Why this Naples, Fla., developer keeps his boutique hotels brandless

(Photo credit: Inn on Fifth) The Inn on 5th in Naples, Fla., is managed by its owner, Phil McCabe. Photo credit: Inn on 5th

It’s somewhat rare to find an upscale hotel that is owned by its general manager—but Phil McCabe is a somewhat rare general manager. As an investor and developer, he has opened and overseen several hotels around Naples, Fla., always eschewing brands and doing things his own way.

A Taste for Travel

Instead of college, McCabe enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and used his time in the military to travel the world. He already knew that he did not want a career in the armed forces, so following his discharge, he accepted an offer to join the CIA, spending some years in prerevolutionary Iran. But in spite of the adventure, he wasn’t satisfied in this role. “My entrepreneurial spirits were growing,” he recalled. “That’s my career—an entrepreneur, not a GM. Not a developer. It’s just part of the DNA.” While on sabbatical in Maine, he found a beachfront motel for sale, and used his life’s savings of $25,000 to purchase it. He had found his life’s calling in real estate and hospitality.

The Maine hotel became a “huge success,” as McCabe calls it, and he invested the property’s income into other local properties over the years. But when he wanted to build something bigger, he couldn’t secure permission and found his plans for growth stunted. “I had capital and my skill level was ever better,” he said. Tired of the Maine winters, he began visiting Florida and decided to invest in Naples, building the boutique Inn of Naples outside of the main city in 1986.

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Again, the property proved successful, and McCabe remained in the city, developing hotels and managing them—always boutique and always independent. “I’m kind of an independent boutique guy,” he quipped.

Fifth Avenue

GM Phil McCabe watches Hurricane Irma.
Photo credit: Inn on Fifth

In the late 1990s, the city’s 5th Avenue caught McCabe's eye, although the street was hardly promising at the time, with older one-story buildings and 40-percent vacancy. Still, when an old bank came on the market in the late 1990s, McCabe saw potential and started the process of turning the building into an upscale hotel. The Inn on 5th opened in 1998 and McCabe opened the property’s Club Level Suites in a building across the street in 2012. Today, the Inn on 5th is McCabe’s only hotel, and his focus on its day-to-day operations has kept it consistently at the top of the city’s TripAdvisor rankings.

Owning and running an independent hotel offers plenty of freedom, said McCabe, but it also creates plenty of challenges. “You're dependent upon your own research and your own imagination,” he said.  “In the franchise business, you can lean on the franchisor not only for the management of the hotel but also on the supplies side. As an independent, you've got to be resourceful and imaginative. It’s a lot of hard work.”  

With no support from a brand, then, McCabe has to be very particular about who he works with, and he has high praise for the people who work at the hotel. Assembling a strong team, however, is just the first step. “It’s compensating them well and treating them well and managing them well,” he said. And once the different divisional managers understand his expectations, he said, the commitment works its way down through the whole structure of the operation.

After decades in the industry, McCabe is still learning and catering to new guest demands. “When I built the Club Level Suites across the street, I couldn't have done that 10 years ago,” he said. “I did not have the skills that I have today. Now, I find all of those things very easy to do and it’s very easy to operate.”

McCabe's Biggest Challenge:

Just before Hurricane Irma hit Naples in 2017, the Inn on 5th faced a devastating flood. “It was almost overwhelming,” McCabe said. For the first time, the property had to close its doors for what was intended to be a two-week renovation. During the closure, the hurricane hit, knocking out electricity and forcing the hotel team to improvise as they supported guests at the suites across the street. “It's just managing each situation accordingly,” he said.

Phil McCabe's advice for GMs:

Don’t keep your focus narrow. Learn the whole of the operation from the back of the house to the front of the house.

Build up repeat business: You can only spend so much on advertising and marketing. You absolutely have to build up repeat business.

Work with all your staff: I don't have just an amazing management team. I have an amazing team of people.

Know how to handle paperwork: You’ll have to work with unemployment compensation, [workers'] compensation, contracts, contract law and [Americans with Disabilities Act] lawsuits.

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