HB EXCLUSIVE: Rockbridge: Campaign of gratitude

COLUMBUS, OH—The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the hotel industry hard, with temporary and permanent hotel closings, increased safety protocols and general uncertainty.

While every member of the industry has been dealing with this uncertainty, perhaps those closest to it are those who work at properties and witness the difficulties firsthand.

Rockbridge has come up with a way to acknowledge the hard work those on-property leadership teams have done. “It’s a campaign of gratitude. We want to show the world that hospitality is alive, and we want to celebrate those teams and give them the recognition that they deserve,” Jim Merkel, CEO, Rockbridge told Hotel Business. “They have been through an incredible amount. You can make a military reference in that they were already going into battle in January and February and they had their troops all positioned well. At the beginning of this year, people were setting records in demand and performance, and it was off to a great year, and not 30 days later, there wasn’t any demand.”

He continued, “All the troops were gone and the leaders at these properties were left there to fight on and they just did really heroic work. From checking people in to cleaning rooms, doing laundry, delivering room service, they were living and breathing getting it done for the remaining travelers who were traveling.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, little was known about virus and fears were high, especially among the employees who were dealing directly with the public. “They were charging ahead and not thinking twice about doing their jobs,” said Merkel. “They were subordinating their fears to serve others—that is one of the things we want to celebrate in hospitality. One of the reasons I personally love this business is the people. The people in hospitality are special people who want to serve others and want to create great experiences for others. It is really special.”

Merkel said the campaign is a way for Rockbridge to acknowledge the hard work and dedication when there hasn’t been a lot of good news lately. “We just thought in a time of a great challenge and, candidly, few wins out there for these teams, this was needed,” he said. “These leaders at the properties are accustomed to winning. They thrive on doing a great job and serving others and performing and hitting budgets. In this time of few wins, we wanted to share with them that they are winning, they are making a difference, and it is appreciated by the leadership and the ownership of the property.”

The recognition began with direct acknowledgment from company executives. “We’re taking the first simple step of making it known and telling them directly from people that they don’t typically speak to—the leadership here at Rockbridge,” he said. “We are in lots of places, and one of the challenges of the pandemic is that we are not able to be out at the properties as much as we would like and to share our gratitude.”

The company is also letting the industry know the hard work that its employees have done. “We are singing from the mountaintops and praising them to show them they are appreciated,” said Merkel. “We have launched a specific advertising campaign that calls out the leaders at our properties and lets them know that we are thinking about them, and while we can’t change the pandemic, we can do everything we can to empathize and support them from the ownership perspective.”

Acknowledgments will be happening at the properties, as well. “The point is making it really visible in a tangible way, both at the properties throughout the industry and doing what we can to share with the guests what these team members have done,” said Merkel. “There are so many stories of selfless actions by our team members. While we are celebrating the tone from the top at the properties, we are also celebrating everyone at the working for those leaders, and we want them to know as well that we are thinking about them. We’ll make that visible at the properties.”

Merkel said that acknowledging good work in tough times is a part of leadership. “It is about showing a vision and leading people through when you don’t know exactly when things will change,” he said. “It is a simple human response that I think our industry has been really hard at work for the last nine months and that wears on you. It is the little things that help you get through the day… Just simple acts of kindness and simple acts of empathy and understanding go a long way. We want to communicate that to our investors as well, who are one more step removed from the teams, and really humanize what our industry has gone through as we rebuild and come out of this disruption stronger and better for it.”

Merkel said things are looking better for the industry and this is one way of showing that. “When you are in the heart of darkness, so to speak, it is sometimes hard to see the horizon. We think it is important to show appreciation, but also share with the team members that there is a bright spot on the horizon. We will come back. We will be stronger than we have ever been before, and we will have more guests staying in hotels than any time in history in the future. We want to help each other get through this difficult period.”

Merkel continued, “In this period, we are all in it together…and we are going to get through that and see better days ahead. We want to make sure the team’s not alone.” HB

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Rockbridge’s property leadership has gone above and beyond during the pandemic. “Our GM community and their staff has shown tremendous flexibility since March,” Merkel said. “The teams are small but extremely passionate and engaged. With limited staffing and fluctuating occupancies, they are filling in wherever they are needed. You will find them checking in guests, folding laundry, mowing the grass and picking weeds, setting up and breaking down wedding events with skeleton teams, and inspecting rooms.”

He continued, “We even have one GM that puts on his chef whites daily, serving a dual role as GM and executive chef since March. They are doing this during a time when they are not only working longer and harder, but also providing even more attention to daily/weekly tasks, as well as being the best champion for their teams and guests. They truly are an inspiration.”

Providing for staff
In March, all GMs were faced with the difficult task of laying-off/furloughing staff. At one property, the GM personally delivered the news to each employee. He recognized many of the staff members faced significant hardships and decided to take it upon himself to raise funds and get donations from the property’s vendors so he could provide food to his team members. He was able to provide food for more than 120 employees. He feels a strong connection to his team members and felt it imperative that he help during these times.

“Many of our GMs also recognize how hard their staff is working… and have encouraged time off to ensure the well-being of their team,” said Merkel.

Providing for community
“We have seen numerous acts of kindness from our properties wanting to show their hospitality to the community,” the CEO said. “In the beginning, many donated food, including one that prepared bagged breakfasts and lunches at the hotel for essential workers.”

As months stretched on, this kindness has continued through a linen drive to support local homeless shelters that had an influx of residents due to the pandemic, as well as a toiletry drive to help in-house guests who were evacuated from their homes due to Hurricane Laura. These residents stayed at the hotel for more than a month and were evacuated with short notice. When they arrived, many did not have basic toiletries. The hotel team stepped in to personally donate toothpaste, soap and other necessities to these guests. They set up a table in the lobby for anyone to take what they needed.

Providing for guests
“All GMs are finding ways to connect with their guests during these times; it is core to their DNA,” said Merkel. “When many hotels were closing in March, one hotel had a guest who had to quarantine. He was an international traveler who did not have any local relatives or friends to care for him. The hotel continued to shelter this guest despite its closure and to make sure he was taken care of throughout his stay including providing daily meals to his doorstep.”

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