THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS Burt Cabañas joined the hospitality industry in 1961 as a 14-year-old pool boy, having been exiled from Cuba following Fidel Castro’s communist revolution. He became a general manager at age 25, ran a multiunit operation at 27 and headed a private management company at 34, purchasing it at age 39.
Today, Cabañas leads an organization that he founded three decades ago, which he has built into a leading independent hospitality management company. Benchmark Hospitality International now has a portfolio of 35 properties. Cabañas reflects on his career as a hotel executive and entrepreneur.
In your view, what has been the biggest single change in the hotel business over the past 30 years?
Cabañas: E-Commerce and technology… the ability to drive hotel occupancy through online and cross-channel, web-based marketing distribution platforms. Web-based hotel booking has leveled the playing field against the chains and franchises that monopolized occupancy through their 800-number portal for years. Now, customer purchase decisions are much more intelligent; the deck is no longer stacked against the independent hotel or resort due to their lack of centralized distribution.
As technology has transformed how consumers learn about a hotel, in your view, have advances in technology radically altered the customer experience at a hotel?
Cabañas: Technology has enabled us to focus our service and amenities messaging to our customers so they have a clear view of the experiences our hotels offer prior to arrival, including a clear price/value relationship. Furthermore, advanced technology enables guest history systems to implement intuitive applications and “remember” the guests’ preferences at check-in and during their stay, so the experience is consistent each time they return. Something that Benchmark is implementing as we speak is the ability to communicate with our customers through mobile portals such as proprietary applications in cellular phones.
What has been the most important development for consumers of travel over the past three decades?
Cabañas: Without a doubt, the evolution of the web as a vehicle for multifaceted booking platforms, which allow for more transparent property profiles and enable the customer to discover and select the best price/value comparison for a particular moment in time at the exact location they prefer.
What was your greatest challenge during the last 30 years?
Cabañas: Investing in systems and services that better serve our properties and our customers, while working through four recessions in 30 years. We were the pilot for Delphi in the mid-1980s, and in the 2000s, for P.M.I., a joint venture with D2O on a business intelligence platform for forecasting and staffing. Last year alone, we invested US$2 million in advanced technology platforms. This investment was a challenge at every stage, given the economic climate, but we knew it was the right thing to do. Coming out of this economic downturn we are the most technologically advanced independent management company out there and different from the chains in our ability to customize reporting and decision-making tools.
Has the concept of “full service” within hotels changed significantly over the past 30 years?
Cabañas: “Full service” used to mean “offering a three-meal-a-day restaurant.” Sort of like a hotel with a swimming pool that was at one time considered a resort. Today, full service includes expectations significantly beyond foodservice. These expectations begin with the first contact with the property, carry through to the anticipatory service experienced by the guest while at the hotel or resort, and never end. Hotels today are in many ways an extension of our guests’ home and lifestyle.
What has been the most important opportunity for owners and management companies in the hotel business over the past three decades?
Cabañas: The ability of conference centers, linked to either hotels or resorts, to take their prominent place as a clear high-return investment option, serving the largest, most profitable segment in our industry: corporate meetings. Couple this with the freedom to choose an independent management model without the encumbrances that come with a franchise or chain affiliation, which were previously required to maximize occupancy in the non-group market segments.
What is your greatest accomplishment over the past 30 years? What is Benchmark’s greatest accomplishment?
Cabañas: Many in the industry would say that Benchmark Hospitality International is a conference center hotel company, and to a degree that is not an inappropriate window through which we would like to be viewed. It is better to be known for something rather than nothing. However, since our first decade we have expanded our capabilities, and today we are a diversified independent management company evenly divided among resorts, conference centers, hotels and Personal Luxury Hotels with the capability to create individualized destinations. I’m very proud of that diversification, which few companies can claim. Our capabilities will enable us to double in size in the next decade, as we have in the past decade along with creating growth opportunities for our employees.
Since nearly every hotel welcomes group meetings business, what has been the greatest change in the meetings segment over the past three decades?
Cabañas: Growth in meetings as a percentage of industry business volume has slowed due to alternative ways to communicate, driven in large part by advances in communications technology. But the need for pressing the flesh will never leave our society in good times or in recessionary periods—it’s a motivator and a bonder.
We talk frequently about the best learning environments for meetings. However, over 90% of all corporate meetings are still held at hotels and resorts that are not designed with the meeting planner or meeting guest as their primary clients. Increased demand in a recovering economy will change this, and it bodes well for [International Association of Conference Centers] member properties, which I believe will increase their percentage of the multibillion-dollar U.S. corporate meetings market well beyond 15% over the next few years.
What are the top three management lessons you and Benchmark Hospitality have learned about motivating and empowering employees?
Cabañas: Management lesson number one: “Our employees are the difference.” If you have a hotel that needs renovation but your employees know that they are the difference in the customer experience, no one will notice the slightly-frayed carpet.
Management lesson number two: “Trust but verify.” Accountability must be made clear and fair.
Management lesson number three: “Open doors at all levels to allow employees to comment, recommend, to commend, and when necessary, to complain.” Our respect for the individual is the apex of our culture.
Of all the business lessons you’ve learned over the past 30 years in the hotel business, what are the top three, and why?
Cabañas: Business lesson number one: “Attitude and determination far outweigh experience and education.”
Business lesson number two: “Nimbleness and adaptability to constant change is core to business today.”
Business lesson number three: “Benchmark Hospitality’s brand is not as important as our properties’ brands.” Chains and franchises can only deliver one way to do things. Our independently-branded resorts, hotels and conference centers offer multiple ways to deliver value and a superb hospitality experience to our customers—often customized to the individual customers.
What advice do you have for young people considering a career in the hotel and hospitality industry?
Cabañas: If you love people, enjoy service, do not mind working when everyone else is on vacation, like the fact that no two days are ever the same and that your future is in your own hands, your career in hospitality should be satisfying and rewarding, and I’d encourage it. This career has made the difference in my life—I came to the U.S. with next to nothing except ambition and the willingness to give it my all. Additionally, they should know that all the marble, silver and gold in a hotel are never more important to a guest’s experience than friendly service and a smile.
Projecting forward, what will the hotel industry look like 30 years from today?
Cabañas: The buildings and services will follow our changing lifestyles. Technology will play an even more critical role than currently in all aspects of management, marketing and customer relationships. The desire to protect the environment will increase and be a critical expectation of customers in selecting our hotels over the competition. Independently owned and branded hotels and resorts will lead the industry as the most enjoyable places to stay and meet.