Recession teaches Hilton Garden Inn general manager about support

When Ryan Caldwell graduated with his degree in business from St. John’s University in Minnesota, he wasn’t sure what kind of business he would go into. “I had set up a job being a loan officer, and I did that for the first few months because I thought sales was what I wanted to do, and the housing market was hot,” he recalled of those prerecession days of 2004. “But after a few months of making cold calls, I thought, ‘This is not the type of sales that I had in mind.’”

Keeping his interest in sales intact, Caldwell took a position at a Ramada Inn in downtown Minneapolis, focusing on the social, military, educational, religious and fraternal markets. The hotel was run by the local Nath Companies, which managed a chain of restaurants in the area. From hotels, Caldwell moved into restaurant management. “The idea was that they were going to expand on this restaurant concept and go throughout the Midwest,” he recalled. But then the recession struck, and the expansion never happened. 

Ryan Caldwell
Ryan Caldwell

While his restaurant career was short-lived, Caldwell had developed a taste for hotels, and applied for the assistant GM position at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Minneapolis, managed by Chicago-based First Hospitality Group. Since late 2008, Caldwell has remained with both the management company and the brand ever since. He left the Minneapolis property after almost four years to take over the general manager role at the Hilton Garden Inn St. Paul/Oakdale, and returned to the property in late 2016 as its GM. 

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“This is my ninth year with First Hospitality Group and my fifth year as a GM,” Caldwell said. “When I got the job as an assistant GM, the company had all the right support. They have given me all of the right tools that I've needed to succeed. I've never felt like I've been on my own. I think sometimes, as a GM, the buck does stop with you. But I have a team at the corporate office that supports me, whether it be in revenue management or maybe [human resources] issues. I've got the support that's needed to run a successful property.”

Having worked in hotels and restaurants before, Caldwell had seen how other companies ran their businesses, and was convinced that First Hospitality had its “stuff” together, as he puts it. While other companies cut salaries and jobs in order to save money during the Great Recession, First Hospitality avoided that pitfall, Caldwell said. In fact, First Hospitality maintained its incentive programs for top-performing GMs, and used positive reinforcement to survive the recession. “I realized that they had really invested in their people, and that was somebody that I knew at that point I wanted to work for.” 

Caldwell has also been happy to stay with the Hilton Garden Inn brand, especially as technology becomes more standardized and ubiquitous. “We just rolled out our digital check-in experience, and that has been a game-changer. You can do everything from make a reservation to check in on your phone. As of a couple of months ago, you can bypass the front desk and walk up and open your room with your cell phone. So it's come a long ways in 10 years. It caters to a wide variety of guests—both business and leisure—and being in the downtown market, there's always stuff going on, so it keeps us on our feet.” 

Top Advice

Part of becoming a great GM is gaining experience. Being able to navigate through rough experiences has made my job a lot easier to get to today. 

Challenge: As a general manager, you want everything to be perfect. You know the ways you want something to be done. And then you realize that you can't do everything.
Success: You need the support of your department heads. It's a team thing. I need all 85 of these employees. You have to have enough trust and faith in a person to say, ‘I trust that you can do this,’ and give them enough guidelines so that they succeed.  

Three Secrets to Success

Keep employees happy: I like to create an environment where people want to come to work and to have fun. If you have happy employees, you'll have happy guests, and then we're making money and people are coming back, and then the rest will sort of fall into place. Taking care of my staff is probably first and foremost.

Find a balance between work and life outside of the hotel: People need to get their sleep. They need to get out of here and deal with their family. 

Listen to your guests: Without our guests, we have nothing to work for.  Feedback from guests, no matter how poorly it’s wrapped, is a gift that we can use to get better and stay ahead of the competition.