HB on the Scene: Execs talk collaboration, creativity at roundtable

Rockbridge CEO/cofounder Jim Merkel founded RTRX in 2012. Since its inception, the event has brought together industry professionals and thought leaders all looking to make a difference.

The RTRX experience, held in collaboration with Pelotonia’s Ride Weekend, is curated with business, philanthropy, fun and thought-provoking and inspiring content. Hotel Business was honored to join in, holding its executive roundtable discussion during the event.

Hosted and sponsored by Rockbridge, the discussion brought together industry execs to talk about the RTRX event and how its message is not only influencing hospitality operations but their own world views.

Moderated by Christina Trauthwein, Hotel Business VP, content & partnerships, the roundtable participants included Jim Merkel, CEO/cofounder, Rockbridge; Tom Healy, president/COO, Rockbridge Hospitality Management; Chris Green, president, Remington Hospitality; Chuck Pomerantz, managing partner, Highline Hospitality; Mark Tamis, president, global operations, Aimbridge Hospitality; Lisel Morris, director, branding + strategic projects, AMS Hospitality; Michael Kollin, founder/president/CEO, Kollin Altomare Architects; Teague Hunter, president/CEO, Hunter Hotel Advisors; and Sloane McFarland, restaurant and creative entrepreneur, Martha + Mary.

The conversation began around the event itself, RTRX, and what it means to each of the participants. There was a consensus among the group: The event not only inspires each of the leaders, but forces them to take a step back and analyze their priorities.

“It’s really inspiring to hear the feedback because that was the intention of the event, to do something different and bring people together on universal issues that could apply to us whether we’re working or at home or in our community…that’s what we strive to do,” Merkel said. “What it’s done for me personally, is it allows me to build deeper relationships with people. It brings out conversations, and we learn on a deeper level. That’s really a joy for me in this business, building relationships and collecting those relationships.”

In a business of relationships, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of how those relationships were forged, and much easier to focus on numbers and day-to-day deals. And not just relationships with colleagues and associates, but relationships with the guest.

“Everything about this conference is about inspiration and soulfulness and connecting with human beings and not once did I hear anyone talk about driving the bottom line…of course, that’s going to be an inherent byproduct, but it was so refreshing,” Morris said. “We’re selling happiness and to sell happiness you have to understand what makes somebody happy. That person isn’t thinking about the bottom line. They’re coming wanting to be seen, heard and understood. So coming back here and spending three days focusing on what lights people up and makes them feel cared about is a great reminder.”

As industry leaders, the execs agreed that they all have the power to ignite change and inspire others. But in order for that to be successful, there must be a level of authenticity and trust.

“The word trust comes up in every relationship,” Healy said. “When you think about what made you successful as a younger person, that gets chipped away. Don’t forget there are people looking up to you. Your energy sets a tone. Why RTRX is so brilliant is because that’s what it’s really important. We can close the deal but we’ve got to like each other and trust each other respect each other. All of the soft stuff matters.”

Putting these plans into motion is critical, and the participants shared how they’re going to start making changes within their own organizations.

“I need to go back and think about how should we talk about fun and motivation because it’s all going to translate to better performance,” Pomerantz said. “It’s on me to go back and say, ‘OK, how do I hold my management companies more accountable to do that?’ We should be getting out into the field and celebrating the successes. It’s on me to do that and get myself reenergized and motivated.”

Others, like Kollin, have plans to take what they learned back to their teams so they can implement these principles for themselves.

“I show up [to RTRX] because I believe, as a leader, it’s important to be able to go back and share with my staff the things that I’ve learned,” Kollin said. “I learned to collect and connect the dots and while I think we do this generally in business, I’ve never really put it that way before. It’s a great way to continue with those connections.”

Green believes in this type of leadership as well and thinks that it can be transformational for the hospitality business.

“People don’t get enrolled in how was your GOP last month, but they do get enrolled in if you understand how they feel,” he said. “I always say that we may talk about culture in the C-suite, but it doesn’t matter if it’s not true in the field. True looks different for those in the field than it may look for me.”

He shared a personal story about culture in the field; a moment that he says changed his life.

“One of the most transformative moments in my career was with a lobby attendant 25 years ago,” he recalled. “I was at a thousand miles an hour as an assistant general manager of a hotel, and I was walking through the lobby fast and I thought I was a hospitable, friendly leader. The attendant said, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘Fine, how are you?’ and I kept walking and she said, ‘Do you even care?’ I stopped dead in my tracks and that literally changed my career because I realized that I had prioritized process over people.”

For Green, it taught him to be present and focus on what matters as this ultimately breeds a stronger, more authentic leader.

“When I see someone in the lobby or in line for coffee, I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ and I realize [RTRX] is set up for relationships like that to pop up,” McFarland said. “We’re in a tough industry. How do we solve these problems? How do we have teams and employees and care about their health? Part of that is we need to rethink what our teams are like. I’m expanding my vision of that.”

Making team members and guests feel seen and heard is no easy task, especially in the tech-congested world we live in, being pulled in numerous directions at once. However, Hunter believes a leader can’t and should never fake happiness or optimism—it must be genuine.

“I don’t think you can fake it, I think it’s what you’re doing all day every day,” he said. “I text my daughter every morning, ‘It’s going to be a great day,’ I walk into the office and smile, stay positive and ask, ‘Who’s excited to be here today?’ It’s infectious. People feel it even in this really difficult transactional environment.”

It’s this kind of optimism that spreads to team members and eventually down into the field and to the guest.

“I’m really bullish, most of you are as well and I’m an optimist by nature, but if you look at what’s going on in the world and how travel is exploding, I believe experiences are what people want because people are so busy and want these escapes to feel like they’re part of a community and present,” Merkel said. “It’s what our job is in the hospitality business, to provide that experience and escape and create those opportunities.”

Look for more coverage of this roundtable in the September issue of Hotel Business.