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How to create value for the independent hotel owner

Can local hotels compete with major global brands? Lindsey Ueberroth weighs in

Lindsey Ueberroth. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Lindsey Ueberroth. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Lindsey Ueberroth, 42, has lost count of the number of times she has visited India. “It is a country where you can come back time and again and every single experience will be different. I’ve said this one too many times but it does leave an imprint on your heart and soul," says the chief executive officer (CEO) of Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

Ueberroth was in India recently to kick off the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations in the Asia-Pacific region. The company, which started in 1968, was taken over by her father, John, in 2004.

Preferred Hotels & Resorts doesn’t own or operate hotels, it provides portfolio services and currently represents more than 650 hotels across 85 countries. Last year, it added 103 properties globally, seven of them in India. The company is looking to add 10 more hotels in India in the next two years.

As a travel expert who has been to more than 100 countries on business or vacation, Ueberroth counts India, along with South Africa and Bhutan, among her favourite destinations.

She spoke to Lounge about the shifting landscape of the hospitality business, gender bias, and her own travels. Edited excerpts:

Do you remember the first time you travelled?

I remember what my parents told me about the first time I travelled. My grandparents took me to Tahiti and I stepped on coral and got stung by a lot of mosquitoes. So, I was a pretty miserable kid.

What has changed (in the industry and the company) over the years?

Overall growth in terms of the number of hotels has been significant. Since my family took over in 2004, we have expanded to 30 new countries and are now present in 85 countries. There has also been an evolution: We went from being a house of brands to a branding house. Till 2015, we had four brands: Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Summit Hotels & Resorts, Sterling Hotels and Preferred Boutique. Every hotel company was launching new brands. It was very cluttered and confusing for customers.

So we decided to retire four brands and made Preferred Hotels & Resorts the master brand, really leveraging that heritage and then creating five collections underneath it. So, a lot has changed. People talk about five-year plans and I say it is almost impossible. I think you have to work on a 12- to 18-month plan to stay ahead of the curve. Everything is changing so quickly.

How does your business model work? Where do you see the brand in 10 years?

I think on the industry side, there’s a clear divide: independent properties and branded ones. We are in the business of creating value for the independent operator. Take, for example, The Leela group of hotels, an accomplished brand, or The Imperial, a singular independent hotel, who are now looking to compete with big international brands like The Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons.

What do they need to compete with global brands? Worldwide infrastructure, and that’s where we come in. There are five principal tenets to how we generate business value for our partner hotels: global sales, electronic distribution and technology solutions, marketing, quality assurance, and vendor inventory.

I think there are easy benchmarks— you can create revenue and profit targets—but really it’s more about how we are going to position ourselves as a very strong consumer-facing brand.

We also want to expand our portfolio of services. I think 95% of our hotels are true stand-alone independent hotels with one owner, and they have a different set of needs. So, we think we could expand into other services that they’re probably going to pay other people to do.

How is the pressure different when you’re in a family business?

I feel that the pressure is different from a business standpoint, but there still is the pressure of performing and profitability. I think it’s just more personal in a lot of ways. If you’re a CEO, it’s all about shareholder value, but when it’s your family name, it’s about your legacy. The last thing you want is to disappoint or, you know, go backwards in terms of something that your family has built, especially parents.

Is gender bias a real thing? Is it only in the developing economies or the world over?

I think it’s all over the world. And in varying stages. I can’t wait for the day when I don’t get asked any more the question that I have been asked many times: “What’s it like to be a female CEO?" It’s the exact same as a male CEO, I can just wear skirts and dresses. Would people ask men how it feels to be a male CEO?

I think in some ways us women have to get past in our heads this belief of the glass ceiling. But there’s been a change even though women are very under-represented in leadership roles.

How has your idea of travel changed over the years?

It has become very much experience-driven. I don’t want to go to the tourist spots any more. I’d rather go to a cool local restaurant or meet local communities. That’s more meaningful to me. So my intellectual curiosity about a destination has changed.

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