Start Acting Like an Entrepreneur

Clearly, over the past three decades the mega brand companies and large ownership groups have dominated the hotel industry. And while that domination has been very rewarding for owners, investors and guests, it's the entrepreneur who is still the heart and soul of the lodging business. Sadly, there just aren't many of them left who have the resources, vision and bet-it-all guts to create bold new products or revive left-for-dead hotels.

That's why I get such a kick out of Jim Justice, the new owner of The Greenbrier and subject of a fascinating story by contributor Stephen Michaelides. While a newcomer to the hotel industry, Justice seems to have an innate sense of what makes a great (and profitable) lodging property: superb and up-to-date facilities; unmatched personal service; and, perhaps most of all, big heapings of showmanship. Since essentially stealing the then-bankrupt hotel out from under the nose of Marriott, Justice has been a non-stop buzz machine that's generated a ton of press coverage, consumer interest and new business for the once-fading but now-rebounding West Virginia classic resort.

At last month's inaugural Greenbrier Classic PGA golf tournament, Justice was all over the TV broadcasts of the event. And, wisely, the hotel shelled-out big bucks to be the lead sponsor of the telecast. As a result, viewers (mainly in the resort's upscale consumer sweet spot) saw repeated commercials showcasing the natural beauty and lush opulence of the property. For the hotel's grand reopening in June, Justice flew in a group of entertainment and sports celebrities for the celebration. Celebrities, even minor ones, draw press coverage, and this was no exception. The event was featured in a slew of regional and national publications with Justice and The Greenbrier in many of the photos.

But Justice is far from empty hype. Like a true entrepreneur, he has put his considerable self-made fortune to work restoring, improving and adding to The Greenbrier. He paid a mere $20 million to buy the 721-room hotel and its 6,500 acres of grounds. Since then, he's spent or is in the process of spending more than $100 million to repair the neglected property and to add a casino, more restaurants, retail outlets and other facilities. That's the kind of investment that would be nearly impossible for a large, public company to even consider, especially in this risky hotel environment.

Maybe you don't have $100 million-plus to buy and restore a classic hotel. But even if you own and operate a roadside or small-town limited-service property, you can learn from Justice and hotel entrepreneurs before him (think Kemmons Wilson, Jack DeBoer and John Q. Hammons). It doesn't take much investment to create buzz about your hotel, as humble as it may be. You can sponsor local groups, teams and causes. And every community, no matter how small, has local celebrities, so find ways to get them to your hotel and make sure the press knows about it. What it does take is a lot of enthusiasm, creativity and unfettered passion. You know what to do. The rewards will be worth the extra effort.

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