"Firing Squad" judges take aim at student hotel brands

Mukesh Mowji, founder and CEO of Pracrea, poses a question to one of the hospitality school teams. He is flanked by Jerry Catald
Mukesh Mowji, founder and CEO of Pracrea, poses a question to one of the hospitality school teams. He is flanked by Jerry Cataldo, CEO of Hostmark Hospitality Group, left, and Bruce Haase, CEO of Value Place Franchise Services.

Mukesh Mowji, founder and CEO of Pracrea, poses a question to one of the hospitality school teams. He is flanked by Jerry Cataldo, CEO of Hostmark Hospitality Group, left, and Bruce Haase, CEO of Value Place Franchise Services.

Chicago – Ready...Aim…Fire! Such was the salvo provoked by three hospitality college teams, each vying for brand supremacy during November’s North America Hotel Investment Conference at the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile.

“Where great ideas are executed,” was the tagline for The Firing Squad, NATHIC’s second-annual hospitality school competition, wherein students from three hospitality schools—New York University, DePaul and Michigan State—presented new brand concepts to a panel of judges from major hotel and hotel-related companies.

The hospitality school teams pitched Roger Bloss, founder and CEO, Vantage Hospitality Group; Jerry Cataldo, CEO and president, Hostmark Hospitality Group; Bruce Haase, CEO, Value Place Franchise Services; David Kong, president and CEO, Best Western International; and Mukesh Mowji, founder and CEO, Pracrea.

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Each team was given guidelines that included an F&B concept, initial development plan/site, new build and/or conversion ideas, marketing concepts, competitive set, demand generators and more. Following each presentation, which consisted of a video and presentation, teams were subjected to questioning by the judges, who graded each presentation based on delivery, video presentation and overall brand concept.

The Winner

In a repeat performance, this year’s victor was Michigan State University, which took home top prize last year, as well. The team proposed a budget boutique hotel brand called Nomad, whose hallmark was cost-effective, modular design—something the cost-conscious hotel CEOs lapped up. The team, consisting of Megan Maas, Chase Reinis, Jake Beachum, Joaquin de la Cerda and Megan Stephanic, was victorious for a rather simple reason: its construction costs were significantly less than the other teams.

Michigan State University took home top prize for the second year in a row, with fierce competition from New York University and DePaul University.

Michigan State University took home top prize for the second year in a row, with fierce competition from New York University and DePaul University. 

MSU’s real goal was to create a product for a new traveler: those who want to pay a low price, but still crave style.

“We are redefining the economy space,” the team declared. “We are proposing a lifestyle hotel for the budget-savvy adventurer, with thoughtfully styled guestrooms and a self-service mentality—a new economy brand that better meets their image.”

The team’s modular construction—one Firing Squad judge was so impressed by the 196-square-foot guestroom renderings that, anecdotally, he was ready to buy the brand on the spot—included an automated wine and beer bar, mobile check-in and free high-speed Internet.

At the end of the day, all the teams were winners. Here they are posing with the Firing Squad judges in a show of camaraderie.

At the end of the day, all the teams were winners. Here they are posing with the Firing Squad judges in a show of camaraderie.

Another audience member called it, “One of the most out of the box, yet practical, room designs anyone in attendance has ever seen.”

The brand, targeting experience-driven, tech-savvy travelers who desire authenticity, is founded on four core beliefs that all play off the notion of less, but better: image, value, efficiency and well-being.

Stiff Competition

But just because MSU won, it doesn’t mean that their idea was the best; after all, contests are subjective. DePaul and NYU were equal to the task and delivered brands as deserving as MSU’s.

DePaul created the brand Altru Hotels, which was as much about giving back as it was about generating revenue. “It’s about contributing to something real: green initiatives, local hiring, positive impacts,” the team said.

The team—consisting of Karli Bahner, Dana Bartolon, Allyson Murphy, Jessica Linder and Kyle Harris—called themselves a “mission-driven hotel—driven by corporate social responsibility.” As such, the Altru team devised a way whereby a portion of each guest’s stay went to Habitat for Humanity.

The upper-upscale new-build brand designated Denver for its flagship property, with four different room types.

Ultimately, the hotel may have been done in by its high cost per key of $260,000. However, the judges were all in accord that the name of the brand was truly inspiring.

NYU went with a brand that seeks to take on the local flavor and culture of each city it comes to—and it said it would start in Omaha, Neb. MW Hotels—“We are anything but ordinary”—is socially designed for millennials, who are tech-savvy. “The brand is about local and social immersion for the guest,” the team of Irene Kulbida, Jen-Yun Huang, Wenji Sun and Mary Sullivan said.

The plan for MW was to expand in secondary markets at first—it named Element and Hyatt Place as competitors—where there are demand generators such as professional sports teams and rising tech hubs (Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, were mentioned). F&B would be local and, for the first hotel, there would be a slight sports theme with the Timeout restaurant and bar and Huddle rooftop bar.

The brand would be strong technologically. “Our app is the gateway,” the team declared. This included mobile check-in, keyless entry, a virtual concierge and social media rewards.

Expert Advice

While the “Firing Squad” is a contest, ultimately it’s about learning and camaraderie. Before the teams left the stage, the judges had some sage advice for them in regard to rising through the ranks of hospitality.

Roger Bloss, Vantage: “Do it yourself. Get in there and clean the rooms. You can’t ask someone to do something you haven’t done yourself. And have no fear: Stand your ground if you believe in it.”

David Kong, Best Western: “Think about how you differentiate yourself, whether it’s you, yourself or your company. You always must think about that. When you’re starting off, think about building a solid foundation. When you have that, you can leverage that. I’ve seen lots of people who moved up quickly in their career, then when put to the test, they failed. Build a solid foundation.”

Jerry Cataldo, Hostmark: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. There’s no substitute for hard work. Roll up your sleeves and do it yourself and understand every component of your business inside and out. Keep in mind that we’re in the service business. Don’t lose touch points with your customers.”

Mukesh Mowji, Pracrea: “Out-of-the-box thinking. Don’t forget the details. You have to scrub the numbers hard, because you don’t want to fail there.”

Bruce Haase, Value Place: “I’m very optimistic about the industry. Start your careers—don’t think about the next promotion. Think about how you can solve your bosses’ problems. Be solutions-oriented and look for opportunities where people aren’t solving problems.” 

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