HB EXCLUSIVE: HP Hotels creates advisory council of industry giants

ALPHARETTA, GA—To help the company as it builds a strategic plan for continued success, HP Hotels has created the HP Hotels Advisory Council, a team of “experienced, accomplished and highly respected hospitality industry professionals.”

“The genesis of it all came in a conversation between myself, our President and CEO Charles Oswald and Chief Development Officer Kerry Ranson about how we wanted to grow the company,” said Mike Hines, HP Hotels chairman and founder.

According to Hines, the company was built on relationships, and as it grows, the goal is to keep it that way. “As the company gets bigger, and moves further away from relationships and more into technology, etc., we want to be able to maintain both of those two items,” he said.

But how should they do that? Ask industry experts for their opinions—hence, the creation of the council.

One of the first people Hines called with the idea was Jim Holthouser, who is now chair of the advisory council and a former EVP, global brands, for marketing and loyalty at Hilton, with more than three decades of hospitality industry experience.

“I thought that this is a company that is hitting that tipping point,” said Holthouser. “At almost 50 hotels, it’s starting to build up scale. There are a lot of smarts and capability here. It would be fun just to join forces and see what we can do with this.”

Holthouser noted that the makeup of a council is critical. “I have managed advisory councils for a good 20 years, and you want them big enough so you have breadth and diversity of thought, but you don’t want them too big because it can become very unwieldy,” said Holthouser. “We settled on starting with five people. Before we started coming up with names, we did the exercise of coming up with the type of expertise that we needed. Some of it is pretty typical; you want people who are operations experts, people who can get down to the nitty-gritty with HR systems and understand housekeeping, etc.”

Like Holthouser, Kirk Kinsell, principal of Panther Ridge Partners in Santa Rosa Beach, FL, and former president/CEO of Loews Hotels and president of IHG Americas, brings an expertise in brand representation. “Not only is he very forthright, which is healthy, but this guy is extremely well connected in the industry,” said Holthouser. “Obviously, he is a branding expert, a franchise expert, development expert, so he brings a lot of things technically to the table, too. We thought that the chemistry was right, too.”

The management company also wanted an owner’s perspective on the council. For this, they turned to Raman (R.P.) Rama, president of Sarona Holdings in Greenville, SC, and past owner/EVP/CTO/CIO of JHM Hotels. “He is one of the five brothers who founded JHM back in the day,” said Hines. “We had the opportunity to meet R.P. at a Hilton Owners Meeting out in Dallas a couple of years ago. At that meeting, we had several long conversations, not only about doing business with them, but his thought processes. He is very well focused on how to grow a company like JHM had grown, being one of the larger family-owned hotel companies in the U.S. We’re able to draw from his experiences—both good and bad—on which direction we should head in order to miss some of those bumps in the road, as well as accelerate our timetable to getting to be what we want to be eventually.”

Jim Hartigan, chief business development officer/partner for Orgwide Services LLC and a former SVP at Hilton, was also added to the council. “Hartigan and I have known each other for a good 25 years,” said Holthouser, noting that Hartigan is uniquely qualified in that he has an insider and outsider perspective. “Jim left the hotel business about eight years ago and started his own training company. We needed somebody who is extremely good on the culture and people side. That is what Jim specializes in now. That said, he was a hotel general manager for a number of years and understands the inner workings of a large franchising company like Hilton very, very well. He is an industry insider, but on the other hand, he is also an outsider at the same time.”

Adria Levtchenko, founder and CEO of PurpleCloud Technologies, developer of Cielo 2.0 hotel management software systems, provides a fresh perspective. “We have six gentlemen with a vast range of experience and ideas of things that have happened in the past, as well as current events on how hotels operate,” said Hines. “We saw there was a need to have somebody that could represent the next generation… She was extremely helpful on our mission statement side, along with Jim here, in saying ‘I may work for you 50- and 60-year-olds, but you might want to think about this, too.’ It is a very fresh, clean voice on the council for us.”

One of the first items that the council worked on was that new mission statement. “What we have been able to do in a relatively short period of time is sharpen the message of HP priorities,” said Holthouser. “There are six points in our new statement: We make a meaningful difference in the lives of our team members, who in turn deliver memorable customer experiences and produce exceptional results for our owners.”

He continued, “I have learned that if you want a real competitive advantage, ultimately, it comes down to people and culture, because those take a long time to build and a lot of time to focus, and, ultimately, can’t be replicated. This is a perfect time, while this company is still at 50 hotels, because it will be that much harder to build when it is 100 or 200 hotels. Our thought is, if we can do all of these things right, then the market rewards us with more management contracts; that translates into greater scale, which translates into more operating efficiency and profit for the owners.”

The plan is for the council to meet each quarter. “This is a group of people who are able to give us their advice on what’s the best way to handle certain situations, or how to grow from the size that we are now,” said Hines. “The most important thing that has come out of this is the simple fact that it is a council. We benefitted from listening to the questions, as well as the advice given from the responses back from the council. I think we take it a lot more seriously [since]these ladies and gentlemen have decided to give their time to us to help us grow.”

While the council currently has five members, it will change as HP Hotels’ needs do. “Councils aren’t static and as the needs of HP Hotels becomes clearer, we’ll continue to examine the skill sets of people on the council,” said Holthouser. “Over time, you may see this evolve. We may grow it by a position or two. We may ask people to step down and replace them with somebody else with a different experience and perspective.”

He continued, “At the end of the day, our job is to provide value for the four founders of this company. It is not to mandate. We are not running this. This is their company. Our job is to provide perspective and ideas and to come at things maybe from a different angle than they have thought of. If we are not providing value, if this is something that just becomes an administrative task for them, it is time to close shop and move on. I think everyone is acutely aware that it is up to the council to provide the value for these executives.” HB

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