One on one with McKibbon Hospitality’s Bruce Baerwalde

Bruce Baerwalde’s start in the hospitality is that classic story of falling in love by a chance encounter. He started in the industry by accident 34 years ago when he needed to make money to visit his fiancée who had gone off to college. He went to the newly opened Courtyard by Marriott St. Petersburg Clearwater in his town planning to work the front desk—but he ending up at the midnight shift, polishing marble floors and cleaning public spaces. But that is where his love of the industry became his life-long passion.

Baerwalde came to McKibbon after seven years with Marriott International. At the time, McKibbon was just getting started with Marriott brands. Baerwalde’s experience with both Marriott in general and Courtyard specifically helped him become a general manager for the first time in Gainesville, Fla., at a Courtyard hotel that was under construction. From there, he moved to Tampa, Fla., to open a Residence Inn by Marriott property. “The exposure to an extended-stay hotel and a new market was great for my growth and helped to prepare me for another assignment: opening a Courtyard by Marriott in Orlando,” he said.

As McKibbon grew, the company’s leadership recognized the need to add additional above-property support and asked Baerwalde to lead the company’s TownePlace Suites hotels—a new brand at the time and one in which McKibbon had invested significantly.

In 2007, Baerwalde was named a vice president of McKibbon Hospitality. Two years later, along with Randy Hassen, he was named to senior vice president tasked with leading the hotels and the management company as well. Then, in 2012, he was named executive vice president of operations with responsibility for all hotel operations, food and beverage and business intelligence. Last year, after McKibbon’s three top executives—John McKibbon, Vann Herring and David Hughs—retired, Baerwalde was named president. 

“Prior to joining McKibbon, I was always focused on what was next,” Baerwalde said. “I learned quickly in McKibbon if I ever wanted to grow and see my career progress, I needed to focus on being the best I could be at what my responsibility was at the time. I was surrounded by creatives that could find new ways of getting things done. I focused on learning from the experience of my mentor and the brands we partnered with, committing to be the best at executing was asked of me. I could speak to 9/11, the financial crisis, to the pandemic individually, but the reality is I learned most in those times to rely as much on the team around me.” 

What You See Today

McKibbon Hospitality has seen significant growth in the past few years, adding more than 30 hotels through development and management partnerships. Today the company is preparing to celebrate its 100th hotel in Gainesville, Ga.—the city where McKibbon first began. 

The company works with a range of brands, from select-service Fairfield Inn & Suites to the full-service Kimpton Hotel Arras in Asheville, N.C. “We have some exciting projects coming up that bring new brands into our portfolio, including Moxy, Tapestry, Tru and Tempo,” Baerwalde said. “Over the past several years, we have expanded our presence in [food and beverage] with several independent concepts too. Currently we have nine new F&B concepts we are working on that will be opening over the next few years.”

When deciding what type of properties are the best fit for the company, Baerwalde believes it all starts with the ownership groups. “We want to know we can achieve the goals and expectations of an owner,” he said. “Can we help what they are trying to achieve and improve results? We are not focused on growing our portfolio for the sake of growth. For us, it is not about a number. We understand growth is critical to the health of McKibbon, but it has to be right. 

“At the same time, we look to see if cultures are aligned. It is critical to the culture of McKibbon. Our team members are important to us beyond a role or responsibility. Knowing that cultures align ensures that even in times of challenge or difficulty, collaboration will be strong.”

McKibbon has positioned its leadership teams for growth, Baerwalde said—the experience, wisdom and collaboration is as strong as ever. “Our team is currently developing a new resource for our hotels that will provide a one-stop destination for data, insight and strategy known as the McKibbon Information Console,” he continued. “We just delivered the first resource by digitizing our end-of-month financial reports, now fully in the cloud. The next deliverables will be a scorecard that will show hotel and above-property leaders the performance health of all locations.”

What does Baerwalde hope McKibbon looks like—as a company and a brand—in the next five years? “In all honesty, what you see today,” he said. “We purposefully hold true to the culture we have known for the nearly 30 years I have been with McKibbon. So, while we plan for growth, we also work to [maintain] the same culture and opportunities many of us with McKibbon have had the benefit of.”

McKibbon Hospitality

Headquarters: Tampa, Fla.

Structure: Management company, developer

Portfolio: 99 hotels, 11,377 guestrooms, 11 vacation rentals, 8 restaurants & bars