Business is all about forming the right partnerships—and Rajiv Trivedi, EVP of franchise and CDO at La Quinta Holdings, has helped take the La Quinta hotel chain international by not only partnering with the right franchisees, but rejecting the wrong partners.
A Life in the Business
Trivedi grew up in the industry: His family owned several hotels in the Chicago tri-state area. When he graduated from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, India, with a master of science degree in math and business, he joined the family business and began running a Howard Johnson hotel near Chicago O’Hare International Airport. “I had an opportunity to run hotels in the Illinois Indiana, and Wisconsin area,” he recalled.
At the same time, Henry Silverman, Stephen Holmes and Eric Pfeffer were forming Hospitality Franchise Systems in New Jersey. “Eric Pfeffer came to the area to meet with the owners of Howard Johnson in Ramallo and they happened to have a meeting at my place, and they invited me to go visit with them in New Jersey,” Trivedi said.
From that meeting, Trivedi was invited to join the HFS team. “I was very intrigued to go on a corporate side because there was not a single Asian American at that time in hospitality on the corporate side,” he said. “I was the first Asian-American that was hired by any company in the industry.”
As HFS acquired other companies, it evolved into service provider Cendant, and Trivedi’s role within the company also evolved. “I started in training and then I was in operations and then I went into development,” he said. He was assistant to the chairman of the lodging division when Pfeffer took over that role.
“Then, finally, I was invited to come to Dallas, and I met with Butch Cash and Allen Tallis," Trivedi said. Butch Cash had just joined La Quinta, which had only a single franchised hotel at the time in McAllen, Texas. “La Quinta had never franchised before. Their intent was to start a franchise program.” In January 2001, he accepted the job and began developing La Quinta’s franchising program. The company now has properties in 48 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, Honduras and Colombia.
In those early years, Trivedi said, one of the biggest challenges was to convince the existing La Quinta team that they would be able to keep their corporate culture while partnering with franchisees. “Their biggest concern was that different people will start owning different hotels in different markets and the loyalty that we have and the relationship we have with our guests will diminish,” he said. “Once they understood how we were planning to raise the profile of the brand, it allowed us to take it to the next step.”
At that time, La Quinta had several dozen company-owned properties across the South, but was not yet a nationwide brand. “In the early stages of franchising, we wanted to make sure that we focused on franchising wherever our dominance is,” Trivedi said. “We focused on states contiguous to Texas.” Once the company had a presence in those states, it was able to spread to more, and a deal with Hospitality Associates took La Quinta to the Pacific Northwest. “That gave us an instant footprint in those markets,” he said.
But bringing a hotel into a new state or new region always presents challenges, and Trivedi was determined to make sure that the first hotels in any market would represent the brand well and attract more partners. For example, the owner of a new-build hotel in Jackson, Miss., wanted to franchise with La Quinta, but Trivedi saw room for improvement in the 6-month-old structure. “They were stunned!” Trivedi recalled. “They were like, ‘My property is 6 months old and now you're telling me to make these changes. Are you out of your mind?’” Although the owner initially resisted, Trivedi and his team stood firm until the improvements were implemented. “That property is still in our system,” Trivedi said. “The ownership pulled me aside and said, ‘Raj, what you did to me, make sure you do it to every single property that comes in in the future.’”
In forging franchise relationships, Trivedi has kept honesty—sometimes brutal honesty—as a priority. “I have told franchisees that I don't think La Quinta will fit [in their location],” he said, and estimated that the company has rejected more potential franchise deals than it has signed.
As La Quinta’s base has grown to more than 566 franchised hotels (with more than 885 total in its portfolio), Trivedi has kept one rule in mind. “You want to try and treat your franchise partners the way you're treating your guests,” he said. “We are employees of our franchisees. They are my employers. If they are successful, I will have a job. If we keep that mentality in mind, we have no other option of making sure that each property that we open at each street corner is highly successful.”
To that end, Trivedi sees supporting the franchise partners as his top priority, even if it means being harsh in the short-term. “If I have hurt someone's feelings temporarily, it is OK with me because in the long run, if the results are correct, that individual will be open enough to understand this was done with the intent of doing the right thing for the company,” he said. “I'm not always right. I'm sure I have made more mistakes in my life than what I've done right—but you learn from those things.”