Success By the Book

Windmill Inns & Suites may be the most sophisticated six-property chain in the lodging industry. With strong leadership and a well-grounded corporate culture, the collection of three hotels each in Oregon and Arizona operates on a complex set of operating philosophies and strategies more often seen in hotel companies with hundreds of properties and thousands of employees.

President & CEO John Cauvin, a native of France with an impressive educational background at both Lausanne and Cornell hotel schools, maintains unprecedented personal involvement in the operation of the six Windmill properties. In addition, he is the lead coach, trainer and mentor for all of the organization's 250-plus employees.

The chain's lineup includes three all-suite properties, two with standard rooms and one that combines both standard rooms and suites. Five of the mid-market properties have some conference space. The 230-room Windmill Inn & Suites in Ashland, OR has 13,000 square feet of event space, making it the largest convention venue in southern Oregon.

Amenities at all properties include free continental breakfast or a more limited breakfast that's delivered to guest units. All six properties also offer free wireless high-speed Internet access.

QUALITY BEGATS PROFITS

Cauvin's approach to management seems to work where it matters most: at the bottom line. The company has been profitable every year since its founding in 1984, including the industry's precarious period of 2001 and 2002.

Even before the industry hit the skids in the months preceding Sept. 11, 2001, Cauvin put the brakes on three projects on the drawing boards. “We turned our attention on doing more with less and also looked for other ways to grow,” he says.

That led to a partnership with management guru and conference impresario Morris Lasky. The two formed Lodging Unlimited West, an extension of Lasky's long-established management company and consulting firm. Through the partnership, Cauvin and Lasky are seeking third-party management contracts and consulting gigs in the western U.S.

From his Scottsdale, AZ office Cauvin administers a structured system of accountability that supports, measures, reviews and mandates improvements through all areas of the operation. He believes his system enables new managers to become highly effective in 60 days or less and allows them to demonstrate their creativity as general managers. An important tool is the General Manager Weekly Performance Summary, a matrix that focuses on hundreds of items in several key categories. Cauvin reviews the results weekly with each GM and together they develop strategies to improve on weaknesses.

“Because of our systems approach to the business, GMs are able to spend more time where it matters — in the sales and marketing of their hotels,” says Cauvin. “The system is merely a tool to let them know they're on the right track. And we back that up with weekly discussions of goals and accomplishments.”

Windmill's marketing strategies combine print and website development as well as on-property sales efforts. Revenue management is also tightly controlled to maximize rates and occupancies.

Cauvin believes marketing tactics should push customers to a “least cost routing” reservations path. First priority is to get guests to call a hotel front desk (the cheapest avenue for the company), followed by corporate website booking, booking through independent travel sites and finally travel agents.

The chain also employs some non-traditional marketing techniques to promote the flag and individual properties. The Windmill Inn Sun City, for example, is the preferred hotel for the Texas Rangers baseball team during the club's Arizona spring training. In addition to generating direct room nights from players, the team promotes the hotel to season ticket holders and other fans through e-newsletters, flyers and program ads.

Cauvin's theories on management, particularly human resources management, are a blend of his own thoughts and those of several well-known business gurus. One inspiration is Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager and other best-selling business books.

“From Blanchard I've learned that it's important to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It's all about integrity,” he says. “It's important to form partnerships with your associates as opposed to just telling them what to do. We also practice affirmation, or the act of catching our associates doing the right things.”

Human capital is Cauvin's hot button issue. The firm employs a stringent pre-employment screening process (including drug screening and what Cauvin calls “integrity screening”) and then nurtures associates once they join the company.

“Staffing issues have reached a crisis stage in our industry,” he says. “Too many hotels and companies hire anyone who comes in off the street. It's challenging, but we look for people who both have an interest in our business and have the work ethic to be successful. But because of the HR filters we use, our associates and managers know they can trust each other.”

Cauvin and his management team fanatically monitor staff problems and turnover rates to head off individual problems before they become trends. Two-way communication is key to the process. Quarterly morale surveys allow the GMs and Cauvin to spot problem areas. Associates can also use a secure website or a confidential phone line to send comments, complaints and suggestions to Cauvin, who says he personally follows up on each one.

Cauvin, a firm believer in managing by walking around, regularly tours his properties with a digital camera to record maintenance and operational issues. Photos are sent to GMs for immediate resolution, and he returns to make sure the problems are cured.

He's also a disciple of management guru John Naisbitt and his inverted pyramid theories: “The role of the managers is to support their line employees, while my role is to support the GMs,” he says.

A LOOK TO TOMORROW

As a very small chain, Windmill must constantly fight the big brands. The ever-optimistic Cauvin sees it as a positive.

“Certainly, it was more difficult before the rise of the Internet and its marketing power. Today, however, the web allows us to be on an even keel with the big chains,” he says. “We also need to be more focused on the basics of the business, like guest satisfaction and the concerns of our employees. Some managers at chain properties hide behind their flags because they know the res systems will always funnel a stream of new guests to them.”

Windmill offers a 110-percent money-back guarantee as one tool to build the repeat business so needed by independents and small chain properties. Another priority is capital expenditures. “We spend what we must, generally four to eight percent of sales but as much as 15 to 20 percent, to make sure our properties are always in first-class condition. There is no room for error.”

Each year all guestrooms undergo what Cauvin calls detailing, a program that includes fresh paint and soft and hard goods replacement as needed.

Cauvin believes the tide is turning back toward independent operators, citing as proof that a growing number of lenders are more interested in an operator's track record rather than what flag, if any, flies on a property.

Ever ready to take advantage of market opportunities, Cauvin is poised to resume growth of the company, either through additional Windmill properties or select management contracts.

“We're looking for appropriate acquisition opportunities,” he says, “and while I'm optimistic, it's also time to be cautious, as conditions in the industry can change very quickly.”

Cauvin also offers a unique training program for hotel industry GMs and owners that crystallizes many of his business philosophies and management techniques into an intensive two-week-long educational program. Called Managers in the Making: Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts, the hands-on training delves into the systems, philosophies and culture that drive superior performance in the core Windmill portfolio.

With Cauvin as dean, the program focuses on all aspects of lodging management — from team building and cost controls to technology and sales and marketing. The sessions are split between the Windmill headquarters and one of the chain's Phoenix area properties.

THE BIG IDEAS

Windmill President & CEO John Cauvin is a native of France but is a naturalized citizen of the U.S. As an American, he's particularly fond of the Pledge of Allegiance, which he says “keeps 250 million people on the same page.”

In that same spirit, Cauvin developed a Partnership Pledge to reflect the corporate culture he expects associates and managers to follow in their dealings with guests and each other. The pledge has seven guiding principles:

  • We — the staff — are our company's most valuable resource.
  • The customers sign our paychecks; we go the extra mile for them.
  • Together Everyone Achieves More - We are a TEAM.
  • We guarantee hospitality to our guests.
  • We strive to create a positive work environment so our work will be satisfying, challenging and fun.
  • Our primary goal is to surpass the acceptable and achieve excellence in whatever we do.

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