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Advantage Hotels eyes improvements, more brands

AUSTIN, TX—Patrick Mullinix, who helped build Vantage Hospitality Group, has launched his own company, Advantage Hotels, after acquiring the Select Inn and Vista brands from Advantis Hospitality Alliance.

Despite having success in building other brands, Mullinix, the president/CEO of the company, said he will do some things differently with Advantage. “I had a senior leadership position with some great brands that I was instrumental in building very significantly,” he said. “I reached a pinnacle where a lot of things about the outlook and the business models worked. [But] I knew that it could be done a little better with some change.”

As the leader of the new company, Mullinix will be able to put his stamp on the brands. “Even though you may have a senior leadership position, it doesn’t mean you can always make those significant changes,” he said. “I finally reached a point—at the urging of many others—when it was time for me to embark on a new company, maybe with some existing brands, and really put my own style and my own experience in place to create something better. And the idea of Advantage Hotels was born.”

After deciding to start his own company, he began his extensive search for the right brands to acquire. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I went on a quest, traveling around the U.S. and meeting with various small- and medium-sized hotel chains, trying to find the right formula, the right brands. It was a very challenging journey. There were many brands that were damaged or outdated or had reputation issues that may not have been fixable.”

But like any good quest, the answer appeared at just the right moment. “About the time I was at my point of frustration, I happened across a company that was based out of the Nashville area,” Mullinix said. “I was somewhat familiar with two of the brands they had: Select Inn and Vista.”

Vista Inn & Suites Murfreesboro, TN

Advantage approaches the franchise relationship differently than many other companies. “We have an advantage over the competition because our vision in the industry is to go back to the type of culture that is highly oriented toward providing the highest level of services to our franchisees; that seems to be dissipating within the larger organizations because of cost cutting, because of efficiencies and because of technology,” said Mullinix.

He wants the relationship with franchise owners to be personal. “We can share their goals with ours and provide the level of services and benefits that would help improve the revenue performance and improve what I’ve heard hundreds of franchise owners say over the last number of years was lacking—fundamental things like communication,” he said. “That sounds so fundamental, but the reality of it has to do with technology, of course. Franchisees don’t feel as connected and as heard by much larger organizations that have automated their communications. We felt that was a niche in which we could come in with a higher level of service.”

To ensure that line of communication stays open, the company has instituted a corporate policy it calls “24, not an hour more.”

“If you are a franchise owner and you contact us, regardless of what your needs, problem or issues are, you will receive a call back in 24 hours, and not an hour more,” said Mullinix. “We hold ourselves to that; any day of the week—that includes weekends and holidays—you are going to get a response. It is going to be from a real person. It won’t be just an email.”

Getting back to franchisees is essential. “You have to put yourself in their position,” he said. “They are running a business, and their problems can be complex. They want to turn to the experts who understand their property and their specific needs and at least get guidance, if not solutions, in problem-solving. That is what we do. That is our job—to provide that overall higher-level experience and leadership to give them those necessary elements so they feel supported. It is a very simple, but a very clear approach to our relationships with our franchise owners.”

Advantage’s portfolio includes 10 properties: Four are Select Inn, an upper-economy brand, and six are Vista and Vista Inn midscale properties.

Mullinix noted that there are already plans for improvement. “Without being critical, the management that was there previously did not have the skill set; although they were hoteliers, and certainly understood the retail side of the business well, they did not have the leadership of running a hotel chain or a hotel chain organization,” he explained. “That is my strong suit. That is my experience having built, led and grown some great franchise hotel brands over the past 20 years. That was what I was able to bring that was needed. I didn’t have to hire outside consultants or experts to come in and identify what the deficiencies were. It was a very natural fit.”

The franchisees he inherited are supportive of the changes being made, according to Mullinix. “Many of them know about my past business career,” he said. “They know that I am bringing a large-scale view of managing and running much bigger organizations, and they know that we have amassed incredibly talented people to support back office in essential areas in sales and marketing, technology, and administrative and operational support that they hadn’t seen before. They know each of those people in those key positions comes from a very high degree of experience themselves, and the confidence level has been extraordinarily high.”

Growth of the brands is definitely on the agenda. The brands currently operate in Minnesota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Florida, but Advantage Hotels is open to nationwide expansion. “We have registered our franchise offering in all but three states in the U.S.,” Mullinix said. “We have done that in preparation of seeing a broad-base expansion. For the rest of this year, our primary focus is where we already have footprint. We are going to make sure we expand those footprints first outwardly.”

Mullinix plans to expand into the California market next year and, eventually, the rest of the country. “There is just a lot of opportunity out there,” he said.

Select Inn Murfreesboro, TN

This pace of expansion is much slower than he experienced with his previous brands. “I came from a high-performance franchise development leadership with other companies, where we averaged 130 or more new franchise properties a year,” he said. “That was pretty robust growth. I don’t want to do that now because I believe that structure has to be fundamentally sound. We are actually throttling the growth for the first 12 months at somewhere around 40-45 new combined properties between both brands. That way, we can make sure that we are highly selective on good, quality assets that represent the brands well and help define them both to the consumer and within the lodging industry.”

Another reason for the slower pace? To find what Mullinix calls a “different kind of franchise owner.”

He explained, “It is not about mass appeal. We are looking for the higher-quality owner/operator who also wants to actively participate in the programs that we can provide them with, which can produce results for stronger revenue; increased exposure; and being competitive in each and every marketplace in which the properties are located. That is a special owner/operator.”

Going forward, the company will also look to move beyond the two brands already on the roster. “We are going to absolutely look at the possibility of an all-suites concept,” said Mullinix. “We have one in mind that we think could be acquired. We want to take a hard look at the extended-stay side of the business. Last but not least, because of my experience in launching an affordable boutique brand, I am keeping my eyes open for the opportunity of a boutique brand.”

In addition to the team Mullinix has brought in to run the company, he has created an advisory council with members with strong industry knowledge, including three former AAHOA chairmen: Ramesh Surati, Dhansukh “Dan” Patel and Mukesh Mowji. Steve Belmonte, the former president/CEO of Ramada Hotels, is also a senior advisor and on the executive board of directors.

“The selection of our advisory board was intentional,” he said. “It was to make sure that we uniquely stand out to be a completely different corporate culture. I asked each one of those individuals to play an intricate part in the leadership, direction and guidance of our brands and our growth. Each one of them brings a different perspective of what a hotel franchise company needs to be: keenly focused on meeting the needs of the hotelier.”

Most important for Mullinix is that the company doesn’t lose sight of his vision. “We have to make sure we remind ourselves on a daily basis to stay true to form—regardless of who we interact with, whether it is a vendor, a customer or one another—and that we always remember our culture and our character is based on trust, communication and relationships,” he said. “I feel so emphatic about that. It is a pledge that I not only make professionally and personally to everyone, but I ask all staff members to sign that pledge so that they are keenly aware: This is what we stand for; let’s not lose sight of that.” HB

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