|By Paul Grimaldi, Providence Journal, R.I.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 16, 2004 - PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A veteran hotel industry executive returned to New England to remind Johnson & Wales University hospitality students that customer service should be the priority guiding their day-to-day work. Mike Leven, chief executive officer and president of Atlanta-based U.S. Franchise Systems Inc., visited the capital city last week as part of a lecture tour of the university's campuses.
Leven, a Boston native and graduate of both Tufts and Boston universities, has spent more than 40 years in the hotel business, including time as president of Holiday Inn Worldwide and Days Inn of America. He started U.S. Franchise Systems in 1995. The company owns or operates more than 500 hotels in 39 states, including the Best Inns, Hawthorn Suites and Microtel Inns & Suites chains. There are six Hawthorn Suites in Massachusetts, the closest in Franklin. The closest Microtel is in Uncasville, Conn., near the Mohegan Sun casino.
Leven, 66, is the first occupant of Johnson & Wales' Tiefel Professional Chair, which the university dedicated last fall in honor of Bill Tiefel, chairman emeritus of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. After a lecture before hundreds of students and faculty, the hotel executive also dispensed career advice to a group of about a dozen upper-class students in a session held in a university boardroom. Most of all, he said, be willing to take the right risks, ones that advance your career.
"I wouldn't be the slightest bit afraid of making a mistake, that's why they make pencils and erasers," he told the smaller group. Jobs, particularly for young workers, are plentiful in the industry, he said. It's the mid-career positions that become difficult to get and must be chosen carefully.
"What happens in this business is a friend will call you," and tell you about an available job, he said.
Too often, people are concerned about how much a job will pay rather than looking at whether the job will give them more responsibility, add to their skills or advance their careers in some way besides a larger paycheck. "The mistake people make is they say I need an extra three or four thousand dollars," he said.
Leven's entry into the hotel business in 1961 was a bit of a fluke. He majored in political science at Tufts, graduating in 1959. He followed that by getting a master's degree in public relations from Boston University in 1961. With those on a resume, a recent graduate might be expected to head into politics or corporate communications.
Instead, he landed a job as a sales representative for the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City.
"There weren't a lot of jobs available," he said. By 1964, he was back in Boston, as director of sales and catering at the Kenmore Hotel.
Being a political science major in college was a shortcoming he had to work long to overcome, he said. "It definitely hurt, not having a hospitality background."
It took him 23 years to become a company president, while some of his peers were being promoted to leadership positions years before him because they had hospitality training, he said. In 1985, he was named president of Days Inn of America.
"I had to crawl my way through the chairs," Leven said. "It took me an extra five years because I wasn't trained for it." Eventually, he crawled all the way to the top of his own company, one that has earned accolades for customer satisfaction. J.D. Power and Associates ranked the Microtel chain the best in guest satisfaction among the nation's economy/budget hotels in 2002 and 2003.
He also became an industry leader, having helped found the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association and the Independent Hotel Owners Association. More recently, he has been part of an effort to create an industry-wide marketing effort to increase hotel stays among leisure travelers, who he says are the key to growth for the nation's hotels and resorts.
"I think the leisure traveler is going to dominate," Leven said. He added that an industry coalition was close to unveiling a "friends and relatives" rate plan to help spur hotel stays, but in the end, hoteliers were unwilling to spend the money on a nationwide marketing campaign.
Surveys done by an industry group show that people visiting friends or family members more often stay with their hosts, rather than in a hotel or motel, even when those arrangements can be inconvenient.
"Airline travel is back to normal levels," Leven said, "[but] there's a lot of domestic travel that we're not seeing [in hotels]." He said he'd rather see government and hotel industry marketing money being spent to promote travel within the country by leisure travelers.
"At the end of the day, the United States is still the best hotel market in the world," primarily because wealth is concentrated in too few hands outside the United States, consequently leaving fewer people with the money to travel and stay in hotels. "To be chasing the international visitor is a tragic error," he said.
Leven also said cities such as Providence shouldn't depend on conventions for the bulk of their hotel business.
"The conventions should be seen as the frosting on the cake," he said.
"The convention business helps dramatically the retail aspect of Providence."
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(c) 2004, Providence Journal, R.I. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. CD,