La Quinta Puts On Brave Face

Hotel executives have a hard time putting on a brave face these days, with the economy in the tank, supply swelling as demand and RevPAR drop, and most new incentives back-burnered because of financial uncertainty.

But at La Quinta, being positive is an integral part of the program, prompting a face that is both brave and smiling. Even when things are tough, Wayne Goldberg, president of La Quinta, and Raj Trivedi, executive vice president in charge of franchising, present an upbeat outlook. They will expand on that at the 2009 La Quinta National Conference, which convenes next week at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort in Honolulu.

“Bigger, Brighter, Faster, Stronger” is the theme of the conference, the first to which the families of the mid-scale-without-f&b chain’s general managers have been invited. About 1,000 people are expected to attend. They will be treated to new advertisements, refinements in both exterior and interior design, greater emphasis on training, and the kind of team-building Goldberg, Trivedi and Angelo Lombardi, EVP and chief operating officer, specialize in.

“I think it could start to get better in the middle of next year,” Goldberg said in a recent interview at La Quinta’s headquarters in suburban Dallas. “I really don’t know. But we’re going to continue to do all the things we know to do to take care of our customers and make them want to come back.”

As of the end of December, there were 708 properties in the La Quinta portfolio: 399 Inns & Suites and 309 Inns. As of the time of the interview, 257 hotels were in its pipeline; La Quinta opened 81 properties in 2008. The Blackstone Group, the huge investment firm that bought La Quinta in 2005, stands behind La Quinta  “to make sure we’re managing our business without our hands tied behind our back,” Goldberg said.

Having “$4 billion worth of skin in the game as an owner-operator” continues to give franchisees confidence in the brand, Goldberg said. It also strengthens repeat franchisees: 25 La Quinta franchisees own two properties, 11 own three, four own four, two own five, another two own 13, and one owns 20. Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2008, the number of La Quinta Returns members grew 32 percent; 40 percent more members enrolled in 2008 than in 2007.

Owning hotels “makes you cost-conscious in construction, planning and operations,” said Trivedi, “and it makes you extremely vigilant when you roll out new programs to make sure they have impact on the three core areas: the guest, the bottom line, and cost savings.”

La Quinta executives will stress the positive but won’t introduce anything earth-shaking. “We are always in a state of trying to be more efficient, to make sure we are providing the right service and the right product at the right price,” Goldberg said. “It’s always a matter of incremental refinement,” like adding fresh-made waffles to the breakfast menu and upping the quality of the hard-boiled eggs they serve there in the shell by boiling them in bulk in a large rice cooker. Credit operations expert Lombardi for the egg enhancement.

“Is it important that people feel good? I think it is,” Goldberg said. “They’re so bombarded with negative messaging. I think it’s important that people understand that we understand that things are more difficult than they were, but we still have a great opportunity and our company is financially sound; people have to go to bed at night feeling good about the company they work for.

“There is no reinvention of the wheel taking place,” he said. “We are a company of perpetual change. I’m a true believer that if you don’t change, you don’t grow…I’m a true believer that no one works for anyone. We all work together.

“We take what we do very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously.”

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