How education turned Real Hospitality's Ben Seidel into a leader

(Ben Seidel)

Ben Seidel's entry into hospitality began while studying at West Chester University, in Chester, Pa., working an hourly job at a front desk of the West Chester Inn, waiting tables, setting up banquet rooms—“and everything in between,” the now president and CEO of Real Hospitality Group, an Ocean City, Md.-based hotel management company, said.

The independent college hotel gave him the chance to grow, and by the time he graduated, he was fulfilling ever-more-demanding roles. “I would be a relief night manager, and then weekends fill in with banquet bartending, banquet room setup, up into greeting clients and booking their social events and weddings,” Seidel said.

He graduated from West Chester University with a degree in education and set out to become a teacher—while commuting two hours each way every weekend to continue working at the hotel. One weekend, the hotel general manager and the owner approached Seidel about giving up teaching to work full time as the hotel’s director of sales. “At first I said no,” he said, “and then they offered me a salary that just shy of tripled what I was making as a school teacher in the public school system.” 

And so the educational world lost a teacher, and Seidel worked as a sales manager for two years. “I was promoted to food-and-beverage director for a three-year period of time, graduated to general manager for two more years before interviewing with an icon in the industry who wouldn’t give me the job I was looking for as a multiunit operator,” he said. 

That gentleman was Morris Lasky, founder and CEO of Lodging Unlimited, who passed away just over a year ago. “It was my third interview with the company, my first interview with him—which I thought was only a formality—but Morris told me why he wasn’t going to hire me. He told me that I needed franchise experience. I needed third-party management experience, and I needed to work for a more sophisticated management company.” 

With this career advice in mind, Seidel reached out to the Philadelphia Hotel Association. “Within two weeks, a group came to town that was taking back a foreclosed-upon hotel and needed a general manager,” he said. “I didn’t really know how risky that job was. I didn’t know really what a foreclosure was at that time.” The job was with the Sheraton Northeast Philadelphia, working with a third-party management company for an institutional lender. “It matched everything that Mr. Lasky told me I needed to have,” he said, “so I accepted the job, took a pay cut, and I joined Waterford Hotel Group as a general manager.” The property was Waterford’s first third-party operating agreement, and Seidel was marching into new territory.

Aloft FiDi
The Aloft Hotel in New York City's Financial District, part of Real Hospitality's portfolio.

Tough Education

While he already had significant experience in the hotel industry by the time he rose to general manager, Seidel learned a major life lesson at that Sheraton. “It’s a story I’m not proud of, but it did shape my career,” he said. Because the hotel had gone into foreclosure before his arrival, he assumed that the existing staff had caused the problems. As such, he refused to trust them with any major responsibilities. “I worked probably 18 hours a day,” he said. “I didn’t leave anything for anybody else to do. I had my hand in literally every aspect of the hotel.” He felt the need to prove to his new bosses that he could turn this hotel around on his own—“and I could do it lickety split.”

His supervisor at the time, Rich Coote, who Seidel now calls the “strongest mentor I’ve ever had,” called him aside in front of that staff to tell him that the hotel team was not happy under Seidel’s leadership. The team then explained why they were upset with Seidel’s behavior—“which hurt emotionally and physically,” Seidel said. “He told me that he didn’t want to fire me, that he thought that I was a good hire, but he taught me that there’s no ‘I’ in team. He thought he saw in me a lot of potential, but he did not want me to continue making them think that they may have made a mistake in hiring me.”

For a dedicated worker who cared about his reputation, the criticism was a deep wound. “For the next week, I sat in my office literally hating everybody on my staff, and then the week came around, and it was time to face them all for the next staff meeting,” he said. “That morning, I realized it wasn’t them that I hated, it was me, and that everything that they had said was true. Everything they said I had done and everything they said that I had said, I did. I realized I was angry at the wrong people. I approached the team that day. It was the best and the worst day of my life, and I apologized to every member of the team.

“I remember asking them if they could give me another chance, I would prove to them I could be a good leader, and that if they felt they couldn’t give me another chance that I would enter my resignation that afternoon. There wasn’t a dry eye at the table. We all came together as a team, and I’m proud to say that three members of that team are some of my key players here today many years later, and help me found this company.” Instead of a mutiny, Seidel was able to learn from the uncomfortable experience and become a better leader. He ultimately stayed at the hotel for five years.

“My management style has changed since then,” he said. “To this day, I think the one thing that I learned is that is you have to listen to your people. It’s OK to talk to your people and share your ideas, but you have to keep an open mind. Everybody has their own experiences that are different than yours. Some of them are more attributable to any situation that you may be facing at any given time, and if you give people a chance to show what they know and what they can do, chances are you have the best solution out there. People are our industry’s most important asset and when you treat them well, they’ll take good care of the business.” 

Getting Real

Seidel spent nearly five years as COO of Marshall Hotels and Resorts during the worst of the global financial crisis. “I experienced what it was like to serve as a receiver and take back hotels that were lost due to the economic downturn and worked with special servicers and lenders,” he said. “I saw bad things happen to really good people in small communities.” 

As he worked, he developed a business model that focused on auditing properties for lenders, specifically mezzanine lenders, which he expected to grow based on the economy. “The anticipation was that a lot of loans were going to go bad, and a lot of [real estate owned] property was going to come back to the lenders, and thankfully we found a way around that in most cases.” 

And so he left Marshall to follow that vision and begin his own business: Real Hospitality Group. “That’s when I learned a lot about people, whether it’s your neighbor, or whether it’s a business colleague, relationships count for more than I think I ever realized,” he said. “I’ve always handled my career, and I’ve always handled my business, in an honest, transparent and very forthright manner, almost to the point of naivete, giving away things I shouldn’t give or should have charged for. If I know it, and you’re a colleague or you’re a good guy, it’s yours. It’s free. Underwritings, consulting, you name it.”

But when Seidel left Marshall in 2010, several clients of his former company asked that he asset-manage or stay involved with them. “It just felt wrong, and so we declined that opportunity,” he said. And then several hotels ended their relationship with Marshall, freeing Real Hospitality to step in. Working quickly, he set up a “shell” of a business: “An accountant, a human resource person, and that’s about it. Now we’re a management company.” Several other properties followed quickly, and then an owner with whom he had worked before handed Real Hospitality a portfolio of six hotels. That, he said, required something difficult to accomplish: “I needed approvals from major brands to operate,” he said. 

Only 38 days after founding the company, Seidel found himself talking to high-ranking company leaders at major hotel brands to get permission to manage six Manhattan hotels. “And they gave it to me, and the reason for it wasn’t because the company had any equity behind it,” he said. “The brand had no identity and it wasn’t equity. It was on personal relationships with people from Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt.” Based on his reputation, company leaders approved Seidel on a probationary period to handle the six hotels.   

“You never forget that when people do stuff like that for you,” he said. Six years after its founding, Real Hospitality now has 37 hotels in its portfolio and 70 businesses overall, including restaurants and bars. In spite of its growth, however, the company does not have a business development arm or a director of development. “All we rely on is our culture and what people say about us, but the brands recommend us,” he said. “Lenders have recommended us to lendees and to other potential borrowing partners.” As a third-party operator, he acknowledged, Real Hospitality makes money at other people’s risk. “Anybody that takes that lightly is making a huge, huge mistake,” he said. 

The company, he said, has succeeded because of the people who took a chance on Seidel as an industry professional and on Real Hospitality’s business philosophy. “We work really hard because we owe a lot of people for our success, and we won’t let them down."