Justin Shelton is bullish on the hotel industry in Lancaster.
Shelton is president of York-based Springwood Hospitality, which last week opened the 118-room Fairfield Inn & Suites along Route 30, across from Dutch Wonderland.
The company, which now operates six hotels, will open a seventh next month in York, just as it expects to begin construction on another Lancaster hotel.
“Lancaster is a very healthy market,” Shelton said.
Tru by Hilton, a newly launched brand of Hilton Worldwide, is aimed at travelers in their 20s and 30s and others who share what the company calls “a millennial mindset.”
The 39-year-old Shelton moved from Alabama in 2009 to take the position at Springwood at a time when the company only had two hotels.
In his previous position, Shelton managed 60 hotels. But he was attracted to Springwood by the opportunity to get an ownership stake in a company he could help build from the ground up.
“That is what was exciting to me about coming up here,” he said. “I was completely happy where I was. I wasn’t looking to leave and never thought I would live in Pennsylvania.”
Shelton lives in York with his wife and their two children, ages 8 and 3.
He spoke about his company’s newest hotel, his management philosophy and the local hotel industry on Friday morning at Fairfield Inn & Suites, less than an hour before the first guest checked in.
What factors did you consider before deciding to build two new hotels in Lancaster?
We’re based in York, so we want to try to get something that’s within reach for us. Right now we’re looking at markets up to a five-hour drive from York.
Availability of the brands that we operate is something that we also look at going into a market. We look at demand growth and ask, “How is the market with the current hotels doing?”
At that point we look to see where the demand is coming from. Is it all leisure? All corporate? We’re generally looking for a good mix of those.
Discover Lancaster (formerly the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau) does an outstanding job of bringing in events, promoting Lancaster out to different communities. They do a great job helping us with leisure traffic.
But there’s also a strong corporate base here in Lancaster with some very big companies.
How do you distinguish your hotel from other nearby hotels?
I think the brand does the majority of the distinction for us. It gives us a different guest that doesn’t have the opportunity to stay here now.
Marriott Rewards, Hilton Honors are two of the biggest reward programs for the hotel industry. Right now, today, if somebody wants to use one of those reward certificates for a free night ... they can’t stay at Dutch Wonderland. We’re going to open up that opportunity for those guests.
If you could know one thing about the future of the hotel industry, what would you want to know?
Future demand would be one. Another thing going on in our industry today is a lot of the different hotel companies are merging. I’d like to know where that settles. Marriott is combining with Starwood, as an example.
How would that merger impact you?
I think it’s going to end up being a good thing. Starwood has a rewards program just like Marriott rewards. They have a lot of guests loyal to those brands that are likely to try Marriott hotels now so I think it will give us another opportunity for more guests.
What kind of growth would you like to see for Springwood?
In 10 years I think we’ll be close to 25 hotels, at least that would be my goal. We’re trying to go into markets where we see a void with some of the brands that we work with.
We look for a market where the hotels that are currently there are doing well. That kind of gives us an indication of how we would do if we were in that market.
Would you open more hotels in Lancaster County?
Potentially. We’re going to have to see how these properties do. If they’re doing well, certainly.
What’s different about managing one or two hotels versus managing 10, 20 or more?
As you add more hotels, you add more layers of support and it’s critical to get the right people on the team that believe in what you’re doing and how you operate hotels so that can operate 10 hotels in the same efficient manner that you operated two hotels.
How do you deal with negative online reviews?
If someone had a poor experience at one of our hotels and they tell people about it, we’re not going to fight them. It was their perception of what happened.
We’ve got 118 rooms here and there’s guests coming in every day. There’s things that happen that are sometimes beyond our control.
We know it’s going to happen. It’s how we react to it when it does that makes the difference.
Why did you move from Alabama to York in the first place?
My specialty was operations. I had some input in other areas but you always wonder if you started from scratch, could you do it again? Could you do the whole thing? Could you surround yourself with good people that would allow a company to start from basically scratch and flourish into the future?
What’s more fun, opening a hotel or running a hotel?
Opening a hotel is a lot of hard work. We’ve got some great associates that really pull it together and make it happen.
Twenty years from now, when some of our associates are bringing their kids to Dutch Wonderland or some of the other attractions here, they’re going to be able to point across the street and say, “I actually helped open that.” It’s extremely special.
It’s the people that really bring the hotel to life. Without great associates like we have here, this is just a piece of real estate. Yes, we’ve got great rooms, but when you close your eyes at night, it looks like every other hotel.
The downside of an opening is that you really don’t have very many metrics to know how you’re doing.
When you’re open, you get constant guest feedback, you get numbers as to how you’re doing in the market, and how you’re doing revenue wise. It gives you more and more reasons to celebrate the success.