Drive hoteliers toward value, not deals, Wyndham’s Chip Ohlsson says

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There occasionally comes a time for a man to walk away. Be it from jobs, relationships and even sports teams, when it's time to go it's time to go. Chip Ohlsson knew it was time, and after 10 years with Wyndham Hotel Group he stepped away to grow his skill set and advance his career. But in 2015 he came back to the company that launched his career, this time stepping into a new role as EVP and chief development officer, and two years after returning he feels at home.

Chip Ohlsson

At 14 years old, Ohlsson stepped into his first hospitality job as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant. From there, he went on to work for other large corporations, such as Merrill Lynch, where he fielded calls and complaints from customers, which he said informed his mentality for his later roles within hospitality.

“At Merrill Lynch, I had to take callers who had complaints and turn them into satisfied, happy customers,” he said. “Handling phone bills and showing people the value of what we do and what is going on with their portfolio prepared me for the hotel business.”

Ohlsson eventually joined Cendant Corporation, the former parent company of Wyndham Worldwide, in 1993 as a franchise sales director. After 10 years at Wyndham he stepped away, eventually working as VP of North American development at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide before transitioning back into Wyndham in a move that may draw comparisons to Michael Jordan switching to baseball (without the poor performance in the interim). 

From Cutting Losses to Counting Gains

Ohlsson said he drew on his past experiences working with customers in order to thrive within the entrepreneurial spirit present during his early days at Wyndham. While he was learning the ropes at Wyndham, Ohlsson said his biggest takeaway from the industry in the early to late 1990s was hotel owners’ constant pursuit of deals. Now, he said, that deal-hunting mentality has shifted to a value-focused hunger, something Ohlsson said was a necessary and effective switch for hospitality.

“I used to be asked about deals exclusively—‘You can do better than that, give me a better deal!’ Since then we’ve evolved, and now people ask me what kind of value they can get,” he said. “For me, it’s a great question, because the beauty of Wyndham is that we have 20 brands, each with its own value. Show me the market, the positioning of your asset, and I’ll give you a brand that works. Other companies may have fewer costs, but today value is the No. 1 concern.”

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One thing that hasn’t changed since he started in the industry—and something he feels others may have forgotten about—is the level of uncertainty. Ohlsson said the unpredictability of the market is always the No. 1 concern within hospitality, and after an unprecedented 94 months of consistent revenue-per-available-room growth many people in the industry are starting to grow anxious about a possible sudden downturn, as unlikely as it may seem.

“Normally we would be saying that this looks like the end of a cycle, but the fundamentals all show we are still seeing growth,” he said. “We haven’t seen a breakdown there or in the overall industry this far into the cycle, and a lot of us have to decide whether we want to rely on these fundamentals or start preparing for the end of a cycle we can’t see coming.”

A Constant State of Change

With 25 years of experience under his belt, Ohlsson has a lot to look back on and feel proud of. What satisfies him most about working in the industry are the relationships he has formed with hotel owners and operators, and how many of them have grown from struggling entrepreneurs into success stories.

“Watching those who started with just one hotel grow to owning five and even 50 in some cases, that is what drives me personally and professionally,” Ohlsson said. “What puts a smile on my face is seeing some people who started as managers, front-desk agents or interns, and watching them grow in the industry and succeed.”

Ohlsson also relishes the level of change he has seen take place in the industry over the years. From driving around combing through directories in search of nearby hotels to glancing at his mobile phone to casually book a stay, the rate of change has kept him on his toes.

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“Where will we be in five or 10 years I can’t say, but it will be far different from where we are today and that’s probably my favorite thing about this business,” Ohlsson said. “Guests are always looking for what’s next, and we have to adapt.”

Through his on-again off-again relationship with Wyndham, Ohlsson said he knows he is in the right place because he feels energized by what is happening around him. He points to Wyndham’s bursting pipeline (“We’re opening two hotels a day, every day, seven days a week,” he said), its acquisition of AmericInn and Three Rivers Hospitality and its second-ever brand launch after Wingate with the Trademark Hotel Collection (all of Wyndham's other brands were acquisitions), and can’t help but be excited.

“I talk to my friends running hospitality organizations, and there isn’t a better place to be,” Ohlsson said. “Everyone’s sole job here is to help other people, and when your job is to make people around you happy it doesn’t get any better than that.”