Hank Thomas owns and operates four Marriott hotels (two Fairfield Inns, two TownePlace Suites), but the entrances of those establishments are hardly the most important doors he’s had a hand in opening. He was a member of the original Freedom Riders and was arrested 22 times for his active attempts at bringing equality to African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Thomas also received a Purple Heart for his bravery in the Vietnam War and continues to be a highly regarded civil leader and diversity advocate.
Lodging: How did you get into the lodging industry?
Hank Thomas: I came into the hotel business from the restaurant side of things and opened my first property a couple of years prior to the industry hitting a downward slide. One of the things that I learned and I was able to pass along to others coming into lodging from restaurants is how hotels are a long-term investment. With restaurants you make money right away, especially if you’re a McDonald’s franchisee. With lodging, you need to take a longer look at your investment horizons.
Lodging: What’s the secret to running a successful hotel franchise?
Thomas: Pay in this business is pretty much standard, so it has to be about how your employees feel about you and the way you treat them, and that’s generally how they’re going to treat their guests. And the way the guests are treated is something you don’t take for granted. The guest that comes to your front desk is the one who pays your paycheck.
Lodging: To what do you attribute your success as a hotel owner?
Thomas: My hotels that I built in Jacksonville, N.C., benefited greatly from their location in military towns. With these properties I learned, that I think we all learned in this business, that you can build too many hotels in a particular area and oversaturate the market. And when that happens, you’re not going to be particularly happy. I don’t know how you avoid that, but that was one of the things that I learned.
Lodging: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the hotel business?
Thomas: The difficult period in the hospitality industry in recent years was a greater lesson than anything else, because it told you that you always gotta prepare for those rainy days. Even though we’d like to pretend that hospitality is all about sunshine and smiles, there are always going to be rainy days, and those who remember best about the rainy days are the ones who will always be in a good position to weather the next one that comes.