Lead with Empathy, then Let Curiosity Take Over – By Sloan Dean, CEO & President, Remington Hotels

Sloan Dean, CEO & President, Remington Hotels
Sloan Dean, CEO & President, Remington Hotels

Something I learned early in my career is that humans can handle bad news, they just can’t handle surprises.  When it was apparent to my leadership team and me on the March 2, 2020 that we were heading into World War III for Travel, I insisted on having weekly webcasts with the entire company by mid-March.  That one communication decision became the most fundamental thing that the Remington leadership did for the past year.  We have never missed a week of hosting our company webcast, and we made sure all our furlough associates were/are included not simply active associates.  Also, we answer every single question even if it is a repeat because we want every associate to be heard.  Even if we don’t have the answer or an answer anyone likes, we still address the question because transparency is everything in a world with so many unknowns.  In fact, our GlassDoor rating has risen during the pandemic from a 4.0 to 4.2 even though we had to lay off associates.  We are the highest rated hotel manager on GlassDoor.  Transparency is everything!  It is paramount.   

In addition to fully transparent weekly communication, Remington Hotels has taken the opportunity to tap curiosity and to reinvent the way we operate.  Hotels are notorious for being slow to innovate so we took this opportunity to rethink basic operations such as shuttle transportation.  Using First Principles Thinking that Elon Musk has made recently famous (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_principle), we wrote down our assumptions on all departments & tasks along with what we were ultimately trying to solve for.  Too much prior ‘innovation’ in hotels has been moving simply 1 or 2 steps to the right, not complete rethinking of problems.  Remington Hotels formed cross functional operation teams to reinvent our entire business across 6 work streams: 1) Accounting 2) Front Desk, Amenities & Guest Services 3) F&B 4) Housekeeping & Engineering 5) Commercial 6) HR / Associate Engagement.  We labeled the project code word ‘Project Phoenix’ because we wanted to have a rebirth from the ashes of the pandemic.  As an example of our first principles thinking, let us use shuttle service as an example.  Rather than simply pausing shuttle service temporarily, Remington started with the questions of “What are our guest transportation needs?  Does the guest even want a shuttle anymore?”  Our goal was to 1) save money 2) provide a better guest experience 3) enhance safety 4) draw down liability exposure for our owners.  Pre COVID, we operated 60+ shuttles across over 30 hotels at a seven figure expense.  After Beta Testing a first in industry partnership with Lyft, we have rolled out a Lyft partnership at ~30 hotels where we pay for a Lyft ride for the guest instead of maintaining a shuttle service.  First, the guest prefer it.  They prefer a direct drive without stops and prefer not being on a noisy bus with strangers.  Second, even at normalized occupancy, cost is lower because we do not have 1) shuttle labor 2) shuttle maintenance, gas depreciation 3) shuttle insurance.  Third, we are able to sell the shuttles and take an asset/liability off the balance sheet and give owners much needed cash back.  Fourth, Lyft assumes all ride liability; thus, we are shedding liability & insurance risk & cost from our owners to Lyft.  The fourth is often a huge missed cost that operates don’t think about until one large accident & law suit to wipes out any benefit of a shuttle.   

Another question that we arrived at from curiosity and first principle thinking is “Should we offer daily housekeeping?  Do the guest even want it?”  We currently only provide housekeeping on the third night on stay overs and have maintained our cleanliness scores.  And another question we are currently asking is, “How many of our prior 68 operated restaurants should reopen with only 20 operating?  Do the guest want the same experience or should modify our Corner Pantry to provide mobile order & pay options like a Dean  & Deluca that is simply fresh & clean while providing a very heavy Bar experience alternatively?”  Not to be forgotten, Remington was/is first mover on the playbook for Hybrid Meetings, which are here to stay for many years.

Any hotel operator that is merely “pausing” services and is “waiting for the day to return to normal,” is not using this pandemic in a strategic manner to reinvent the business & to be more profitable long-term at lower occupancy levels.  We will be even more profitable when we return to 2019 revenue levels.  Remington Hotels was GOP positive in March 2020 and was back to GOP positive in June 2020.  Mitigating cash burn for our owners while managing associate burn out in parallel has been our marching orders for the past 13 months, and that would not achievable had we not lead with empathy and tapped into our curiosity. 

In closing, to borrow from Adam Grant (NYT bestselling author of Originals & Think Again), Adam writes in Think Again, “Part of the problem (with human rethinking) is cognitive laziness.  Some psychologists point out that we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones.  Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance of rethinking.  Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable.  It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong.  Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.”  Maybe your GM is good friends with the shuttle driver, maybe your DOS has always sold having a shuttle service.  But if we are to truly evolve the business, we must first get comfortable with not knowing all answers & challenging entire norms.  In a pandemic & post pandemic world, it’s easiest to simply slip back to your prior operating standards or norms; however, that is the mistake I see by so many in the industry making.  It’s not too late to lead with empathy & then pivot to curiosity.  I urge you to engrain both in your culture NOW if it is not already second nature.  I’ve grown quite accustom to taking fiery direct questions from our associates every week while not always having the answers.  However, I tap empathy & curiosity every week, and you would be amazed at how humans respond even when the answer is not what they want to hear.  Humans can handle bad news, they just can’t handle surprises.

#roomtothrive

Sloan Dean, CEO & President, Remington Hotels