Sean Worker, the president and CEO of BridgeStreet Global Hospitality, which operates in the emergent serviced-apartment space, is a talker. Which, to American ears, is a treat: the dulcet Irish brogue is still steady, even though Worker, who was born and raised in Galway, Ireland, has lived in the U.S. for the better part of his life. “My friends now call my accent Mid-Atlantic,” Worker, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, jokingly said.
But he does a lot of talking and it’s something the some 550 employees at BridgeStreet better get used to. That’s because Worker has set out on a bold mission to speak to each and every one of the company’s “teammates”—not employees, he is quick to point out—through what he called “speed chatting.” Each week, he makes about 20 calls and asks teammates the same three questions: What do you like about the company? What can we improve on? What else would you like to talk about? “It will take me about six months,” he said, adding that early calls had already resulted in some operational improvements. “But I’ll do it.”
Being different but the same is a polarity that aptly describes the type of company BridgeStreet is and how Worker is molding it. Though the serviced-apartment business conjures something dissimilar to the offerings from a Hilton or Marriott, Worker, who before joining BridgeStreet worked for the likes of Wyndham Hotel Group and Interstate Hotels & Resorts, runs his company comparable to a traditional hotel company. “We have converted and evolved into being a distribution company like a traditional brand,” Worker said. “We are conforming to a hospitality platform that says, ‘Make it easy for the customer to book.’”
To be sure, the customer is at the center of everything BridgeStreet does. In that way, BridgeStreet, which currently operates around 50,000 apartments globally, can be nimble: Wherever the customer demand is, that’s where BridgeStreet goes. So, if demand calls for 30 apartments in a location BridgeStreet isn’t currently represented, it goes there and finds inventory. “It’s all about the customer,” Worker said. “We spend time worrying about that and conform to the customer as opposed to vice versa.”
BridgeStreet’s success is in no small part driven by data. The company has built up a database that gives it apartment-level economics across its portfolio. “We know down to the single unit its performance and match that against our customers,” Worker said. “We search for patterns. Is there increase demand for Paris? If yes, we’ll go long there.”
It’s that data and know-how that allows BridgeStreet to be ahead of its customers’ needs. Worker, to his credit, craves intelligence and is meticulous in his attention to trends. While the ersatz cinephile might think of Los Angeles, New York, maybe Vancouver as a stand-in for New York, are where people go to make movies these days, hence the centers of the entertainment universe, Worker knows that much of the movie-making business has shifted to eastern Europe and outside London, places like Pinewood Studios, about 17 miles east of London.
Belief in the Business
Well before the sharing economy was a thing, serviced-apartment living was a fringe notion, but one that Worker always saw potential in. He was interested as far back as his days with Wyndham, where, at his height, he was leading the hotel group’s operational efforts outside the U.S., punching out Super 8 in China and bringing the Wyndham Grand Collection to life in Europe.
In serviced apartments, Worker saw a business that “had legs,” as he put it. At one point, Interstate owned BridgeStreet, but never capitalized on it: “It never flourished in a management company environment,” Worker said. At the time the business was nascent, and in a niche sector. Worker has helped bring it into the mainstream. “It was an alternative form of accommodation that had a purpose, but no one was focused on it,” he said. Serviced apartments, for long, have been thought of solely as places catering to relocations and longer-than-ordinary stays. Still, Worker always saw potential. “With a hotel, once it’s a hotel, that’s it, it’s a hotel. With serviced apartments, you may have a fixed location, but you can move projects as the customer shifts. You can expand and contract the business. It had a valve that wasn’t in other models.
“What was clear was that it had all the elements you aggregate and see in your career: price confusion, development confusion, global scale and reach that wasn’t being realized, distribution confusion—all of that was underserved. We wanted to make it relevant to a broader audience.”
Worker’s rise in the ranks of hospitality came the traditional way. After bolting from Galway in the early 1990s, Worker took a position working at a Marriott in Houston, where he got a good taste of food-and-beverage and conference experience. From there, he took a catering position with what was Harvey Hotels & Resorts, which later morphed into Bristol Hotels & Resorts, before it was acquired by FelCor Lodging Trust, in 1998. It was there where Worker said he found his footing. “It felt like a startup at the time,” he said. “It’s where I learned that metrics work; what a good use of real estate is and a bad use; and how to maximize an asset.”
From there, Worker moved to Washington, D.C, to work in sales and operations at Interstate, which at the time was MeriStar Hotels & Resorts (it merged with Interstate in 2002). “In that environment, I learned how to do deals and how to bring value to owners and extract value from brands,” he said. Then on to Wyndham, where at his height he was managing director and EVP of operations outside the U.S., before settling in with BridgeStreet.
Worker is a traditional hotelier by development, but unconventional by instinct. Like the implementation of speed chatting, Worker is very much of the Peter Drucker school of organizational management. He references Charles Handy’s “doughnut principle” and “shamrock organization”—theories that suggest a move toward having a core of professional workers, supported by freelance experts and a more general workforce employed when needed.
It’s precisely how BridgeStreet is set up. Worker refers to FOBS, or Friends of BridgeStreet: those who support the business from afar in areas such as technology. “We are agile by outsourcing them; they unlock value and allow us to get to market faster,” he said.
BridgeStreet’s MO is to do three to five things very well. “We have three to four swim lanes running at one time into a four-year strategic plan,” Worker said. It’s 2x4x4: “Double our size via four strategies over four years,” Worker said.
Intuition Pays Off
Worker has successfully taken this once fringe business into the mainstream. Today, BridgeStreet Global Hospitality encompasses six brands—one of which is the Mode Aparthotel brand: a more traditional hotel product, which illustrates BridgeStreet’s shape-shifting ways, always having an ear to what its customers are after. Mode will soon open in Paris and Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, with more to come. Real estate company JNB Capital Group recently signed on to develop three to five Mode Aparthotels in California over the next six years. Additionally, JNB, through an affiliate, will develop 10 to 15 Modes in key Indian cities.
Worker calls Mode, which is a conversion product, “the crack in the wall between a select-service hotel and a serviced apartment.”
To that end, BridgeStreet, which leases buildings then manages, is transforming more into a traditional, multibranded hotel company, which was Worker’s intent all along. Beyond Mode, BridgeStreet’s other brands are: Exclusive (what Worker calls 6-star, and focused on Asia); Residences (5-star); Living (4-star and a feeder from the 4-star Mode brand); Places (3-star); and Stüdyo (2-star). Each brand name has the appendage “By BridgeStreet” for reinforcement, similar to how traditional hotel companies brand their products.
“We have made no attempt to say we are different; we are part of the ecosystem of accommodations,” Worker said.
It takes convincing: BridgeStreet still skews toward long-term stays. The bulk is corporate with average stays in Europe at 20-plus days and, in the U.S., it’s higher, at 60-plus days.
Slowly, however, the tide is turning toward leisure. “Three years ago it would be 1-percent leisure. Every year that is changing—doubling,” Worker said. “It’s fascinating to watch this merging and acceptance by consumers.”
A recent BridgeStreet survey of global travelers confirmed it. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said they preferred alternative accommodations, like serviced apartments; 40 percent said staying in a memorable comfortable accommodation beats out budget and convenience; and 59 percent said location in the heart of the city is key, with proximity to activities. That last note is key: BridgeStreet is not a product that wants to keep a guest hostage. It wants them to explore their surroundings and goes to great lengths to guide them toward the best restaurant, pub or cultural landmark in the area.
“We want them to feel part of the community,” Worker said. “So if a guest wants to go to the Louvre, in Paris, we want to be able to tell them the best time to go.”
BridgeStreet’s value proposition sounds similar to one of the sharing economy’s biggest winners: Airbnb. The two are so alike that, since last year, they have had a collaboration that exposes travelers to both programs. “Through our partnership, we will strategically position our services to Airbnb’s untapped corporate travel audience,” Worker said at the time of the announcement.
To be clear, Worker still believes that Airbnb and BridgeStreet are not identical. Far from it. “Airbnb’s supply is driven by individuals who decide when to load the inventory. It’s akin to a marketplace or stock exchange,” he said.
The success of each company reflects a shift in the way travelers want to travel. Worker saw it years ago, and is now reaping the benefits. He is no doubt an immigrant success story: the determined Irish lad who came to America and cut a path where there was impediment. Still, he remains self-effacing, even in the face of accomplishment. “At the end of the day, I’m a humble trader,” Worker said. With a little luck of the Irish.