Andy Alexander reinvigorated Red Roof Inn by energizing employees Featured

5:01pm EDT June 30, 2011

Andy Alexander had his work cut out for him. It was April 2009 and he had to continue to get Red Roof Inn on solid financial footing. The company was letting the dust settle from ownership and leadership changes and economic doldrums were causing a downturn in the travel industry. The new owners and Alexander agreed: The iconic brand needed to get back to basics.

In his role as interim leader, and later officially as president, Alexander had to overcome customer perception that the icon was dragging a bit.

“We were a brand that needed a push,” Alexander says.

Customer reviews said Red Roof’s midscale lodging experience at an economy price was at best, something they didn’t think the company still had, or at worst, or something that had been lost.

Returning the 4,500-employee company into the groove started with patience and persistence. After a year and a half, things were looking up. The portfolio size was increasing, the revenue per available room was 14 percent higher than the competition and perhaps most telling, Red Roof Inn was garnering high customer satisfaction scores in online hotel review sites.

Here are steps Alexander took to breathe new life into the brand.

Define the vision

The lodging chain’s new owners were adamant about reinvigorating the brand, so much so that it built new headquarters in Columbus where it all began in 1973.

“Being downtown and part of the Columbus community is a very important aspect to reinvigorating the brand and bringing it back to those roots,” Alexander says. “The theme kind of does a 360 back to that aspect.”

Over the years, the number of competitors in that segment grew and made it more difficult for Red Roof Inn to stand out.

Alexander was no stranger to the hospitality industry, and he brought with him an important piece of advice that he learned from his former boss at another lodging company.

“He said for a brand to succeed, you have to know what you’re best at,” he says.

Defining the company’s core competencies is an important initial step. This involves meeting with employees and the management team until a mission statement is developed.

“That was the first thing I asked the team here ? what are we best at?” Alexander says.

“What we found was that we are best at the basics.”

You have to come up with your core competencies and work from there. Mold and manipulate the information until a concise statement is developed. Brand recognition, customer service and consistency are critical areas that should be part of the vision ? and the mission.

“You want to impress your customer with outstanding service and give them what they are expecting time after time ? that same consistency,” Alexander says. “I think the brand consistency is what sells; it helps us to sell both to consumers and franchisees. Without that consistency, and the consistency of service and product, you’re likely to become a brand that’s much more a commodity.”

The analogy of gasoline stations illustrates the dangers of becoming just that.

“You come up to the corner and if one’s two cents cheaper, you choose that one over the other one, regardless of what the brand is,” Alexander says. “When you lose your consistency and people can’t count on receiving that high quality and value, they’ll just come to the corner and look at the various prices or look on the Internet and choose the cheapest.”

When you are developing the vision, add a heavy dose of customer feedback into the mix. Rely not only on customer surveys, but also on consumer sessions, discussions with members of a loyalty or rewards club if you have one and face-to-face chats with customers.

Surveys, if done properly, help a great deal in narrowing down the strengths and weaknesses as seen by customers. Avoid the short-answer questions that usually result in answers but not the reasons for the answers.

“There is advanced technology so surveys really lead the customer to give more precise detail without burdening the customer with lots of open-ended fill-in questions, which you know if you’ve taken a survey, you don’t like,” Alexander says. “What you want is to be led through the question-and-answer tree so you reach the point where you make a specific point and tell why. Whatever the customer’s issue might be, surveys now give the ability to get in much finer detail the information needed. That’s a big area for feedback.”

Along the lines of technology and feedback, social media is proving to be a useful tool.

“It was not that long ago that if you had a big enough marketing budget, you could go on television or radio, in print, and over and over again say, ‘We’re great, we’re great, we’re great,” Alexander says. “Eventually the public believes you because they’ve heard it enough, they’re not sure where they’ve heard it from but they know you’re great.

“Social media has put an end to that because with social media, you can’t just say you’re great ? you need to be great,” he says. “It’s really leveled the playing field, and for a company that had a smaller marketing budget, it puts it in a great position.”

Social media can bring a double shot of benefits when you are fine-tuning the vision. Not only can it define what customers are saying and would like to see, but it can give you prompt feedback on the action you have taken

“Two years ago, as WiFi became more important, our guests said one of the top things they wanted was free WiFi,” Alexander says. “So we rolled out free WiFi, and the guests responded. I think our performance has improved as a result, and that’s just a testament to making sure you’re listening to your customers and responding when they have need.”

Get buy-in

Once the vision and mission are defined, you have to get to know your employees before launching action to reinvigorate the company and secure employee buy-in.

“You can’t just be a leader who is out traveling around the country as a figurehead,” he says. “Be a working CEO, day to day, and work with your team to understand them, their personalities, the way they like feedback, they way they work among the team when they need support ? and when they need to be left alone.

“But each is different. Some players, if you don’t touch base with them 10 times throughout the course of a project, you end up getting off track. Others you touch base with them 10 times, and you just slow them down. It depends on the individual, but if you’re a figurehead, or someone who’s just offsite, you’ll never learn the traits of your people.”

A leader often has to walk an imaginary tightrope when it comes to delegating responsibilities.

“Individual department heads have to be accountable for results, but they can delegate to achieve results within their department,” Alexander says.

Think of delegation as a method to recommend proceeding with less guidance or more guidance, whatever is needed.

Today’s ever-changing technology poses challenges at times, but a peer approach to designing and teaching can have good results if for instance, you’re installing a new computer system or upgrade.

“Change is always difficult and getting employees to buy in is important, but the best way to do that is to have as many of them as possible, at least many of their peers, involved in the process,” Alexander says. “Use individuals who aren’t managers and use them in the process of determining which system to choose. Obviously, that helps when not only do you get a better result, but you get buy-in because the people who have to actually implement the project were part of the process.”

Buy-in efforts should include designing the proper team to help ensure the mission statement is carried out.

“A CEO can come up with a vision, but without a team that can achieve results and achieve superior results to see a vision, it will fall by the wayside,” Alexander says.

“Use this approach: spend a significant amount of your effort in not only just creating the vision but in putting the team in a position, in a sense, to overachieve ? to reach their highest potential, both as individuals and as a team.”

Nurture the effort

The final step is to nurture the changes. Management should next identify employees who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and try something new.

“I’ve seen it as I’ve worked at different levels with peers as well as people who have worked for me that most people have much more inside them than what they give,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t want to give it; they just aren’t given the opportunity.

“Encourage them even if they sometimes fail, and do not punish the failure but reward the attempt. In a way, it’s a social science that’s really developing. People are more and more recognizing that missed opportunities are more harmful to an organization than taking the opportunities and failing.”

Work hard to make sure all employee ideas are rewarded with recognition and support that inspires confidence. Employees need to be given the chance to put their ideas into play to advance the company where they feel they can.

“What makes one person overachieve will not work for another,” Alexander says. “It’s important as a leader to figure out what the right buttons are to push and what are the right incentives to make each individual succeed and overachieve. Avoid treating everyone the same and trying to push them along the same way.”

Changes often will take time, but an incentive program can reward employees for their success and can help them stick it out.

The commonly used multi-tiered incentive in the form of a bonus that balances quality, service and financial performance is workable for the manager level. At the coordinator-type level in which there is frequent customer contact, use a different approach.

“Focus, obviously, much more on what they can make a difference in, toward things they can affect,” Alexander says.

If you have a survey system in place which applies to the coordinator level, report results quarterly. Tally them so they can compete against other company divisions or regions.

“They take great pride in that they’ve earned the most and correct points in their region, and it’s a rallying point for them,” he says.

Energized employees will help reinvigorate the brand. And if you’ve been successful in getting across your message that you’re not abandoning the core of the business, your people will support the plan.

“Don’t try to be a brand that’s something different than you’ve been,” Alexander says. “Just try to be better than you’ve been.”

How to reach: Red Roof Inn, (800) 733-7663 or www.redroofinn.com

The Alexander file

Born: Cleveland

Education: George Washington University; Case Western Reserve University School of Law

What was the best business advice you were ever given?

This was at my first hospitality job. When I arrived, the CEO took me inside and said, “What I’d like you to do is before you jump in, I’d like you to watch, listen and learn before you speak.” It was great advice. It allowed me to learn the culture, understand the strength of the team and understand the vision and goals of the company before I inserted my personality and my own agenda into the company. I give that advice to everyone ? everyone wants to hit the ground running but you need to have something underneath your feet first. That was the advice that gave me that foundation. Then when I started running, I was actually able to get somewhere.

What’s the favorite part of your job?

It’s maybe not a part of my job, but fortunately I have an opportunity to visit the different inns and observe both the customers as well as the employees. The most rewarding thing is when the customers tell me that we met or exceeded their expectations and my employees tell me they loved where they work.

Alexander on doing business:

We’re doing business without a net. That’s how I would describe it. Seventy-five percent of our reservations are either made or walk in the day of that night. So we don’t know what is going to happen that day. We have a lot of data to tell us what should happen that day, but we are very focused on a world that can change on a dime for us. It means that while we look at data and we have a ton of it, we have to make sure our people are focused on the meaningful.