Q&A with Chris Russell – Spire Hospitality

For Chris Russell, CEO, Spire Hospitality, success comes from experience. With humble beginnings in the restaurant industry, he learned in high school the importance of not only gaining invaluable experience but creating an enjoyable experience for others. Since then, Russell knew hospitality was the industry for him, and much like a number of his peers, used his knowledge and passion to climb the ranks. Now, the CEO is focused on Spire with a major goal this year: Be the best, not the biggest.

What was your first job in hospitality? What excited you about the industry? I started in the restaurant business at the age of 16 wearing a couple of hats, including washing dishes and opening clams and oysters at a seafood restaurant after school and on weekends. Throughout high school, I learned to be a prep and line cook, bus boy, server, bartender (yes, in high school) and dining room host. One of my favorite tasks, however, was to go down to the fishing pier and pick out freshly caught fish for the restaurant when the boats came in. That well-rounded experience piqued my interest and gave me the foundation to attend The Culinary Institute of America, which, upon graduation, landed me at the Four Seasons in Houston as a chef in its French restaurant. One of the reasons that I chose this industry is that in addition to being a rapidly changing and fast-paced environment, the ability to meet people from all over the world with diverse back grounds and experiences intrigued me. That, and the ability to live anywhere in the world that had a hotel or restaurant was an exciting element as opposed to being “locked in” to one town or state for a career wasn’t appealing, especially for an 18-year-old.

What did this first job teach you about the industry? While working for the restaurant owner, especially at a young age, I learned the sense of exceptional guest service and strong work ethic. I was lucky to have two strong role models in my life while starting out, one of which was my father, who as a police officer, worked sometimes three jobs to provide for our family. The other was the restaurant owner who not only worked long days but had the expectation that when someone walked into the restaurant, everyone greeted them with a smile and provided exceptional dining experience.

What is your focus at Spire? What are some of your goals for this year? My focus at Spire continues to be about being the best, not the biggest. Our reputation with the brands, hotel guests; owners; the communities in which we live and work; and peers in the industry is of utmost importance if we are to succeed as a company. I also know that our hotel teams are singularly responsible for our performance, but it is my responsibility, as well as our leadership team’s mission, to hire, train, retain and provide an outstanding work environment and culture of service to each other and for each other and our guests.

We have four main goals this year: improving culture and work environment; continuing to provide a clean and safe environment for our guest and employees; being better at providing service to our communities; and remaining flexible and nimble in our business planning during uncertain times.

How do you plan on growing the business? By striving to be the best, continuing to be transparent and hands on and delivering above-average results. If we do all of that, we will grow and if we don’t, we won’t. It’s not more complicated than that. As I implied earlier, we are not in it for volume and headlines; our team wants to be the best at what we do. With that said, we have a responsibility to provide opportunities for those who want them, as well as stability. I have no doubt that we’ll grow moderately as we continue to exceed the expectations of the owners, brand partners, guests and employees who count on us to be the best at what we do.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the industry this year, and how do you hope to overcome some of those? As mentioned earlier and often talked about nationally, labor is the biggest challenge. As many have left the industry during COVID, too many have not returned. We all have a responsibility to not only bring them back with appropriate compensation, but provide a sustainable, outstanding work environment.

Another challenge—also part of the national discussion—that we all face in our and related industries is the continued uncertainty of the pandemic and timing of returned confidence of travelers. That, as well as inflation, inflation and inflation. And continuing to find a balance of escalating labor and other operating costs, finding new sources of revenue generation during uncertain times and providing outstanding guest service.

In all cases, including staffing challenges, we have to be flexible as business leaders and be prepared to pivot to plan B, plan C and, possibly, even D. As the old saying goes, “If we are failing to plan then we are planning to fail.”

What would you say qualifies as a ‘good day’ for you? It is as simple as hearing about a great new employee being hired or being promoted, receiving a nice guest letter that recognizes one of our hotel teams, or even a new mandate being lifted after being on perpetual lockdown.

What’s something the industry may not know about you but that you’d like them to know? I am very transparent and talk about my weekend hobbies in the great Texas outdoors to anyone that listens. Another passion of mine that I do not spend a lot of time talking about is that I have a 23-year-old daughter with Tuberous Sclerosis and, as a result, my wife, other daughter and I have spent the last 23 years actively involved in her care and serving as volunteers to do what we can to support other families navigating the same. With that said, having a plan B, C and D has been important personally as well.

What advice do you have for an aspiring hospitality professional? Speaking directly to the graduates who want to go directly to the “deal side,” and there are many, if given the opportunity, work in a restaurant and/or hotel for at least one or two years to learn how the business really works versus what you read about.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you’d like to share with others? Don’t take a job for money, take it for the experience—and don’t worry about how much money the person next to you earns.