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Creatively Surprising and Delighting Clients

Michael Harrell, Chairman and CEO of Vista Host
Gil Cohen
March 11th, 2014
A die-hard Austin Texan, Michael Harrell, the Chairman and CEO of Vista Host, a hotel management company, lives by the motto "keep Austin weird" as evidenced by his highly creative selection of properties. In the hotel business for over 50 years, and having founded Vista Host 35 years ago, Michael takes care to treat each property as a unique entity with its own history and its own personalized touches, making each one special in its own right. His hotels feature unique and funky designs such as graffiti in the lobby, interesting artwork throughout and one even has a 14-foot guitar decorating the lobby. Michael explains, "You often wake up in a hotel and don't know what city you're in," which is why he makes an effort to stay true to the region and locality of each property.

Three questions with Michael Harrell:

1. How do you come up with some of your best ideas?

For whatever market we're in, we try to tie our product back to what was already there, to stay true to the local history. We're normally tearing down something and replacing it with something new, so it's important to us to keep some of the history, often by bringing elements of the previous building into the lobby and bringing our own unique touch to each property - we did this twice in Nashville. We come up with ideas from things we see in our day-to-day lives, for example, we raised the beds up 30 inches from 24 inches because that's what beds are like in people's homes.

We try to hire the right personalities, people who are high in extroversion and high in dominance, not introverts or conformists. We gather our data from various surveys (i.e., TripAdvisor, Hilton, Vista Host Comment Cards, and Service Counts). Another survey we use is called 'PeopleClues,' to gain insights into our potential associates. We put Texas waffles in all of our hotels, even in Nashville, because it creates conversation with our associates. The guests in our Kansas hotels, who are from Oklahoma, like to give us a hard time about the Texas waffles.

2. What challenges do you face when innovating?

A challenge is making sure that the brands we work with will allow for the innovation we want. Brands have their own standards and expectations and sometimes they don't want you to get out of the swim lanes. But I love incorporating unique concepts such as crazy uniforms, different breakfast items and certain types of furniture. I try to be a bit more creative because I believe in keeping Austin weird.

In hospitality, there are peaks and valleys, but if you gear up for the peaks you'll go broke trying to keep everyone on. You have to create a good team where everyone is cross-trained so that they can handle business when peaking. If you spend 80% of your time hiring the right people, you will only need to spend 20% managing them.

3. Do outside industries influence innovation at Vista Host?

I believe in Nordstrom's theory of customer service that the customer is always right, and I'm often inspired by other companies (i.e., Southwest Airlines) that are all about the service. It's all about listening to the customer's needs and expectations. We have a hotel in Austin, Texas that has a Hampton Inn name but it goes above and beyond what people expect from a Hampton Inn. We included 11-foot ceilings and 12-foot windows that make the rooms feel a lot larger because, although we could've gone the route of a boutique hotel, we wanted to take it in another direction. In fact, it is number one on TripAdvisor out of 181 hotels in Austin, including Four Seasons properties, and expectations are a lot higher now but we continue to exceed those thanks to the service.

I will continue to try to think outside of the box as much as possible and give the consumer exactly what they want and what they're looking for.
References: linkedin, vistahost