Hostmark Hospitality’s CEO ruminates on technology and the art of service

The Higgins Hotel in New Orleans. Photo credit: Hostmark Hospitality.

As a child, Jerome “Jerry” Cataldo never expected to enter the hospitality industry, but it gradually happened anyway. Sure, his father, C.A. (known as Bud), founded one of the management companies that would eventually merge to form Hostmark Hospitality Group, and growing up Cataldo took on a number of part-time jobs in hotels, but early on he didn’t realize he was actually growing up in a hospitality training program. Now, as president and CEO of Hostmark, it all seems so inevitable in hindsight.

“My father never asked me to enter this business, but I always worked jobs in the industry,” Cataldo said. “I’m glad I experienced those scenarios back then. They helped me, and still help me today.”

It wasn’t until Cataldo was in grad school acquiring and MBA in finance (after earning a bachelor's degree in business and finance) that he switched his focus to hotels full time. “I realized I was enjoying what I was doing, and while I was getting my MBA I decided to pivot and remain in the hospitality industry.”

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The hospitality success story is such a common motif within the industry for a reason: Bud worked his way up from bartender to owner of a Holiday Inn, then went on to form his own management company. Jerry took a similar path, working various positions during his early career to give him insight into how the business operates at the ground level, and later behind the scenes.

“When you’re creating policies and trying to impact an organization, having those experiences to draw on and looking at it from the property level on up is a good way to help guide a business,” Cataldo said. “Those experiences are invaluable for me to look at and consider how employees will be impacted.”

Jerry Cataldo. Photo credit: Hostmark Hospitality

In 1983, Cataldo began to educate himself in the use of early property-management systems at Hostmark, which paid off when the company embarked on a technology expansion later that year. Hostmark was beginning to install PMSes and point-of-sale systems in the properties it managed, and Cataldo’s interest there evolved into a fascination with the analytical side of hospitality, something that still informs his decision making as CEO.

The caveat, Cataldo said, is that he is keenly aware of the industry’s growing over-reliance on technology.

“We’re in an interesting time right now, and we have so much information about our customers and the markets we operate in, all at a depth we never knew before,” Cataldo said. “The organizations that harness that data and do something with it are going to succeed in the future. The challenge that brings is that, at the end of the day, we can’t lose focus on what the business is at its core, which is hospitality first and foremost.”

Cataldo talks frequently about the “art of service,” so it’s clear he means business. One of the core components to succeeding in hospitality, he said, is to foster new talent through effective hiring. Specifically, Cataldo said Hostmark isn’t looking for employees, it’s looking for team members who want to grow their careers within hospitality.

“How we work with guests and how we work with employees, it’s the same. My favorite part of the job is making a difference and talking with our teams about how to impact people,” Cataldo said. “Even if we are operating a select-service hotel somewhere, you can make a massive impact on someone’s life at a property like that.”

The Perry Hotel in Key West, Fla. Photo credit: Hostmark Hospitality

It’s this attitude that helped inspire Hostmark to form the Promise Program, a community-outreach initiative focused on energy-, paper- and water-conservation programs as well as linen reuse, local sourcing of food and more. Cataldo said the Promise Program is more of a duty, and it’s something that makes sense for hospitality operators to take part in.

“I think people want to work and stay in a place that is socially responsible,” Cataldo said. “All these things are very important, and we want to execute them in a way that is responsible and not just something that provides lip service.”

Cataldo said he often looks around the industry and considers the level of technology that he worked with at the onset of his career. Today, he said technology has helped rapidly speed up the pace of business, but he is hoping technology that will be implemented in the near future, such as artificial intelligence, will be used to create a better experience for customers.

“Even looking back to five years ago, how we found our customers and how they interacted with us has completely changed compared to today,” Cataldo said. “It’s hard to envision what is coming, but we have to adapt and have our eyes open to the changes happening around us, and not grasp them so tightly that we forget the core parts of our business.”

The Hampton Inn/Homewood Suites Chicago Downtown West Loop. Photo credit: Hostmark Hospitality

One thing Cataldo is looking forward to in the near future is the opportunity to work with new and interesting hotels. Last year, Hostmark opened the 100-room Perry Hotel in Key West, Fla., and signed on to manage a new Curio opening attached to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Hostmark also is pushing into university and college campus locations, and has acquired properties in College Station, Texas, and Tallahassee, Fla.

“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, the longevity and integrity of our company and the team we have here at Hostmark,” Cataldo said. “We’re on our 53rd year, and the third generation of the Cataldo family is involved.”