313 | Staging a Comeback: Hospitality leader Ron Vlasic helps industry build post-pandemic revival

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POSITION OF LEADERSHIP: Ron Vlasic, center, in November 2012 is flanked by Joseph McInerney, left, then president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and John Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group during AHLA’s annual event at the Plaza Hotel in New York City when Vlasic was inducted as chairman of the association and Fitzpatrick vice chairman. Today, Vlasic is COO at Hostmark Hospitality Group in Schaumburg, Illinois, and a new member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

Lodging veteran continues to illuminate way through dark economic times

Ron Vlasic practically embodies hospitality.

As a young man in Chicago, Vlasic’s introduction to the hotel industry was made when he walked into the lobby of a grand historic hotel. Its aesthetic and ambience impacted him intellectually and emotionally and he knew he wanted to be part of it.

More than 30 years later, Vlasic can tell of a storied career that has taken him coast to coast and led him to represent the industry in the U.S. and overseas.

Over the next two years, however, Vlasic has the leadership role of a lifetime. He is among a select group of industry leaders tasked with guiding the U.S. hospitality industry back to post-pandemic health and wealth.

Vlasic is chief operating officer at Hostmark Hospitality Group, a hotel and restaurant management company in Schaumburg, Illinois. In November, he was appointed by then U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to a term on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The board’s assignment is to craft a strategy to revive the hospitality industry both domestically and internationally.

STAGING A COMEBACK: Ron Vlasic in April 2012 stands in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., while attending the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Legislative Action Summit on behalf of Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. Today, Vlasic is COO at Hostmark Hospitality Group and a new member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, part of the U.S. Commerce Department. He tasked with helping the hospitality industry build a post-pandemic revival. Episode 313 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Vlasic sharing what it will take for the hospitality industry to return to profitability. The episode is the first of a new program by Long Live Lodging called Lodging Luminaries.

The U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in March assumed the role under the Biden Administration.

The advisory board on March 4th shared with Raimondo its recommendations on how the nation can revive its travel and tourism sector that suffered unprecedented setbacks as a result of the coronavirus global pandemic.

In the letter, the board first noted the health of the U.S. travel and tourism sector in 2019, when international travel alone added $234 billion to the U.S. economy, supported more than one million jobs, and represented 27 percent of trade in services and 9 percent of trade in goods and services each. In that year, domestic and international travel together supported 9.5 million jobs.

The board then reminded Raimondo of the bad news.

  • The U.S. leisure and hospitality sector accounted for 39 percent of the total jobs lost from January 2020 through February 2021.
  • In that time period, international inbound arrivals to the U.S. fell 76 percent compared to the year before.
  • The board noted conditions remain severely depressed. In total, the U.S. lost $493 billion in travel spending in 2020, a 42 percent decline.

To revive the U.S. travel and tourism industry now and post-pandemic, the USTT advisory board presented the Commerce Department with 10 recommendations, including expanding federal relief programs to small- and medium-sized hospitality businesses, establishing grant programs for minority-owned and rural businesses; ramping up touchless technology throughout travel sectors; and elevating travel and tourism by creating a new U.S. Travel and Tourism Agency with authority to implement the recommendations as well as other comeback initiatives.

DEAR MADAM SECRETARY: Ron Vlasic is a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which on March 4 sent a 13-page letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that includes 10 recommendations on how the federal government can lead the industry’s post-pandemic comeback. These first two pages are introductory in nature. The full letter can be viewed here

To tackle the scope of the revival, the USTT advisory board divided into subcommittees. Vlasic is a member of the committee on customer experience that examined what it’s going to take to get people traveling again.

“What’s interesting in our country is the drive-in markets have fared pretty well and in 2020 and going into ’21,” Vlasic said.

“People are, say from Chicago, but perhaps they want to do a little staycation and do a short drive to places in Michigan, Wisconsin or rural areas of Illinois.

“Where we’re hurting the most is as our city centers, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, where the convention and corporate business has really been stymied. That’s where we need the most focus and attention right now.”

Another recommendation by the USTT advisory board is to create a promotional campaign to help consumers feel safe and secure when traveling. Vlasic said he’s seen a stark difference in how guests respond to COVID-19 protocols and changes in hotel services from the beginning of the pandemic to today.

“The lack of understanding from the beginning of all of this through today has really changed a lot,” he said.

“In the beginning, it was extremely rough on our front office team members that had to deal with this. Guests wouldn’t understand why can’t I get this or that. And now it’s become the norm, the lack of services and people have accepted it. I think people are becoming a little bit more compassionate and showing more empathy toward these folks that are working the desk.”

Vlasic is sad that hotels had to cut back on services as the decision does diminish the guest experience, but it’s also encouraged some hoteliers to think creatively.

“There’s still people who get frustrated, but I think every hotel has figured out a rhythm of how to manage those expectations to the best way possible. Unfortunately there was no playbook really written for any of this, so people made it up as they went. I think that’s where the creativity and the resiliency of these hoteliers really come alive.”

YOU’RE WELCOME HERE: The Gaia Hotel, Restaurant and Spa in Anderson, California, in fall 2020 housed firefighters who spent hours and days battling wildfires in the northern region of the state. The hotel in August let firefighters and other first responders know it was open to serve them in this message it on Facebook. The hotel is part of Choice Hotels International’s Ascend Collection and is managed by Hostmark Hospitality Group, where Ron Vlasic is chief operating officer.

In communicating with nationwide team, Hostmark Hospitality Group in the beginning of this year held a virtual three-day leadership conference to reconnect and to find out how hotel and restaurant operators were managing business challenges.

“The overarching theme of our conference was Hostmark Strong,” Vlasic said. “We shared some of the examples of how strong and resilient all of us are and how it came alive through each hotel and restaurant. We have quite a variety of hotels in our company and everybody had a different theme, if you will, of how they approach guest service.”

Vlasic gave the example of the Gaia Hotel, Restaurant and Spa in Anderson, California. The property is in the Shasta Cascade region in the northern part of the state and near to where communities last fall experienced forest fires. The hotel was filled with firefighters who would battle blazes for hours and hours and come back to the Gaia Hotel to rest and recover.

“To really rethink how we serve them and what they need, it changed everything about the property,” Vlasic said. “Our general manager and the team created an experience for those men and women, making sure they got plenty of rest and that they got the food and fluids that they needed to stay fit.

“A lot of it, too, they needed the fresh air. We’re fortunate where our property is spread among some nice acreage, and we were able to create some areas where a lot of them wanted to relax on the lawn, try to get some fresh air and spread out to trying to fix their gear and kind of go through things.”

The hotel team opened the parking area for all of the rigs and the trucks and gave them room to service the vehicles and equipment.

Vlasic said the acts of service by the hotel and its employees are what defines hospitality in a time of crisis.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer U.S. travel and tourism sectors, Vlasic has another concern for the future of the industry – the education and training the young people who entered hospitality the same way he did. He wants the career trajectory to be just as strong if not stronger for the next generation.

Vlasic is a native of the Chicago area. When he was 19 he was a sales clerk at Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department store in the city’s downtown. The store was across the street from the Palmer House Hotel, an historic landmark that’s now managed by Hilton.

“I remember going there for lunch one day and it was probably the first time I’ve really been in a classic grand hotel such as that. And I was really taken aback by the grandeur of the place,” Vlasic said. “All of a sudden I realized this might be something I’d like to do. So I came home and talked to my mom about it. I said, ‘I think I may want to chase a career in hospitality.’ And she goes, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure yet, but it looked pretty cool.’”

CAREER PATH STARTS HERE: Ron Vlasic, chief operating officer at Hostmark Hospitality Group and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, said it was a visit as a young man to the historic Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago that triggered his interest in a career in hospitality.

Vlasic went to a hospitality school in Chicago and landed a job as a traveling manager with the Lodgekeeper Group. For several years, he traveled all over the country surveying hotels in need of renovations and business upgrades with the goal to reposition and sell.

“For a young man, it was a great experience,” he said. “I learned about redeveloping and repositioning assets that needed a little bit of love and care.”

He then discovered the Grand Heritage Hotel Group in Annapolis, Maryland, that specialized in owning and operating historic boutique hotels. The opportunity harkened Vlasic back to his introduction to grand historic hotels via the Palmer House. He spent 10 years at Grand Heritage as a general manager, traveling coast to coast.

“It was a wonderful ride, learning how to take care of these old historic hotels and in the care and feeding habits of them.” The boutique hotel business is a unique industry genre and Vlasic’s on-the-job education eventually led him to join Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group as general manager of its Sir Francis Drake Hotel in downtown San Francisco.

Vlasic spent nearly 20 years with Kimpton, which in 2014 was acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group for $430 million in cash.

When Vlasic started with the boutique developer it had about 12 hotels in its portfolio. When he left in 2019, as vice president of operations, the company had about 63 properties.

Vlasic joined Hostmark Hospitality Group in 2019 as chief operating officer.

Despite his many experiences, he never lost that sense of awe and wonder when in a grand hotel. And it’s that element of hospitality he hopes emerging hospitality professionals will latch onto because it’s what will carry them through challenging times.

After all, the art of hospitality is more than checking people in and turning over rooms.

“I think that a lot of it came down to these grand historic hotels that may not have been really affiliated with a major brand like Hilton Hyatt, Marriott, which have programs in place to help activate those experiences.

“It really relies upon your crew, your own personal creativity in how can you make a place come alive. What type of persona can you help create at that property that kind of gives that special guests experience?

“For example, when I was the general manager of the Allegro Hotel, the theme and story of the Allegro was all about the arts, about the theater district and how that came alive. And so we would recruit a lot of people that had that special talent. Perhaps they were an artist, a singer or a performer that needed a job. We bring them on board and then encourage them to bring that alive for us.

“So if James at the front desk was a part-time dancer at a local theater troupe, we would encourage him to share his experiences and what was going on in the community to encourage people to witness what was coming alive in the neighborhoods. But it’s the spirit of James and he could bring that alive and share that wealth of information.”

The experience worked both ways as employees like James would develop loyalty to the hotel and become vested in its success. That’s when “the magic happens” in guest experience, Vlasic said. “That customer comes back and says, ‘Oh, I remember James from the last visit. He turned me on to this great theater. I want to go see it again.’

Vlasic joined the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association in 2001, which led him to serve on an advisory committee at DePaul University in Chicago and help build its School of Hospitality Leadership.

The coronavirus crisis forced Vlasic and other advisers to channel their creativity to position students to succeed in the industry post-pandemic. Rather than see its students graduate into an industry that offered few opportunities, the school created a tract that enables graduates to straightaway move on to obtain a master’s degree during the pandemic years.

Vlasic noted that joining associations and finding mentors and like-minded colleagues who dedicate their lives to promoting and preserving the hospitality industry has been among the highlights of his career.

Vlasic returned to Chicago in 2001 and joined the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. At the time, Marc Gordon was president and CEO of the association. He retired in 2018 after 21 years in that role.

Vlasic and Gordon became good friends. “He taught me a great deal,” Vlasic said. “He was a great mentor on how to get involved and really start to give back to our industry. I spent quite a bit of time with him learning what it meant to talk to our state legislators and promote what’s going on within Illinois.”

Vlasic became chairman of the Illinois association in 2007. “With that position, I became more and more involved with the national campaign and going to Washington, D.C. and being a representative or the state of Illinois with the American Hotel & Lodging Association,” he said. “As I became more involved in understanding what AHLA offered, I was interested in learning more about what we could do on a national level.”

Vlasic became an AHLA board member and in 2013 was inducted for a two-year term as chairman, where he represented the hospitality industry nationally and internationally.

His activity caught the attention of the Australian government, which asked him to speak to its parliament about how tourism rebounded after the 2008 Great Recession and after the terrorist attacks of 9-11.  “The United States was pretty resilient and came back and they were very interested in knowing how we did that.”

Vlasic continues to work with IH&LA as well as AH&L. His involvement put him on the U.S. Commerce Department’s radar and led to the appointment to the USTT advisory board.

He is passionate about promoting and restoring the U.S. travel and tourism industry. “Obviously, with pandemic, I think that voice is probably needed now more than ever.”

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