As Cobblestone Hotels grows, the company remains grounded

Brian Wogernese

Brian Wogernese, president and CEO of Cobblestone Hotels, addresses the audience at his company’s third conference.Pictured: Brian Wogernese, president and CEO of Cobblestone Hotels, addresses the audience at his company’s third conference.

Minneapolis – When Cobblestone Hotels held its first conference three years ago, you could almost count the number of attendees on two hands. It’s a different story now for the company. With approximately 220 attendees this time around, Cobblestone graduated to bigger digs—the Hyatt Regency here—briefing its owners and franchisees on the state of the company, sharing new initiatives and imploring owners for advice and input on how to make the company stronger.

Brian Wogernese, president and CEO of Cobblestone Hotels, underscored the midscale brand’s extraordinary growth. Fifty hotels by 2015 is the goal, he said. As of today, there are 39 hotels altogether in 13 states, split across the company’s two brands: Cobblestone (its new-build brand) and Boarders Inn & Suites (its conversion brand). Thirteen hotels are currently under construction.

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As for new hotels coming into the system, Wogernese said Cobblestone often benefits from gaining hotels that couldn’t stay in other brand systems. “Some conversions don’t need a $600,000 PIP,” he said.

Cobblestone is now following other branded hotel companies by displaying customer comments and scores on its website, regardless if its great, mediocre or bad—the point is to be transparent.

In order to tap into more customers, Cobblestone is also partnering with Sojern, a data-driven audience platform that helps brands reach and engage travelers to drive conversions and loyalty. It can collect social media data, for instance, and advertise to people based on their whereabouts and purchasing proclivities.

Support

In order to aid its owners, Cobblestone hosted panels addressing an array of topics, from financing and revenue optimization, to operations and development. During an online travel agent panel, Jennifer Wuttge, a regional revenue manager with Priceline, explained the importance of visibility on OTAs. “Share has shifted to online travel agents,” she said. “[Customers] want a one-stop resource that OTAs fill.”

How travelers are reserving rooms was also a topic. “There is a move toward tablets and mobile,” said Brent Lewis, a market manager with Expedia. “Twenty percent of direct bookings come from OTAs. Whether it comes from OTAs or directly, it’s a win-win.”

Cobblestone’s hotels are primarily located in rural, tertiary parts of the U.S. (think Eads, Colo., and Killdeer, Minn.), and, as such, “it’s not easy to get commercial lending involved with rural development,” said Greg Goodman, chief credit officer with Choice Financial Group. His advice: “Get local community banks involved. The equity put down is very important to protecting cash flow. Lenders want more skin in the game from investors to withstand ebbs and flows.”

Clay Stuart, president and CEO of SNB Bank, agreed. “The more [money] you put down, from a lenders perspective, the [better chance] a project has of succeeding. Only 10 percent to 15 percent down increases the failure of a project,” he said.

Cobblestone properties are operated on a very lean scale, which, according to Ted Anka, a VP with HREC Investment Advisors, is a plus. “Cobblestone is easier to operate,” he said. “It opens a lot of doors for entry-level hotel investors.” 

Lessons in running a hotel

Cobblestone Hotels’ conference featured an operations panel that got to the heart of what it means to run a successful hotel. Here are some tips from the panelists:

How to motivate

“Training and support. As a GM you are a teacher.”—Aimee Fyke, Tharaldson Hospitality Management

Hiring and retaining

“If you are talking more, then you aren’t interviewing. Talk less and ask good questions.”—Shannon Jones, 7 Hospitality

Customer Satisfaction

“Put incentives in for staff. They can make a bad situation good for a guest.”—Sam Russo, Midwest Hospitality

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