Q&A with Michael Heaton, Waterford Hotel Group

After nearly 30 years with Waterford Hotel Group, Robert Winchester stepped down from his post as president, a role he’s filled since 2000, transitioning to a part-time advisory position for an indefinite period. Not unusual for a company that prides itself on promoting from within, longtime executive Michael Heaton was tapped to succeed Winchester as the company’s president, effective at the beginning of this year.

Heaton began his career with Waterford in 1997, holding various management posts at Waterford-managed properties, as well as corporate regional hotel director. He assumed the role of VP of operations in 2009, assuming responsibility for all areas of operations for Waterford’s portfolio, which includes limited-service properties, all-suite hotels, and large, full-service hotels. Knowledgeable about the operations of multiple hotel brands, as well as independents, Heaton currently serves as a board member of Marriott’s F&B Advisory Committee and a member of AHLA’s Sustainability Committee. Previously, he served as president of the Connecticut Lodging Association.

Here, Heaton discusses his new role with Hotel Business, as well as his plans for the company’s future.

Tell me about your vision for the company. I am fortunate in that I have stepped into the president role for a company that has a tremendous history and a 30-plus-year track record of success. The vision for the company is to continue to be the best company we can by providing value for our owners, partners, associates, guests and visitors.

What would you say is your most important task in your new role? My primary focus is to preserve and build upon the integrity of Waterford. At the end of the day, it is all about people and having the best people working with us. I am focused on having the right people in place and ensuring that they have the same opportunities for advancement that were afforded to me.

How would you describe yourself as a leader? With a background in operations, my style is to move quickly. I tend to be results-focused, so I like to execute and get things done. While processes are important, it is the results that matter most. I have learned to be a bit more patient in my approach. I evaluate problems or challenges with different hats—owner, asset manager, operator—to come to the best solutions. I’m not one to micromanage; I prefer to empower others to do their jobs.

Rob Winchester recently stepped down after nearly 30 years with Waterford Hotel Group. What are some of the most important pieces of advice you’ve gotten from him? Rob has always been a mentor for me in the organization and has taught me so much. One thing I have learned from Rob is to be more deliberate in my approach and, therefore, more thoughtful in my response. Rob has taught me that there are multiple points of view, all of which should be considered before making any quick decisions.

You’ve been with the company for more than 20 years. How have you seen it evolve? When I reflect back on the last 20 years, I am amazed by how far the company has come. The biggest evolution has been in the growth of our portfolio and, more specifically, the diversity of our assets. From operating a five-room historic inn to overseeing a $775-million mixed-use development, our experience and depth of knowledge in the industry is extensive. Each new project has been a natural progression for the company and one we have been well equipped to handle. We look forward to continuing to grow in this way.

What do you consider to be the company’s greatest strengths? First and foremost, our greatest strength is in our associates. We have an amazing talent pool that delivers at all levels, at all times. Our experience ranges from small, independent inns to branded select- and full-service hotels, and also convention centers. Our extensive knowledge with such a diverse portfolio, and having worked on many projects from conception to completion to ongoing operations, is a definite strength that we bring to any project.

Conversely, are there any areas where you see the potential for improvement? How so? The industry is always evolving and you have to be willing to adapt to changing needs. We are always looking for efficiencies and improved ways of doing things. Technology continues to change at a rapid pace, and this will remain a focus. We will also continue our concentration in the areas of digital marketing and e-commerce.

Technology plays a large role in operating a hotel. What solutions do you see as game-changers? There are a couple of game-changers. First is secure payment technologies. Securing guest information at the beginning of the transaction will lower compliance costs and increase consumer confidence. Second, guest-device integration. Guests have richer and more varied entertainment options in their home than we can provide at a reasonable cost. Hotels will need a platform for guests to consume their own entertainment and to manage hotel resources.

Waterford gained nine management contracts in 2017, bringing the total portfolio to 27 properties in seven states. What is your strategy for growth? We’re looking to continue this momentum and grow our portfolio strategically through existing and new relationships. Our growth strategy includes seeking third-party opportunities, as well as investment opportunities through internal capital and identifying capital partners with shared goals.

Looking at the industry landscape as a whole, what’s your perspective on the next 12-24 months? Are there any external factors you’re keeping a close eye on that could affect your business? As a whole, the industry outlook is positive and we remain optimistic. Health insurance remains a concern that warrants constant monitoring. With more modest RevPAR projections over the next couple of years, we will need to pay close attention to preserving the bottom line. There is always the possibility of external factors that you cannot predict. HB

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