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Hampton Inn - Irondale Strong

In the midst of the Pandemic of 2020, the hotel and hospitality industry saw itself coming to a near grinding halt. Much of this could be attributed to the travel ban on the travel industry which ran parallel with the hotel and lodging community. Many were nearly completely closed. Many of the major chained establishments remained open to accommodate for the travelling medical professionals as well as first responders, and the possibility of troop deployment of the National Guard. Just as troubling as the massive loss of revenue was the loss of staff.

"We were down to the bare bones. I had a skeleton crew", says Alicia Bethel the General Manager of the Hampton Inn in Irondale, Alabama, a small municipality next to Birmingham. Due to the restaurant restrictions imposed by Governor Kay Ivey, hot breakfast was temporarily discontinued. Given the fact that the hotels could possibly be used as makeshift hospitals due to the increasing rates of COVID-19, they still had to remain up to par for immediate residency. "I was working continuously doing laundry without a real housekeeping staff in case we would have had to suddenly convert to a hospital", Ms. Bethel stated. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), about 9,050 direct hotel related jobs were lost and 33,532 total jobs were lost during the Pandemic shutdown.

What Ms. Bethel knew was that daily operations would have to go on. "With my staff that had been basically cut in half, we would just simply have to wear multiple hats. This was an epidemic that this world had never seen in our lifetime, and we were going to have to make adjustments. Of course, with the sudden loss of profits we were going to have to make serious adjustments. But so were many other businesses if they were going to survive, and we did." According to a study by the Oxford Economics and the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Alabama stood to lose about $105.2 million in state and local tax revenue from hotels because of diminished travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lodging taxes in May of 2020, according to the Alabama Department of Revenue, were down 68.8 percent - $2.1 million compared to $6.8 million the same time in 2019.

Chip Rogers, who serves as President and CEO of the AHLA, stated on that the impact to travel would be nine times worse than what followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks of Sept 2001, with the market taking at least two years to fully recover. The AHLA estimated about 70 percent of hotel staff were furloughed nationwide following the coronavirus shutdown in March 2020. Those numbers were reflected in Alabama’s April jobless numbers. During the Pandemic, Alabama recorded a 12.9 percent unemployment rate, with the leisure and hospitality sector recording 79,500 losing their jobs for the month.

"The hotel was in a position to have to do the most with the least. We just didn't have the staff that we once did. We didn't have the number of guests either. But for the small number of guests that did chose to stay at the hotel, there was a certain level of standard that they were entitled to, according to Alicia Bethel. Governor Ivey mandated that hot breakfast would not be served. "When we stopped serving the hot breakfast that did away with the need for a kitchen staff, Ms. Bethel stated. The traditional breakfast would be replaced with a brown bag "grab and go" type.

Several months into the stay in place order, with a local curfew in place, as well as a rising death toll, many were wondering was there an end in sight. Despite these very real issues and circumstances, there were travelers. The private travel community saw a major uptick in private charter and travel to meet the needs of those who had to function despite COVID-19. There were lodging needs to be met, despite having a shortened staff. As long as guests were coming, the hotel had a chance.

Alicia Bethel knew that she would have to put her decades worth of expertise to work. She knew that she would have to be positive and create a positive work environment. "Everyone knew of someone with the Corona virus. Despite looking at television and seeing the international death toll rising, we knew that we had to make the guests happy. I implemented in the safe practices that were mandated by the government and made sure we had masks and hand sanitizer and sanitizer dispensaries located at the front desk and various places throughout the hotel", Bethel said. Second, she knew that her staff would have to multi-task. She further concluded that, "I couldn't do everything by myself. I had to delegate and instill taking lots of initiative. It could no longer be, I'm housekeeping that's not my department. I told my staff, you see something wrong, straighten it out".

Many were remaining optimistic about the pandemic with expectations that it would simply go away. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high sense of morale when driving past local strip mall parking lots, and restaurants that would ordinarily be full but were suddenly empty. At the same time racial tensions were inflamed with the deaths of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Aubrey. Civil unrest took place in downtown Birmingham during a George Floyd rally calling for Confederate monuments in Birmingham's Linn Park to be removed. A temporary curfew extension went into effect that now extended the hours of the current curfew to earlier hours beginning in the evening. Barber's Motorsports Park, which is a major draw for motorcycle and IndyCar Series racing cancelled many of its racing events for the remainder of the year. To dampen the situation of the Pandemic of 2020, it was announced that the Magic City Classic would postpone the game from its traditional last Saturday of October to the Spring of 2021. The World Games would also be postponed to 2022.

With the international travel ban in place, and domestic travel being scarce, the Hampton Inn knew that it would not get the usual numbers for summer traveling guests. It was a wise conclusion to assume that 2020 would be lost to the Pandemic. However, for Alicia Bethel, she knew that this did not automatically spell doom and gloom. "I knew that in order to weather this storm, I would have to come from behind the desk and counter. I was going to have to be aggressive. This was a situation that was affecting the entire world so excuses would not be sufficient. First, I knew that I had to effectively communicate with my staff as to what was expected and required. I also had to be open and responsive to their needs. I had to be committed to the Hampton & Hilton Brand. That involved speaking with every guest that checked in to ensure that they were comfortable with their stay, and that their health and safety were top priority", Ms. Bethel said.

Hand sanitizer and facial masks dispensaries were placed through the lobby and host areas as well as signage stating to always wear masks and maintain social distancing. Along the way, there were hotel staff members that contracted COVID-19. I stated to my employees that if they felt that were positive, or if someone in their immediate household had tested positive, to notify me immediately. With an already stretched thin staff, I didn't want my entire staff on medical leave, so we kept a very sanitized work area and open lines of communication", according to Ms. Bethel.

At the end of the year, Ms. Bethel saw to it that the end of the year Christmas party would be extra special. "I made sure that the tempo was high and that everyone got at least one gift as well as games and prizes. We ended 2020 on a positive note", Ms. Bethel reflects. Coming into 2021 everyone was optimistic that the worst had passed and that the stroke of midnight would mean that the Pandemic was over. This was far from reality. However, as the year progressed, the confidence of travelers began to increase. With more and more people opting for the vaccine, the numbers for COVID cases began to significantly decline.

A major sigh of relief came when on May 3, 2021 Governor Kay Ivey announced that the COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted in late May of that year. This was just in time for the high school prom season and Barber's Motorsports Racing. "When I saw the pool was full of little children and their parents, I knew that the darker days had passed. We were wrestling with the threat of the Delta variant issue but with the vaccinations in place and people still masking up and so forth slowing the spread, the fact that the breakfast area was now filled with guests and people no longer afraid to swim, that was the most positive sign in over a year and a half", according to Ms. Bethel. With the now sudden uptick in guests and reservations, staffing was now a problem.

It was very common to go to different establishments and see that they were closed due to a shortage of employees. Area Irondale, Eastwood, and Crestwood communities experienced situations where some establishments had to prematurely close due to some employees not arriving to work for a particular shift. Alicia Bethel knew that she would have to hire people quickly. "Unfortunately, people had gotten accustomed to collecting unemployment and found it more advantageous to collect those benefits rather than return to work but I knew that that would not continue for long." Alicia Bethel explained. it took some time to hire personnel that was competent and willing to work. One such person that Ms. Bethel reached out to the now Assistant General Manager (AGM) Kharla Sigler.

With fifteen years of experience in the hotel/hospitality industry, Ms. Kharla Sigler has worked at several Hampton Inn and Hilton Gardens locations throughout the Greater Birmingham area. Having already previously worked at the Irondale location, she was ideal rehire. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there's an annualized employee turnover rate of 73.8 percent in the hotel industry. This is more than 6 percent of staff departing every single month. According to Ms. Sigers, "The hotel industry does have a stigma of having high turnover rates. So what we were going to have to look for were those with some type of customer service background that knew how to engage the public and wanted to work".

The issue at hand was that both Ms. Bethel and Ms. Sigler had employees that were having to multitask several departments. "We had employees that would typically worked in housekeeping, now having to simultaneously work in the kitchen or the front desk and vice versa, when those area were not their strong points", according to Ms. Bethel. The hotel went on a massive campaign to hire additional staff. As it was seen across the nation, many businesses were having problems hiring new personnel. The management at Hampton Inn knew that they would have to be strategic in acquiring new talent. New hires would have to be just that, talent.

Some applicants never showed up for the interview. Some applicants, after being hired either never showed up for their first day of work or only worked for a few days then became no call no shows. Kharla

Sigler knew that a new approach to hiring would have to be taken. She first sought out applicants who knew how to engage the public, that had a basic command of recent events, a knowledge of the different regions of the country and the world, and perhaps knowledge of sports teams and etcetera. "We have a lot of sports teams that stay with us and when you can identify with certain sports or sports teams from cities that the guests are from, it breaks the ice and makes them feel welcomed as if you personally know them. When you are able to say hello or welcome to Hampton Inn in the language of our international guests and visitors, that simple word or phrase in Spanish, German, Japanese and so forth goes a long way", Karla Sigler said. When She also wanted people who sought to move up the ladder, if not at the present location but throughout the hotel/hospitality industry and corporate sector. In August of 2021, Alecia Bethel and Kharla Sigler found such a person in Brian Moultry.

"I didn't know anything about working in a hotel. I wanted to work and needed to work and was willing to work hard because there are things that I want to do and places that I want to go", says Brian Moultry. Investment in training can improve a company’s financial standing. Poor performance often results when employees don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to do, how to do their jobs or why they need to work a certain way. Training can help solve these performance problems by explaining the details of the job.

This should reduce duplication of effort in the workplace, the time spent correcting mistakes and the problem solving necessary to correct bad performances. Improved performance from employee training can reduce staff turnover, lower maintenance costs by reducing equipment breakdowns and result in fewer customer complaints. Better performance from employees typically creates less need for supervision and brings increased worker output.

According to Kharla Sigers, "Brian Moultry was an excellent choice. He came in and after being trained he was willing to work double shifts, either come in early or work later. In some cases, he worked for at least two weeks without a day off and he was eventually rewarded for his willingness to be a team player and go the extra mile". Often times, positive reinforcement is more beneficial than reprimand. Management will have to be more proactive in cultivating talent. With a well cultivated and developed staff, management are able to have a diversified talent pool that is able to serve in a host of capacities. This further empowers staff members the training to move up the ladder. With a diversified well-trained staff, this allows for a more efficiently ran hotel. One of the areas at the Hampton Inn that was had hit was the kitchen. Several hires proved to be unsatisfactory. "This is when I knew that I had to get Mrs. Pat back", according to Alecia Bethel.

Patricia Bennett, affectionately known as "Mrs. Pat" has a number of years' experience in culinary preparation and hospitality. She embodies the down-home southern matriarch. She was also one of dozens furloughed during the Pandemic. However, the experience and compassion that she personifies was outmatched by none. "Like so many other people I was reluctant to return because people were really getting sick and dying. We had never dealt with anything like this in our lives and you didn't know who and what to believe, especially the people on TV. Plus, I had children and grandchildren that I didn't want to jeopardize their health, so I chose to just lay low and pray that the Corona Virus went away", Ms. Pat explained.

Ms. Pat brought with her a congenial spirit that made guests enjoy their meals. " We have a lot of people all year round that stay here that come to worship at EWTN. there have been guests that would come up and tell me that they remembered me from a few years ago and have conversations about all that was going on in their lives. Apparently, I must have done something right to make them happy and remember me", she laughs. Being the matriarchal foundation of her multi-generational family, she was well experienced in how to prepare large meals for large groups of people while maintaining a family dining experience. She was just what the hotel needed on its staff, exclusively for the kitchen and dining.

"I was in town visiting family and my niece and I enjoyed our stay. The staff was amazing and the rooms were very spacious. My niece Charita enjoyed the breakfast, especially the waffles", explained Richmond, Virginia resident and Alabama A&M Alumni Charita Vance with her niece Samantha Clark. West Monroe, Louisianna resident and Loyal LSU fan Stephen Morvant shared similar sentiments. "The rooms were nice and the breakfast was very delicious and filling", according to Mr. Morvant as he was headed to Greenville, South Carolina to visit his son. Staff members like Ms. Pat are prime examples of the ideal employee for specific roles and positions. They bring with them life's experiences and knowledge in key areas which makes them perfect matches.

The management recognized that different staff members came from different types of families and family environments. So to boost staff morale, the hotel had staff events such as Christmas and Thanksgiving holiday dinners in which staff members were able to bring family members and significant others. According to Kharla Sigers, "I was taught to believe that teamwork makes the dream work. People need a way to release and relax while taking off their work face. We felt that this released stress and opened the doors for more effective communication and feedback between the managers and staff. It also gave us a chance to publicly reward and highlight those who were above average workers." The hotel management frequently provides at company expense, lunch or early supper from local restaurants such as Saw's and Taziki's for its employees. It promotes the likelihood of a very positive workday when employees know that they will have a productive shift and a hearty meal afterwards.

Upon entering the Irondale Hampton Inn, the first impression will be favorable. In an effort to show that the tempo is always high, the lobby is always decorated with seasonal decor. An illuminated board welcomes the guests highlighting the names of diamond members. The hotel plays into the history of the locale. Irondale, also known as "Whistle Stop, USA" was initially known as a mining town and railroad junction town that transported iron ore. The actual "mascot" of the city is that of a train. Up until its recent deconstruction, an actual hollowed full-length train served as a restaurant. The city's chamber of commerce is an authentic retired caboose. "When people come into our hotel, we not only want them to see the historical difference in this hotel but our often-seasonal decorations as well. It gives a sense of warmth and welcome and that we evolve with the passing year", Kharla Sigers explains.

Whenever people are travelling, there's a sense of vulnerability. People temporarily find themselves in a location and a city that they may be largely unfamiliar with. One factor that is often overlooked and taken for granted is safety and security. Burglaries/theft, assaults, and car break-ins/car theft are the main crimes committed at hotels. "At our Hampton Inn, we have an ongoing relationship with Irondale Police and EMT first responders. They often come in and have breakfast with us or coffee and hot chocolate during the colder months to reaffirm our commitment to the safety of our guests", Alicia Bethel explains. The Irondale Police Precinct is approximately three-quarters of a mile away in the heart of Irondale. However, there is a sub-station as well as Irondale Fire Department across Old Grants Mill Rd in the shopping plaza which also serves as home to several restaurants and popular bars.

"One of the things that I love most about my job is meeting people from cities and states that I have never been to or have never heard of. We have a lot of sports teams and I like for them to win because they have come from so far away so I want them to have a nice visit and great memories of winning", Brian says. One such sports team is the Birmingham thunderbolts. The Birmingham Thunderbolts are a travel girl's fast pitch softball club located in Birmingham, Alabama. The Bolts typically have 10 to 12 Bolts Premier teams from ages 8U through 18U working out of the Irondale facility. They also have franchise teams located in several other states. "We are always glad to host the Birmingham Bolts and their families here every summer. They bring a unique energy every time they come. Especially with the out of state teams, they get a special sense of welcome when they come in and see welcome posters and congratulations posters with their teams and names posted. It makes them feel like distinguished guests and somewhat celebrities", Alicia Bethel stated.

Despite the Pandemic of 2020, the Bolts still travelled and managed to win a national championship in Oklahoma City. Such an accomplishment was a much-needed morale boost. "According to Kharla Sigers, "There are several other hotel options that the Bolts and other teams have here in the eastern corridor of Birmingham, Irondale, Trussville, and Leeds/Moody but these teams consistently chose our Hampton Inn and that says a lot and means a lot". As a matter of fact, it was the teams that were the main guests during the summer of the Pandemic.

For most frequent travelers, they know their hotels. Some have brand preference. They will always compare all previous experiences with their current stay. "What we would never want to hear, or even read on a comment that this was their worst Hampton Inn visit or worst hotel experience altogether", Alicia Bethel stated.

Hampton Inn is one of the most recognized brands in the hotel lodging industry. The reputation of Hampton Inn proceeds itself. In order for a staff to execute optimum performance, it must first be competent and have high morale. There has to be a winning environment and culture that promotes professionalism and success. Employees have to know and understand that when guests come through the doors, the employees' image, and perception speaks volumes and they represent the brand, and the overall brand makes a statement and eventually the guest will make one also. "We want our guests to be pleased to the point where they feel at home and have had a memorable stay. We want people to know that this was an ideal place to come and cheer your favorite team or hometown heroes on to victory while you're on your journey", Alicia Bethell says.

After a long drive from Memphis, Tennessee, the Rhodes College Track & Field team were looking to check in and bed down for the night in anticipation of their track meet the next day at the Crossplex in Birmingham. There was one problem however with their reservation and the number of rooms. "I had to move some rooms around. Fortunately, there had been some last-minute cancellations and no shows. The last thing that you would want to tell a guest upon their arrival, especially a team, that the hotel may not be able to accommodate them all", Kharla Sigers explained. Hampton Inn is committed to customer satisfaction.

Coach Robert Shankman was like any other guest with high expectations. They chose Hampton Inn with a smile and good faith that their rooms would be ready, clean, and up to standard. The Rhodes Team and Coach were standing by the reputation that the brand of Hampton Inn was standing on. With quality assured, the objective is to create positive experiences. This creates and maintains brand equity. Brand equity is the commercial value that derives from consumer perception of the brand name of a particular product or service, rather than from the product or service itself. The owner of a well-known brand name and establishments can generate more revenue simply from brand recognition, as consumers perceive the products of well-known brands as better than those of lesser-known brands and products.

All establishments should have a certain personality. Brand personality is the personification of a brand’s identity. Is the personality and culture inviting, hospitable, cordial, friendly, resourceful, ambassadorial, and interpersonal? How do guests, potential guests, or the general public feel about your brand? What is the desired perception that you want your target audience to have of your brand? As a matter of fact, how do your employees feel about your brand? All of these questions, when honestly answered, determines the trajectory of your brand.

People like excitement. People love a winner. When you have a culture of excitement that extends from the employees and staff to the guests, it creates an atmosphere that promotes returning guests, if not your particular hotel, but the chain as a whole. When a staff is excited, they perform better. How competent is your staff? This requires updated training, cross training, and leadership grooming. According to Ms. Alicia Bethel, "the Pandemic was something that we've never experienced. There was no manual or rule book to follow. If we were to survive, I knew that we had to stay informed and stay diligent in remaining operational. Three years later, we made it. If something like the Pandemic of 2020 reoccurred and I hope not, I think we'd be better prepared".

"We were happy that we could accommodate for the Rhodes Track & Field Team and provide for them a comfortable stay in preparation for a major competition", says Kharla Sigler. As it turned out, the Rhodes Team performed remarkably well. The Men's and Women's Track and Field Teams competed in the Samford Bulldog Open Indoor Meet held at the Birmingham CrossPlex. The women's team had three national indoor qualifiers. Ace Cole qualified in the pole vault with a jump of 3.73 meters. Rachel Sullivan who is a senior and high jumper also qualified for the national championships with her jump of 1.68 meters. Olivia Freeman qualified in the 60-meter dash with a time of 7.74. The success of the Rhodes Track & Field while on the road is a wonderful ending to their Birmingham excursion. The pleasant stay at the Hampton Inn was the glue that held their competitive efforts together.

There are six general qualities that contribute to an exceptional stay; service, cleanliness, price, location, management, and the hotel's environment. Everything starts and stops with management. Management creates and organizes the team. What people are ultimately seeking and paying for is a service. Especially in this era post COVID era, guests will be very concerned about the hygiene and cleanliness of a hotel. The travel industry, which is directly extended to the hospitality industry saw massive profit loss during the Pandemic. For many hotels, they are seeking recovery from those losses. Simultaneously, the average American citizen is experiencing rising inflation, fuel, and food prices therefore pricing is paramount. Pricing will have to be competitive, minus compromising price with quality of services and stay.

We have all heard the adage, "location, location, location". How close in proximity is the hotel to the airport, bus and train terminals, restaurants, shopping and dining establishments as well as arenas and stadiums? Another element of location is the environment. The room is of quality and priced reasonably but its in a high crime area or is remotely distanced are factors that potential guests consider when booking. When future owners are seeking to acquire new properties, location and close proximity to retail and dining, and athletic venues are key factors in determining whether or not a property is potentially profitable.

In late December, Ambridge Hospitality acquired the Hampton Inn in Irondale. Aimbridge Hospitality is a global third-party management company with over 1500 hotels globally. The company was originally founded by Dave Johnson in 2003 with eight hotels. As of 2021, Aimbridge held 1,218 properties in its portfolio with a combined 171,019 rooms across all 50 states and 23 countries. "We're under new ownership and looking forward to new changes and improvements in the near future. We are also expecting to be distinctively different from other Hampton Inn properties in the area", Kharla stated. Key renovations and upgrades are in the plans which will in turn improve the total Hampton Inn experience in Irondale.


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