The Future of Hospitality With McKibbon Hospitality CEO Randy Hassen

“The most important guest is the one right in front of you. Take care of that one and the rest will take care of itself.”

That’s advice that McKibbon Hospitality CEO Randy Hassen received from Vann Herring, former CEO, current board member and Randy’s lifelong boss and mentor. That perspective landed for me personally. Effective leadership includes being present with presence. Everyone has a desire to be seen, heard, understood and cared for. This is especially true in hospitality. 

Exceptional hospitality brands go the extra mile and make you feel special by creating tailored, unique experiences. They put you first and help you feel a little more connected when you’re away from home, which for me is the case every single week. 

No doubt the way the hospitality industry delivers those exceptional experiences is changing. There’s less facetime and conversation and the experience is increasingly digital and frictionless, especially when it comes to check-in and checkout. 

Despite this massive technological change, the goal remains the same: To deliver a seamless experience that helps customers get where they need to go — and feel taken care of — so they can relax and enjoy their stay. 

Randy has a unique perspective, having started his career as a part-time houseman over 30 years ago. He worked his way up the ladder to become the leader of one of the country’s largest hospitality management companies.

We recently talked about Randy’s career path, the changes in the guest experience, and Randy’s approach to leadership. I’m excited to share Randy’s insights with you, and you might come away with new ideas on how you can deliver more value and meaningful impact for your customers. 

‘Set the Stage’ With Every Interaction

Randy has spent his entire career in hospitality, but his fascination with the industry began even earlier, when he traveled as a child to tournaments. “Even in Rochester, Minnesota, the Holiday Inn was the hub of socialization in the town,” he says. “And during the winters, your parents would rent a room, and kids would swim and eat at the restaurant, and parents would kind of tailgate outside of the hotel room and hang out with their friends and the kids run around in the arcade.”

In college, Randy started working for a top-rated Days Inn in Athens, Ga., which was then converted to a top-ranked Courtyard Marriott. McKibbon’s reputation even then was for investing in employees so they would invest in guests, and Randy came up under that mindset. 

“I was very fortunate to work for a GM and a company that took great care of me with benefits, tuition reimbursement, growth opportunities, a management and training program and flexible scheduling with my school and work,” he says. “I was able to learn as much on the job as I was in school.” 

Randy’s philosophy of hospitality has been shaped by dynamic GMs. One of them, Keith, taught Randy to “set the stage” so that every guest’s first impression was a good one. 

“Nobody did it better than him, nobody checked a guest in or answered the phone better, he really set the stage and set the bar high for all of us,” Randy says. Keith gave Randy the attention and training he needed to become a conscientious, fast-responding associate who quickly responded to customer needs. 

“And it wasn’t intentional, but my name just kept popping up on comment card after comment card,” Randy says. “And so even though I wasn’t there when management was, they were like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

From houseman onward, Randy spent time at nearly every function: front desk, sales, housekeeping, meetings, food and beverage. Eventually, he became a supervisor — and by age 23, he was a general manager opening a hotel in Tampa, Fla. 

That range of perspective and experience is invaluable for any leader. 

Invest in Your Culture — and Be Consistent

As CEO of McKibbon, Randy lives by a set of principles for success. It all starts with authenticity and a willingness to serve others — whether that’s guests, ownership groups or anyone else. “We spend a lot of time trying to get to know somebody’s ‘why? — what their purpose is,” he says. “And typically, it is truly to serve others, help others. They put others first. And the simplest form of hospitality is serving others.” 

McKibbon’s culture is an ongoing exercise of consistent communication that encourages employees to live the culture. “We really look to promote our culture by communicating it, investing in it, being consistent with it,” he says. “And then, everything that we put out there has some tie-back to thinking bigger, loving our community, all the good work our teams are doing out there.”

That consistency is crucial to maintaining the culture. McKibbon reinforces those guiding principles at every opportunity, even at its biggest events — including their recent leadership summit where I had the privilege of delivering the closing keynote. My assignment: closing with alignment to the McKibbon core value: ‘How To Make A Lasting Impression’. 

By contrast, Randy says, brands with inconsistent messaging risk leaving everyone confused as to what the goals are and what people should pursue. Aspects of the business might change, Randy says, but the company’s principles won’t.

This set of beliefs influences how McKibbon grows. The company wants sustainable growth, long-lasting employee relationships and the ability to promote from within. All of this reinforces the culture and leads to consistent high performance. This is the essence of Human Centered Leadership. 

“We know that the ones leading the hotels, interacting with our ownerships and all of the properties really understand what McKibbon culture is, and they can consistently pass along that messaging,” Randy says. Culture informs performance: When companies hire McKibbon, they’ll get great staff, lower turnover and costs, and higher guest satisfaction.

“The accountability we put on ourselves is that we should deliver superior performance that more than pays for our fee through the value our team is driving,” he adds.

How to Lead in this New Era

Hospitality is a people business, and giving your undivided attention to a guest can make all the difference in their experience. But technology has also removed much of that interaction. Not only that, but customers are OK with less human interaction if it gives them a frictionless experience. 

“When you’re planning a vacation or a business trip, your expectation is that everything goes smoothly from the reservation confirmation to pre-arrival email to check-in,” Randy says. The criteria for “great service” are changing because of technology, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful role for brands with their guests. The new challenge is to remove as much uncertainty and friction, while still being available as needed. 

“From the arrival to departure, and everything in between, is really about making the guests stay, ‘Hey, this was wonderful. I didn’t have a single issue, and the staff was outstanding,’” Randy says.

It’s not just the guest experience that’s changed; so have employee expectations of leaders and of work. I asked Randy how he views leadership today. Unsurprisingly, “authenticity” is just as important in his leadership as it is in how McKibbon operates.

Randy combines day-to-day authenticity, empathy and servant leadership with more formal activities. For instance, the most recent annual review resulted in the company embracing three aspirational goals:

  • Engaging more on a personal level with associates, guests and communities. 
  • Evolving to be more efficient and meet higher costs and increasing guest expectations.
  • Enriching our personal health and wellness, both physically and mentally. 

“If you, as an associate or leader, do a better job taking care of yourself or the things you’re focusing on,” he says, “then you can really enrich the lives of others and do a much better job of that.”

And on a personal level, Randy wants to pay it forward — to help other people and take chances on them the way leaders did for him. Randy’s mentor saw his potential to become president and then CEO. And while Randy’s not near retirement age, he’s already thinking about how he can do the same for the next generation.

After speaking with Randy, it’s clear his success — and McKibbon’s stems from consistently living their values through human-centered service and leadership. His insights will surely help other hospitality organizations as the industry continues to evolve.

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