Ron Vlasic likes to talk. It’s a brisk Chicago morning at the Allegro Hotel, Kimpton’s largest property and Vlasic’s home base as regional vice president of hotels for the Midwest, and I’m watching him work the room. You’d think he was running for mayor the way he smiles and introduces himself to guests in the lobby. He loves hearing about why they’re in Chicago. And I don’t think I’ve seen a single hotel staffer pass by that he hasn’t stopped to chat up. He seems to have so much to talk about.
While we’re waiting for the photographer to set up he tells me how he spent the past couple of days taking care of his 5-year-old daughter, who has the flu. My first thought is that he doesn’t act like someone who spent the last 24 hours cleaning up vomit and catering to the whims of a sick kindergartener. He has way too much energy for that.
But Vlasic seems to be always at his best interacting with other people. He’s worked in hotels for over 20 years and has been with Kimpton since 1999. That was back when the company only had 25 hotels—now it has 58. Over the years he’s grown as well, rising through the ranks, becoming involved with many of the company’s mentorship and training programs, and spearheading Kimpton’s local sustainability efforts through environmentally friendly business practices. Vlasic has worked directly with the former Chicago Mayor Daley to develop environmental guidelines for Chicago hotels, which led the city to become home to the most certified “green” hotels in the U.S. in 2008. And he’s just getting started.
Now Vlasic is bringing his energy to the AH&LA as the association’s 2013 chair. Given how much Vlasic loves what he does, he couldn’t be happier in his new position. In his acceptance speech at New York’s Plaza Hotel last November he told the ballroom full of hotel industry luminaries, “We have an amazing industry, and now is a time of incredible opportunities to become even more successful than ever.” While he’s aware of the huge task in front of him, he’s got the right attitude to take it on. For him, being the AH&LA chair means spending a lot of time talking to people about hotels. Here’s what he had to say to us.
Is interacting with guests your favorite part of running a hotel?
It’s definitely more fun than hanging out in an office and staring at a computer. In general you’re much better off interacting with your staff and with guests. One of the things I loved about joining Kimpton was getting the opportunity to mingle with guests during the wine hour every day. In fact, when I was only two to three weeks into my job at the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco, I went over to the Harbour Court—one of our sister hotels—to meet the general manager. While I was waiting for him I watched this 60-year-old man setting up everything for the wine hour. And he was schlepping all these big bags in from his car through the lobby. So the GM from the hotel comes down and says, “Let me introduce you to Bill Kimpton.” And it turns out it was the guy I had been watching set up for the wine hour. Here was the owner of Kimpton Hotels hauling bags and pouring wine like it was nothing.
Do you have a favorite Kimpton property?
Definitely this Hotel Allegro in Chicago. I came here in 2001 as a general manager and I’ve served here the longest out of any hotel I’ve worked in. In fact, I still have my office in the back corner of the accounting area. It was at the Allegro that I transitioned to city manager and then to my current regional vice president position. The building was built in the 1920s and it has that old Chicago style that I love. When I’m in town I try to always go down during our complimentary coffee and tea service so I can chat with our guests. I don’t think I could ever give up working in a hotel.
What originally sparked your interest in hotels?
I was 20 years old when I took a job selling menswear at a department store in downtown Chicago. And every day as I came into work I would look at the Palmer House because the entrance to the store was directly across from the front door of the hotel. To me the Palmer House is a magnificent building—it embodies the style of an old world hotel. One day I decided to walk over and check it out.
When I stepped into the lobby I could see that this whole machine was in operation. The housekeepers were everywhere and the concierge was behind this big walnut desk, sitting in this great big chair. There was so much energy in that lobby. It was phenomenal to just watch everything in motion. And I knew I needed to figure out a way to get into this even though I didn’t know anyone that worked at a hotel. So I took some college classes in hospitality and things just took off from there.
How did your first job change this impression you had of the way hotels work?
My first job was at a much smaller property, and it held nothing like the grandeur of the Palmer House. There were far fewer people filling the lobby and not as much energy filling the halls. But working at a small hotel allowed me to learn a lot more aspects of the job across departments. This sort of cross training helped me later on to be better able to think fast on my feet and switch hats on a moment’s notice. When you’re in a larger, conference style hotel you work the front desk and only the front desk. Six months later you may switch to housekeeping. Whereas, in smaller, boutique properties you check someone in, you take them up to the room and get them set up, and then you may even do the turndown service later. This opportunity to move seamlessly across positions is what kept me on the boutique side of the industry.
How did your experience at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel frame your approach to hotels?
The Drake was a little larger than what I had historically managed up until then, with more staff on board. Still, I was able to pull much of my smaller hotel experience into this larger hotel. I spent a lot of my days in the living room of the hotel, connecting with guests—greeting them as they came up the grand staircase—rather than hiding back in my office.
So what’s going on at Kimpton now that President and Chief Operating Officer Niki Leondakis is gone?
Yeah, Niki moved on to become the CEO of Commune Hotels after being with Kimpton since 1993. While it’s sad to see a friend go, I think the culture and style of Kimpton will always be here. Many of the company’s executives have been here for more than 10 years, so the culture lives in all of them, not just in one.
Kimpton opened seven hotels in 2012 and nine restaurants and we’re looking forward to continuing this in 2013. We’re up to 58 hotels now and the future looks bright. Growth like this is exciting because it provides opportunities for junior managers to move up to new properties.
What elements of the Kimpton culture do you bring to your new duties at AH&LA?
At Kimpton, we like to give the folks we hire the complete freedom to run these hotels as they see fit. As an example, when I was in San Francisco no one ever dictated to me how to run those hotels, even though the company is based there.
We try to hire people that are native to the area and know the local market well. That’s what I’m used to and it’s what I want to bring to AH&LA as a way of tapping into this large pool of young executives that is coming up in the industry. I want to give them the platform to get involved and to share some of their experience with old guys like me. Who knows, we may come up with a new way of doing things.
I believe the best way to do this is through AH&LA’s Under 30 Gateway program, which currently has nine state chapters and my goal is to double that number by year’s end.
You’re heavily involved in the AH&LA Educational Foundation. What attracts you to it?
I’ve had the honor of looking at scholarship applications in both the Illinois area and at the national level from so many amazing kids. I look at their resumes and read about what they’re trying to accomplish and there are so many inspirational stories of these young kids coming out of high school and trying to make a career. It makes me feel so good to be part of a group that can give students some help in pursuing that dream. And I don’t want to just stop with the work I’m doing at the educational foundations. I want to take a step further and try to mentor them in the Under 30 Gateway program.
Do you think there’s a problem in the industry when it comes to recruiting new talent?
Only when it comes to making people understand the crucial role our industry plays in creating jobs. Tourism is either the number one or number two employer in a number of states across the country. In Illinois, tourism is the second largest employer behind agriculture. So while I think there’s a much larger awareness than ever that there are so many career opportunities in this industry, I think it could be even better. And I’m going to keep pushing to let people know that when you get someone who has the right ambition into a hotel, they can have a great career.
but what about the high staff turnover rates at most hotels?
Well, turnover is good because it gives someone else an opportunity. It also keeps a hotel fresh and viable.
What advice did Nancy Johnson offer you as incoming chair?
She said I needed to learn to do without sleep since this is a full-time job. Look, Nancy has done a phenomenal job developing the Women in Lodging program and establishing 21 chapters in the U.S. I promised her that I would keep pushing this program forward. And like her, I will be getting members involved in the issues that impact the industry.
What else is on your to-do list for 2013 as Chair of AH&LA?
The biggest is to ensure a smooth transition in leadership at AH&LA. With Joe McInerney retiring our number one priority is to find the next AH&LA president, which is hard because Joe is so well connected and knows everything about this industry. Hopefully we’ll have that solidified by the first quarter.
The next is to provide relevant programming that our members want to be a part of. It’s all about growing the base. Finally, we need to continue being the number one voice on the Hill when it comes to lodging issues. There’s no other voice out there that can represent the industry like we do. So I’m pushing for a stronger commitment from our government affairs team to get us out there campaigning.
I’m also looking to work more closely with other hotel associations. For instance, AAHOA has such a strong influence and such a great commitment from its members and we need to make sure that the two entities are tied at the hip when it comes to the issues that affect the industry. I realize they have their own agenda, but there are so many shared ideas and thoughts between the two associations that we need to make sure we’re working together going forward.
What are the legislative priorities for AH&LA going into 2013?
When it comes to the ADA rules and regulations, there are still a few items that need to be fleshed out, so that’s the first order of business. And with tourism so huge for the U.S. and so many travelers around the world that are looking to come here, we need some relief from Washington on the visa issue. It’s ridiculous the small number of areas in China where people can receive U.S. visas given how many Chinese travelers want to visit the U.S. Great Britain has twice the number of visa outlets in China than us, so the Chinese are bypassing the U.S. and going there since Great Britain makes it so much easier on foreign visitors. I think the government has been slow to recognize the importance of this issue, but it’s starting to come around. We just need to continue to push.
Do you see the results from the recent election helping things?
You know, early on in the President’s first term there wasn’t a whole lot of support from his administration for tourism, so we spent the last two years educating the White House on the importance of our industry when it comes to jobs. Once the Obama administration understood, it acted quickly to promote tourism. So going into the new year we’re looking to continue making sure everyone in Washington understands tourism’s importance to the overall economy. We’re confident that the White House will continue to be on board with these efforts.
How about the online booking tax?
The momentum around this issue slowed down recently, but it’s still a top priority. The online travel agencies are still fighting the tax as strongly as we’re pushing it. I’m sure our big tug-of-war will resume in the first quarter of the year.
The association is in the process of transitioning to a new revenue model. Can you give me your take on it?
The current funding model largely consists of state associations receiving their dues from the hotels within their state under a partnership with AH&LA, and in the long run this has limited our income. So our strategic planning committee hired a consultant to come up with a new business model. The consultant quickly determined that we needed to diversify our funding by involving the hotel chains directly. The benefit of this approach is that each one of these chains brings with it the thousands of hotels they represent, which broadens our membership base. It also gets the chains actively involved in the lobbying efforts of AH&LA, making our voice that much stronger.
You’ve championed many of the sustainability initiatives at Kimpton. Why does sustainability remain an important issue for you and why is it important for the lodging industry?
It’s funny, I don’t come from a background of environmental awareness and it wasn’t until 2005 that I really started to educate myself on sustainability. At that point I had met so many guests that had told me it was something we should look into implementing at our hotels. So I learned what exactly the phrase “sustainability” meant and how it could be applied to hospitality. It started simple enough. Kimpton was the first hotel company to ask its guests to recycle and we did that by adding a second container to each room and including a note explaining what it was for. When a hotel implements an initiative like that it can either go bad quickly or it might be a home run. Fortunately for us it was a home run. Once we started to see so many comments from our guests saying how great it was that we were doing this, we decided to take it a step further by looking at how we operate on a daily basis. We scrutinized everything from the copy paper we were buying to the waste that we were producing, figured out how best we could reduce our footprint. Beyond the recycling and the waste reduction, we looked at our energy expenditures. You know, hotels are big power plants, so some of our employees came up with the idea to move to CFL bulbs.
When we went to implement this company-wide initiative and re-train not only our general managers but our line-level staff as well we found that many of our younger employees were already doing at home a lot of what we were proposing and they were excited to bring these practices into the workplace. This was important because it was our employees who made all these changes work in our hotels. And when we started tracking the impact of these changes we found that we could save a great deal of money through our sustainability initiatives.
Do you find that that’s the best way to sell the idea of sustainability to other hotels?
It is, because each hotel is owned by a separate entity and some owners are just in the real estate business and they don’t necessarily care if they own a hotel or an office building. What they do care about though is what they spend on the operating costs. So if one of these owners invests in re-lamping their hotels and retooling their energy management to make it more efficient, you’re looking at as little as a five year return on that investment. That’s why you see a lot more LEED certified buildings and retrofits being implemented.
The latest stats show the industry is well into a recovery, yet there are still soft spots. Where are they and how should the industry address them?
Currently both the East Coast and West Coast are tremendously busy, with cities like San Francisco and New York seeing all time highs when it comes to occupancy and rates. And now this trend seems to be moving inward to the center of the country. So you’ll see a group that might want to go to New York, but doesn’t want to spend $800 for a room, then they’ll look at Chicago or St. Louis, or Denver as a good option. This is providing a positive lift to hotels across the board. During the recession, meeting planners learned that they didn’t have to book groups at hotels far in advance—they could book for the month during the month—which made it difficult to forecast business from one quarter to the next. Now things are tightening back up again so groups need to plan further in advance, which is going to be good for us in the long run.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 by buy cipro
I value the blog post.Much thanks again. Really Great.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 by order generic viagra
Thanks again for the post.Much thanks again. Great.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 by generic cialis online
I loved your blog.Really thank you! Fantastic.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 by no prescription
I loved your blog article.Much thanks again. Fantastic.
Friday, March 15, 2013 by generic viagra
Im grateful for the article post.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by buy viagra online
Thanks a lot for the post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by buy viagra
Enjoyed every bit of your blog.Much thanks again. Cool.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by viagra online
Im thankful for the blog article.Really thank you! Awesome.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by buy viagra online
I value the blog. Will read on...
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by ed meds online
Really enjoyed this blog post.Thanks Again. Really Cool.