Mario is a 33 year Hospitality industry veteran and has worked in a variety of managerial positions as Director of Sales, General Manager, and as a Regional Director of Sales and Marketing. Currently he is the Director of Sales for the soon-to-be open Home2 Suites by Hilton Chicago River North.
Mario’s experience includes brand expertise with select service and full service hotels and certifications with Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Carlson, and IHG Hotels.
When Mario is not trying to sell and gain market share he is a passionate fan of the arts, film and popular music. He is also very active with a number of local business associations, and serves on a chamber board in downtown Chicago.
What brought you into the hotel industry?
I was a year out of college and a friend working at a hotel in sales suggested I would be a good fit for hotels. I actually started here (Chicago) at a four-star downtown hotel in reservations. I really enjoyed that – it was a great experience. It made me want to go into sales and management so I stayed in the hospitality industry and moved through various positions.
I was born and raised here – I know the city very well. I worked the downtown market, suburbs, the O’Hare market. I even worked as a Regional Manager for various hotels in the Midwest opening and rebranding several hotels.
Do you have a preference on size of hotel?
Mid-size is really fun – anywhere from 200 to 400 rooms. It’s manageable and you have a bit more control.
I hear you’re opening a new hotel – can you tell me more?
Yes! We’re opening a brand-new Home2 Suites by Hilton at the corner of Huron and Clark Streets in the heart of the River North area of Chicago. Right now, we are aiming for mid-February, which will be good from an operations perspective. It’s the optimal time to ensure everything flows smoothly.
The hotel will focus on extended long term stays as well as ongoing individual business travel and relocation needs. It has 206 suites, with fully equipped kitchens, 49″ HDTV’s, full-size sleeper sofas, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi and breakfast. We are really excited. It will have a state-of-the-art fitness center with built-in laundry and a boardroom, which is perfect for small meetings.
What’s your travel like?
I travel a lot for work and leisure – events and conferences. My favorite vacation spot is New Orleans. I try to go there at least twice a year. I just love the city, the culture, the people. Hotels are wonderful, the food is fantastic – I can’t talk enough about it. It’s fascinating, and every time I go there I learn something new about that city.
The best hotel I ever stayed at was the Chateau Marmont in LA. It’s a beautiful hotel and there’s nothing quite like it. There are little bungalows and it’s private, secluded, and has the best customer service.
Outside of your work, what are your hobbies?
My biggest hobby outside of hotels is being a pop culture junkie. Keeping abreast of what’s going on in the music and film industries – definitely live bands, and vinyl. Knowing the upcoming and hottest trends is something I really enjoy and it translates well to my job! (laughs)
Chicago hotels definitely go after the entertainment market segment. Film crews and some of the bands who come through here — it really helps to be aware and informed of what bands are coming and performing when and where. There’s also a lot of filming for television going on – not just movies. Filming projects in Chicago has really highlighted the scope and potential of the city.
How did 2018 go?
2018 was a great year for Chicago hoteliers. October was phenomenal for occupancy and ADR – even with the increased inventory we have here! November was a bit more challenging. December balanced that out a bit as we saw it perform better than anticipated so that was a solid way to end the year. Occupancy is always going up and down – but now Chicago has an additional 1,733 hotel rooms that opened in 2018 so of course market share and occupancy will go down.
There are more hotel rooms on the horizon for 2019, an additional 1,369 rooms – including the Home2 Suites by Hilton Chicago River North. We’re all fighting for the same guests, the same market share…it’s going to be interesting. However, on the upside, Chicago leisure and business demand is increasing. We have new airline routes coming in 2019 so everything looks positive growth-wise.
Sounds like a great time to open a hotel there!
(Laughs) Yes, we think so. Every hotel has their own specific customer segment they’re targeting but I think there’s enough to go around. There is definitely more opportunity in the downtown market.
How can hotels consistently stand out?
Always take care of the guest with exceptional service and focus on accommodating their needs. That’s what hotels are here for. Market to the right guest. Customer service impacts guest retention. Make sure that the guests you do have in-house, return back to your hotel. It’s easier to keep a guest than to find new ones.
A warm greeting and a smile go a long way. Observing the front desk interactions and greeting with guests tells you a lot about a hotel. It tells me if they get the fundamentals right. It is not just what you say – it’s the non-verbal communication and gestures too. The first impression does matter.
One of the worst things is a long check-in line. It does happen and can’t always be prevented, but you’d be surprised how far a quick “thank you for your patience we’ll be right with you” acknowledgement goes.
What do you anticipate in 2019?
For Chicago it’s an off-cycle convention year so the typical occupancy and demand drivers are not there. More hotels will be looking for customers especially with the new additions so we definitely have a somewhat reduced level of occupancy in the city. Some of the brands are wisely already marketing special promotions and increased commissions to travel agents and groups.
Technology is another hot topic. Technology ages rapidly – for Wi-Fi, checking in guests, you name it. Hotels need to keep up. Some of these items are capital expenses that are not budgeted for every year, so they need to ensure if they are going to invest in technology that it will last for at least 2 to 4 years – until the next hot item comes out.
How do you decide what technology your property is going to invest in?
Number one, the brand resources. For example, they may say all properties need to have digital check-in to meet brand standards. It’s up to the hotelier and owners to make that investment. The brands are very diligent about exploring hotels and identifying what the new trends are and will be. Of course, they are trying to differentiate their brand from others. There’s always something new. It always involves a large investment from ownership. They need to be sure it will last until the next change in a brand standard. It is helpful when ownership has that forward-looking vision so that hotels can be proactive and benefit from thinking ahead.
What do you like/dislike most about the process of opening a new hotel?
Having a brand new fresh product from the start where you are setting up the hotel well in advance to be successful. I love meeting different guests and customers. People from all over the world and country – it’s really great to interact with guests and learn more about them – what makes them travel and stay at one brand versus another. I think that is a great part of the business – engaging with our guests and interacting in our market.
As far as dislikes – all the required training and learning new systems can be challenging and as well employee retention. In this industry there tends to be high turnover in some hotels so the best option is to work with your associates and keep them focused on their tasks while maintaining a professional workplace environment where they can learn and eventually be promoted into other positions. The number one focus should be the guest and their overall experience at your hotel.
How do you let the guest experience guide decisions?
Because I’ve been in sales the majority of my career, it’s easy to me. It’s as simple as seeing a guest in the lobby and chatting with them about what is going well and what is not. Engaging with them really helps the guest see you’re interested and invested in them. It not only helps me connect with guests but see where opportunities are for more business. Another big piece is how did they book and find out about the hotel. Are they business or leisure? What makes them book and how can we apply that to future strategies to attract the right segment? These key questions are helpful in figuring out what drives business to the hotel and how we can influence that.
How do you optimize availability and production on third parties versus direct bookings?
Expedia has great promotions and packages where you can target specific segments like international travelers. We definitely leverage that. Hotwire is an essential partner, especially for specific need dates, shoulder dates, or the day of. We use Hotwire to help sellout so we are 100% full capacity and we can get those last-minute, same day bookings that we normally wouldn’t have. Downtown Chicago does not have many walk-ins as the suburban hotels do. Customers book online or on mobile apps, and Hotwire has a great mobile app! Hotwire has a great user-friendly technology product. I was able to use PayPal to make my purchase – that made it so seamless! That is one of the best features. I see why your customers use you.
Any final thoughts for 2019?
Since I am on the sales side, I definitely look at revenue management, sales, and operations. To me, it is a mix and everything should work together in unison to ensure a great guest experience and profit everyone.
Working with third parties is a key component for hotels and we’re going to continue partnering with them. We have a great relationship with our local market managers for Expedia and Hotwire, and we have strategies in place with them to optimize our initial months after opening during the ramp up period.