HB on the Scene: Rockbridge event promotes leadership and well-being

We’ve all been affected in one way or another by cancer. We or someone we know or love has suffered from the disease—and so, cancer research is truly a cause that everyone can get behind. The hospitality industry—which prides itself on community—is ideal for supporting such a cause.

Created by Rockbridge cofounder/CEO Jim Merkel in 2012, RTRX began as a hospitality industry leadership event. Since then, the RTRX experience grew and expanded to other industries including public and private sector businesses.

Hosted and sponsored by Rockbridge, Hotel Business was lucky enough to experience RTRX—held in collaboration with Pelotonia’s Ride Weekend—and hold our signature roundtable with industry leaders.

Moderated by Christina Trauthwein, Hotel Business VP, content & partnerships, the group of roundtable participants included Merkel along with Christine Magrann, president/COO, Makeready; Ben Pierson, managing director, development/investment, RBHD; Thom Geshay, CEO, Davidson Hospitality; Chip Ohlsson, EVP/chief development officer, Wyndham; Kevin Davis, Americas CEO, Jones Lang Lasalle; Michael Coolidge, chief investment/development officer, HRI; and Alvaro Fraile, COO, Azul Hospitality Group.

With the event and its mission as the backdrop, the participants discussed some critical issues that expand across all industries, not just hospitality: leadership, innovation and well-being.

“The concept [of the event] was how do we bring our friends in the industry together to make a difference while we’re also doing business,” Merkel said. “That was a concept we had when we started it 10 years ago. It resonated. That got us more motivated. I can’t tell you the number of stories that have come out from people that have come and have learned about their families and the things they’re going through, and it’s created deeper relationships. It makes our work more meaningful and our relationships more meaningful.”

Merkel explained that business doesn’t have to be done in an isolated way; in fact, it can be done alongside community events like RTRX that bring everyone together with a common cause. Thus, the goal of the event is to not only increase funds and awareness for cancer research but to enhance the lives of those who attend.

“I walk away every year feeling inspired to do better and think bigger and deeper,” Magrann said. “So much of the conference is not just about health and cancer; it’s really about how do you be a better leader and human. That strengthens the culture of our company because they really do walk away grateful for the opportunity and be exposed to this type of environment.”

RTRX is truly unlike any other industry conference, with speakers that address issues ranging from the latest in cancer treatment innovation to tips to foster mental health.

“We’re all busy people,” Pierson noted. “Sometimes it feels difficult to take a pause but it’s really important and creates a moment in time to spend time with relationships. One of the things that’s refreshing is we spend time with the people around this table at industry conferences that are focused on the hospitality industry, and this is focused on building relationships and a bigger purpose.”

RTRX forces attendees to take a step back and put things into perspective, a critical component to a healthy work environment.

“We talk as leaders about work-life balance and we impress upon our people that we need to do that more, yet we don’t have the diversity of thought,” Ohlsson said. “Every conference we go to we’re talking about business and we’re raising our acumen on the business side of it, but what are we doing on the other side? When we talk to somebody about work-life balance, what does that mean? This conference does that.”

Coolidge shared similar feelings and noted that the event presents its attendees with a unique opportunity to get back into learning mode.

“We’ve all been in this industry a long time and normally these roundtables are what’s the state of the industry, what’s happening with the economy, etc., but being able to take that step back and listen to some great speakers and broaden your thought process and perspective is one of life’s great values,” Coolidge said.

Davis pointed out that upon its founding, RTRX was ahead of its time, but now serves as a prototype for the post-COVID world and how leaders conduct their businesses.

“Pre-COVID, it was work and everything else, but post-COVID, it’s all blended,” Davis said. “I think having an event like this where we can come together as business colleagues but also to support important causes is incredibly on-market relative to what the world is becoming.”

The participants agreed that supporting causes like this one is a critical component of leadership—something that extends far beyond a person or title.

“As business leaders, we have a responsibility to talk more about things that don’t just require driving profits,” Geshay said. “It’s important we show and demonstrate that to ourselves and the community around us. It’s hard not to get behind something that’s touched all of us.”

This year was Fraile’s first time attending RTRX, and he didn’t really know what to expect. However—and much like all of the other attendees—the mission was close to his heart.

“The event is a big break from all the typical lodging industry conferences where you’re talking about business, and you really pause and think conceptually about how to be a better leader and person,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in an environment like this where people are contributing and donating and it’s so much more impactful because of that. My dad is a cancer survivor. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Although it’s in its 10th year, Merkel knows the event is just getting started and growing stronger with each year.

“There’s truly a community that’s been developed here and the relationships are deep… I hear the stories about taking something back and making lives better and that really was the goal of doing something different,” Merkel said. “We are just getting started in this community of this type of event in our industry. It’s not just us and our colleagues, it’s all of us. We encourage people to bring their children. That’s a whole other dimension of bringing your whole self.”

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