In my career covering hospitality I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many industry icons who represented hospitality and came to be closely associated with it. From Bill Marriott Jr., who learned at the foot of his father and eventually guided Marriott International, to Eric Danziger, who rose through the hotel ranks and later ran companies such as Wyndham Hotel Group and Trump Hotels—I’ve gained some valuable insight.
But there are countless other examples of the true hospitality spirit in our industry and none more than Brian Wogernese, founder and CEO of Cobblestone Hotels. I was shocked and saddened to hear the news earlier this week that Brian had passed away after a long fight with advanced esophageal cancer. I got to the privilege to get to know Brian pretty well over these last few years, not only through our BITAC events but also through Cobblestone’s annual conferences.
Since launching the upper-midscale brand in 2007, Wogernese methodically built the company up over the years with a steady pace of development and some timely acquisitions of smaller brands, such as Boarders Inn & Suites, Centerstone Hotels and KeyWest Hotels. The company now includes some 165 hotels open, under construction or in development in 28 states. That’s a long way from the early ‘90s when he started as a shuttle driver for a hotel in Minnesota.
It was in attending the company’s annual convention where I got a true window of the entrepreneurial spirit of this company, which started right at the top with a CEO who was as approachable as your neighbor. Wogernese spoke to a large crowd of franchisees as if it were a board room of 10 people, joking and acknowledging anyone who raised their hand or literally shouted out a question. It was clear this was not a take the money and run operation, he truly cared about the franchisees.
I knew Brian was different when one year I was asked to take part in a media panel on stage to talk about industry issues. I remember answering a question about development conditions and saying ‘it was going to be challenging going forward’ for a lot of reasons. Of course, I was giving an honest answer but I felt compelled to explain to Brian, who I figured was not happy that I told a room full of his developers they should think twice before building. In typical Brian fashion, he shrugged and laughed it off.
One of the greatest assets of Wogernese was that he knew who he was and what his brand was. He knew this was never going to be Hilton or Marriott, but rather a niche brand for secondary and tertiary markets and a value proposition for owners. And there’s plenty of room in the industry for that.
It’s not clear where Cobblestone will go from here, but what is clear is that while Wogernese may have started as a shuttle driver he eventually helped drive the entire industry to a better place.