10 Lessons from a Texas Tourism & Hospitality Legend: Larry Woods

Larry Woods is a 54-year veteran of the tourism and hospitality industry. He began his career at the age of 13 on the San Antonio River Walk as a boat operator.  He later became the manager of the operation and learned firsthand the value of tourism and its impact on San Antonio and our entire state. Larry’s experience on the River Walk eventually led to management and consulting opportunities within the lodging and destination marketing fields. 

Within the hospitality arena, Larry has held key management positions with major hotel including La Mansion, Hershey, Sheraton, Marriott, and Radisson hotels, as well as management positions with hotel and destination management entities in the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica. 

In addition, Larry has been a “go to” resource on handling hotels and resorts that were in difficult markets and distressed business climates.  Larry’s expertise in business planning and his desire to move people into key positions through succession planning, individual strategic plans, and achievable goal setting has enabled him to positively impact the vitality of the businesses with which he worked and the careers of many tourism industry professionals.

We asked Larry what the 10 most profound lessons that he has learned while being in the hotel industry:

  1. Having a Servant’s Heart – During my career, I found that regardless of your position in a hotel, the individuals who possessed a servant’s heart — the desire to be of service to others, always stood out in the crowd. You will quickly find out who those persons are when you have:  a call for all-hands-on-deck to flip a meeting space into a banquet hall, an expanded request to plate 500 dishes in the kitchen, or the need to walk the facility to make sure everything is top-notch and ready to go.  Each of these urgent priorities is invariably accomplished by those who are willing to go the extra mile. The difference between good and great is almost always achieved by those who are willing to provide that incremental effort to be great.  How do you ensure you have or secure these individuals?  When you are hiring and when you are promoting from within your organization:  proactively ask the candidate for examples about how that employee has gone the extra mile and what having “a servant’s heart” means to that candidate.  When checking references, ask that reference how the candidate exceeded expectations with their work ethic and whether the candidate would be described as having a servant’s heart. You will be glad you focused on this attribute, and it will yield dividends in the way your employees work and the examples they set.  And this type of work ethic leads to the mutual satisfaction of colleagues, supervisors, and of course the appreciation of guests at your property.
  2. Comprehensive Communication – We all know that having the ability to communicate within hotel departments is a key element to a hotel’s success. However, comprehensive communication is more than just listening and relaying messages.  It is having a strategy that is adopted at all employee levels on how to take information that a guest has provided and making sure that all individuals and all related departments are made aware of these details. There is no room for failure in the communication arena.  To be successful, communication cannot be just an individual effort; it requires a group effort.  For example, there must be an implementation of concrete strategies that are adapted over time to ensure that comprehensive communication is honored by each and every employee, and at all employment levels.  The guiding principle remains that your hotel guests and employees must always be heard and their needs must be addressed, or you will find yourself with a critical lack of both. 
  3. It’s an Abundant World – For over 24 years of my career, I took over bankrupt Chapter 11 hotels and resorts.  My role was to turn the properties around and make them profitable.  I found that there were common denominators that generally contributed to the challenges that led to the hotel facing bankruptcy.  In most cases, the failure could be tied to insufficient efforts to create, maintain, and find new business. I have always been a believer that there is an abundant world of business waiting for you, but you must have a shrewd plan to gain your fair share of the market. Business opportunities are generally not going to knock on or walk through your door.  You must ask your employees and ask yourself to collaborate on an effective plan to find new business and retain the prior business.  Every salesperson should be regularly consulted with on what they are specifically doing to find new business, what opportunities are out there, and what are they doing proactively to actualize this business?  In hiring, you always want to ask specific questions of candidates:  how did they create a prospects network, what they did to ultimately secure the business, and what was their closure rate.
  4. Time Management– The demands on hotel personnel are great. The hotel business is one of constant interruptions, which makes time management not just a goal, it is a necessity to be successful.  In the majority of the struggling hotels that I have had the opportunity to work in, leadership failed to teach hotel staff how to effectively use their time. Integral to effective time management is knowing what tasks to prioritize.  Too much time on the lower priorities and not enough on the high priorities can be devastating to your operations.  Accordingly, taking the time to determine and confirm a mutual understanding as to what are the high priorities and what can be done later, is key to getting what you want done in an effective manner.  Never assume that your staff appreciates your current and evolving priorities if you have not confirmed this as a mutual understanding.   Effective time management also necessitates the ability to manage the expectations of your colleagues and guests, and timely communicating exactly what can be done and when.  Finally, the best operated hotels don’t assume a task is done; they confirm it.  And that task is not “done” until the results exceed the expectations of the guest and of your staff team.  Be sure that everyone agrees with and commits to this standard for operating. 
  5. Knowing Who You Are – Identifying an understanding of where your hotel fits within the marketplace is key. I have been in numerous hotels that had trouble identifying who they are, what they bring to a community, how they fit within their competitive set.  Are you likely to realize convention business or are you more of a highway corridor hotel.  Are meetings or events likely to be held at your property or are you more of a “stop-over” hotel?  Who are your current clients and what is needed to retain and grow each segment?  What market segments are untapped for your property and could be sources for new business.  Doing an effective analysis of these items allows the team to focus on what your property is now and what it can be in the future. 
  6. Data, Data, Data – On several occasions, I had the opportunity to manage hotels that were privately owned and not part of a national chain.  Because they were “independent” properties, there was not the built-in industry or customer awareness, as to where that hotel fit in — rate wise, projected revenues, and most importantly, how their property could perform within a marketplace.  Industry performance information and data is more readily available now than ever before, but often is not taken advantage of. Management hopefully provides a clear-cut direction and desired goals for your property, whether it was rate, revenue, occupancy, or all of the above.  Once you have the applicable industry data on where you stand within your competitive set, you can determine a current baseline performance and how your team can grow and evolve to meet and exceed management goals.  Further, using your initial baseline to set strategies and goals also makes employee reviews and performance bonuses much more strategic and data driven. 
  7. Multi-Tasking– Every successful hotel that I have been involved with developed strategies on how to help each other as a team. Most of my hotel career was spent in sales; but I learned first-hand that everyone and every department had a role in achieving success at our hotel.  I’ve made beds, helped with bell service, valet parked cars, waited tables, etc. And this commitment to multi-tasking should be expected and welcomed by your entire team.  To make this happen, it is essential that you communicate this priority and that your team provides enough cross-training so that multi-tasking can be effectively achieved.    
  8. Problem Solving – Is the customer always right? Maybe not, but we certainly want the customer to feel satisfied – regardless of any perceived fault.  Further, in the hotel industry, no two days are alike, making the challenge of problem solving, thinking on your feet, providing extra service, and treating every guest as if they are your only guest will be the crux of success for your property. I’ve always felt that the most important customer is the one standing in front of you. Your guests should profoundly feel that from everyone on your team.  Hotel companies depend upon and measure guest service satisfaction scores. For the last 30 years, I have stayed connected with individuals who I met throughout my career in this industry. These customers are still clients, and I am proud to say, they are still friends.
  9. Two Way Loyalty – The most important asset at your hotel are your employees. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to treat your employees well and to clearly and honestly communicate with them.  Visit with your staff about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Give them consistent respect and always thank them for their service.  You will have created a group of loyal and effective resources within your organization and in your life.
  10. Celebrate that It’s Great Career – I’ve seen so many people, including myself, who have started at the bottom, or near bottom of the hotel industry, who have gone on to be great leaders and incredible mentors for others. The opportunity for growth is endless within the hospitality industry and it is augmented by the hands-on teaching, coaching, and communications that we do that spread that message.  Share and celebrate what you know about this career path with your team and with those who could join your team in the future. 

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For the past 14 years, Larry has served as Director of the Boerne Convention and Visitors Bureau. He credits his great CVB team and the support from the city of Boerne staff for their success.

Larry is currently serving his 2nd term on the TACVB Board of Directors and was recently appointed to chair-elect of the TACVB Executive Board. He is a former board member of Texas Travel Alliance, ex-officio to the Nationwide Meetings National Board and an ex-officio board member of the Texas Hill Country Trail where he served 9 years. Larry also served as a board member to the Roy Maas Meadowland Charter School and the Cibolo Arts Council. In addition, he is a current member of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association.

In his leisure time, Larry is an accomplished drummer and thoroughly enjoys performing around the state of Texas at festivals and honky-tonks. He is also a skilled photographer and a great supporter of the arts.

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