By Stephanie Trotter
“If you build it, they will come.” So the saying goes, but that’s not always the case in the hotel industry. Investors may excel at building attractive lodging, but managing a multiservice facility in a profitable and flawless manner, one that keeps guests coming back, is another skill set altogether. “My job is to ensure top-line revenue with bottom-line profitability,” explains Hospitality America COO David Berger. “We are responsible for A-Z in the building. We get a beautiful asset that has no life in it and we take it over. The DNA, the fabric of the hotel, is what we’re responsible for.”
Managing a home away from home
Hospitality America is one of an estimated 127 third-party hotel management companies operating in the U.S. With offices in Nashville, Tennessee; Miami; and Greenville, the company employs 708 workers, serving 16 branded and boutique hotels, in a footprint that reaches as far west as Kansas City, Missouri and even includes a cave hotel in Santorini, Greece. The office at Main and Broad runs the bulk of operations, employing 550 and serving 11 properties and two Starbucks.
“There are countless decisions each day,” reveals locally based Berger. “It can be lowering your exposure on HR, making sure insurance is correct, guest service scores, market competition, your culture with your employees. My mission statement is to protect and increase the value of the asset, every day.”
Assets include all facilities built by Windsor Aughtry, from the Hampton Inn & Suites on the Reedy River to the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Founding principal Bo Aughtry and Hospitality America founder Chris Cargen go back decades. Every time Aughtry built a hotel, he granted Cargen the management contract. Marriotts, Hiltons, no matter the brand, the partnership thrived.
“When I started in the hotel business in the late ’80s … I knew nothing,” Aughtry candidly shares. “Chris Cargen and Hospitality America provided that crucial operating knowledge to me when I had none.”
In 1999, the two entwined their business relationship even tighter. Aughtry swapped some hotels for partial ownership in Hospitality America. Today, Aughtry and Cargen own equal shares in the company. Of their decades together, the developer sums it up, saying, “Without Chris and the great company he’s built, I would not have been able to even imagine developing and furnishing a hotel from the ground up, and then operating it.”
This past summer, the power duo promoted Berger from vice president of operations to chief operating officer, overseeing the Windsor Hotel Group’s portfolio, which generated $63,258,492 in top-line revenue in 2018. The collection is valued at half a billion dollars in assets and includes the Hampton Inn on Woodruff Road owned by Vivian Wong.
Last year, Hotel Business Magazine ranked Hospitality America No. 70 on its list of management companies, based upon revenue.
“I would say we’re still relatively small, and that’s by design,” Berger says. “As operators, we want to grow smart. We want to take assignments that we can be successful with. We don’t want quantity. We want quality and managing quality assets.”
Blueprints to pillow mints
Over the years, Hospitality America has molded those assets from the ground up in development, getting involved as early as city, site, and brand selection. Right now, executives are working on several “prominent projects” with Windsor Aughtry, which typically builds multiple hotels in each successful market. “Some of it is more art than science,” Berger says. “Some of it is in the gut. But flag selection is very strategic. It’s based on future competition, market segmentation. We really get into the detail of who the customer is, who they’re targeting. For instance, when we opened Embassy Suites, it was the only suites hotel in downtown Greenville, and it had a complimentary, robust breakfast. That made it a differentiator against the competition.”
After decades of guiding and growing Hilton and Marriott flags, the brands tend to give Windsor Aughtry and Hospitality America flexibility others may not receive. “We have certain latitudes because they trust us,” Berger explains. “With brands, you sometimes have to paint by numbers, but we have the ability to go outside that box because of our reputation.”
Thinking outside the box during development led to one of Greenville’s trendiest destinations: Up on the Roof at Embassy Suites at RiverPlace. Berger describes the vision, stating, “That was something from our standpoint we needed, a rooftop venue. It’s a love letter. You can bring anybody up there and they will fall in love with Greenville.” While the vision for Up was clear, early in his career, Berger only knew he wanted to move up, from his humble beginnings.
The night shift & tiki bars
The 43-year-old COO watches construction cranes swoop across Greenville’s skyline from his fifth-floor office. It’s a far cry from the Brooklyn projects where he first lived as a young boy, and the bawdy beaches where he got his start in the business. “I was 22 right out of college, and the night manager at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale,” he recalls with a chuckle. “On Sundays, my job was to emcee the bikini contest. We would make $20,000 in revenue in one day at this tiki bar broadcasting football games and hosting bikini contests. It blows my mind.”
More mind-blowing is that less than two decades later, he’s hosting U.S. presidents. Both Obama and Trump have used Hospitality America-managed properties in South Carolina while traveling the campaign trail. Berger hopes his story resonates and inspires fellow employees. “We care about our associates,” he shares. “I want them to know they can achieve anything they set their mind to. You have to have pride, be tenacious, and you have to want it, but it’s there, and a company like Hospitality America can provide that.”
As the company grows and stretches across the Mississippi, Berger predicts increased opportunities for many here in Greenville. “I grew up with very little, and today, I have the responsibility of more than 700 men and women. I take that very, very seriously. In the next three years, we will be over 20 assets, including a Home2 Suites near Asheville. We pride ourselves on growth from within.” Placing the welcome mat for employees and customers alike.