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David Hart, President of Hart Hotels, Keeps Beat of Competition

It's a Family Affair - David, Alongside his Sisters, Runs the Business Founded by
his Father, Formerly the President of the Peabody Hotel Group

By Samantha Maziarz Christmann, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 08, 2012--David Hart has hospitality in his blood.

His engineer father, William Hart, built hotels in the 1960s before learning the operations side of the business and becoming president of the Peabody Hotel Group. In 1985, he opened Hart Hotels.

David Hart was running a Peabody hotel in White Plains when he left to join the family business. Today, he is president of Hart Hotels, which owns 10 hotels in Erie County, Central New York, Vermont and Maine.

"It's a success story, because my sisters and I were all just recent college graduates back in the early '80s, all living elsewhere, and my dad got us to come back here and live and work in Buffalo," Hart said.

Hart Hotels is still a family business. Hart works alongside sisters Linda Castello, Cathleen Hart-Frantz and Joanne Hart, while father William remains chairman. The company employs nearly 1,000 people at its hotels and its Dingens Street corporate office.

Q: Who visits Buffalo? Tourists, business people, family, Canadians?

A: Every one of those and more. Amateur athletics is very big in our region, and there's a dash of professional sports. Those are demand generators.

The reality is, most hotels create no demand; they just absorb [it]. Hoteliers really rely on what's going on in our neighborhood that drives hotel room demand, and then we offer up a brand, a location, a price, amenities and services to try to lure people to stay with us instead of the competition.

Q: You were past chairman of and spent 10 years on the board at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, now Visit Buffalo Niagara. How does the group benefit your company?

A: Obviously, we're still highly interested in the work that they do. They're funded by a portion of the bed tax, and their mission is to go to other communities and present the case to bring a convention, a sports event or general tourists into the marketplace. Most of what they do, you don't see here, because they are marketing to those outside the community.

Q: Is the hotel industry here healthy?

A: When you look at how markets have fared through this recessionary period, Western New York was a pretty good place to wait out the recession. [The parity of] the Canadian dollar has enabled us to fill up corporate rooms that left the marketplace, and we've replaced them with Canadian visitors and lots of amateur athletics. Whereas a lot of markets, they lost room nights, and they haven't been able to fill them. We've been pretty fortunate.

Our airport has helped out Southern Ontario residents tremendously, because Pearson Airport in Toronto is very expensive to fly out of, and they don't have near the number of choices.

Q: Is there room for more hotels?

A:There are spots in Buffalo where you may need a few more rooms here and there. Based on proposals I've seen in the airport market, downtown and in the harbor, people are taking up that slack and that opportunity. There might be a couple of spots where you could make a case for more.

But our corporate demand still does not rival some of the bigger cities. That's the Monday-through-Friday demand. Unfortunately, you've got to operate the hotel every day of the week, 365 days a year.

Q: How does business change in the summer?

A:It gets significantly busier. We've always been a beneficiary of our proximity to Canada and Niagara Falls. Route 90 goes all the way from Boston to Chicago, so Buffalo has always been a natural stopping point for traffic in between going east or west.

Business travel might move down a notch or two, but we still get it. We get a couple of meetings, we get a couple of special events; it's a very big time of year for amateur sports events.

Q: How do amateur sporting events buoy the industry?

A: I'm a parent of high school athletes. When you think about it, the last thing you're going to do is cut out traveling with your kids' sports team. Things have to get really bad for that to get cut out, right?

So a lot of times what a family will do is go to a community for an athletic event and tack on a day or two and make it their vacation. We've seen that particular piece of the marketplace play out fabulously for us here in Western New York.

Q: Hart owns branded hotels and independent boutique hotels. How are they different?

A: A lot of the business in branded hotels comes through the brand's website and advertising. You have to hope that your people are brand-loyal and that they use their frequency card.

[With independent hotels] we can get to different kinds of customer price points. With the Internet, we've found that we can compete with brands by being good with search engine optimization, being able to expose our hotel in various marketplaces.

Q: How have travel sites such as Orbitz, etc., changed the industry?

A: If you go back before the Internet, the only way to get lots of information about a hotel was to go and visit the hotel personally, or get information through your travel agent. Today you can go online, look at pictures, look at price, read what a guest said who stayed there.

Q: At what occupancy rate do you begin to make a profit?

A: If I said I have 100 percent occupancy, you'd say I was doing great. But what if I told you every room we sell is for a buck? Or what if I say I hold out every night for the person who's willing to pay $300? I'd only sell one room a night.

So what really makes a hotel successful is a combination of the two. It's called "revenue per available room," and it's occupancy times the average daily rate.

Q: How do you calculate pricing?

A: You really have to monitor your competition. And you really have to avoid thinking that price drives demand. If you were in Toledo, Ohio, and we offered a really low price in Buffalo, would that lure you to Buffalo? No.

Price does not lure you here -- your reason for travel [does].


(c)2012 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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