovations to, and again, 36 holes of golf, spa, it’s a really experiential place. And so when I talk about Omni providing exceptional guest experience, Tucson is an embodiment of that, for sure. And then the Omni Homestead, which is in Hot Springs, Virginia, which is a few hours outside of Washington DC. The Homestead is classically called America’s first resort. It started in 1766, before the United States was a country. And so a ton of history there, you know, you want to talk about presidents and heads of state, the who’s who has stayed the homestead. But we’re doing a $150 million extensive restoration of that hotel, and we say we’re restoring a piece of American history. You need to get up there at some point. The resort was started around some naturally occurring springs in rural Virginia. And so there are these bath houses built around these springs, and we have gone through and literally taken board by board and restored these things back to their original condition. We’re doing the same kind of level of effort and attention to detail at the resort. It’s close to a 500 room resort, 36 holes of golf, again, a big spa, it’s truly a destination resort, and it’s going pretty special when we’re all done with it, which will be later this year.
Then beyond those four, the third category I would talk about is just general upgrades and refreshes across the portfolio. I think we have about 20% of our portfolio currently in room renovations and kind of upgrades. We’re excited about all of those.
HI: I’m actually going to ask a question about that, with restorations and renovations. If you could just talk a little bit about the importance of making investments like that to, like you said, continue offering a very high level guest experience. What goes into the process of deciding you need to renovate this asset versus another one?
KA: It’s important just to understand the transactional nature of hospitality. We’ll probably have, I would think, eight million plus people staying with us in 2023. Each one of those people are forming experiences and kind of a perception of our brand based on their time at the hotel and resort. You have to think about what are the components of experience. How well trained are our people? How do we greet you, how do we interact with you? Do we use your name? That’s a piece of it. The physical space and place that you’re gathering, does it feel high quality? Is it fresh? Is it clean? Is the food hot? Was your massage good? So there are a lot of inputs that kind of go into experience. Certainly one of which is the physical space. I like to say at Omni, we create places and spaces for people to gather and connect and form lifelong memories. So a part of that is making sure that the lobby is fresh. If there’s a lobby bar that you and your friends want to meet at and have a drink, then y’all are talking about your memories from college or can’t wait to go on this trip and you’re doing it at our bar or in our lobby. We want to create and cultivate a space that you all enjoy, right? So with millions of people coming in contact with our spaces and places every year, we need to make sure that they’re relevant. We need to make sure that they’re fresh, that you have places to plug your phone in. We just want to understand what the traveler of today wants and needs and expects and making sure that we are responsive to those.
HI: Broadly, what are some industry trends that you’re tracking for 2023?
KA: I think for 2023, but certainly beyond 23, as well, is just what I call the workforce, and talk to any economist, and they’re going to talk about the aging workforce in our country. So for us, kind of being a small owner/operator, it’s important that our people know who we are, and that we know who our people are, and that at Omni, we can come alongside you and help you achieve your career goals and objectives. You’re not just a number, you’re a story, you’re a person, you have an identity. The workforce trends and demographics in our country are going to impact 2023 and beyond. I think beyond that, the industry is continuing to be peppered with intermediation between hotel brands and their customers. And so whether it’s Expedia or booking.com or TripAdvisor or Google, how people want to interact with us is changing, and we need to make sure that we’re staying abreast of that. And then obviously the whole social media component, and you have Instagram influencers and now the TikTok generation and how do we as a brand be responsive to what is going to be the largest segment of travelers here in the very near future.
HI: One last question for you, Kurt. Outside of openings and renovations that we talked about, I’d love to hear about what’s coming up for Omni in 2023 – any goals, any initiatives, anything else you just kind of want to talk about for 2023 and beyond?
KA: Yeah, so for us, our biggest initiative as a company this year is equipping our talent. Right now, we have about 18,000 people working for us across the country, and about 10,000 of those have been with us for less than a year. A big portion of those people have never worked in hospitality before. So how do we arm and equip all 18,000 of those people with really the tools they need to do their job? How do we arm them with confidence so they can interact with you or our guests, and deliver that great guest experience? So we’re making big investments in training. We’re kind of realigning our whole company on what our brand standards are and making sure that we are delivering compelling value to our customers across the brand.