Prairie town business owner woos big city executives with home-cooked meal. It almost sounds like a cliché from a television melodrama. To hear Betty Anne Latrace-Henderson tell it, however, what might be construed as schmaltz comes off as a sincere gesture. And one with a Hollywood ending to boot.
Hospitality is Latrace-Henderson’s birthright. The president of Saskatoon’s Airline Hotels presides over a legacy started by her father, Harold Latrace, more than four decades ago. Airline Hotels began humbly as Deer Lodge Motel Ltd. in 1972 with the acquisition of the Deer Lodge Motel, later re-branded as the Travelodge Saskatoon.Latrace-Henderson’s father is a local legend in Saskatoon, with a street and arena bearing his name. He bet on the north end of the city when it was unfashionable to do so, investing in real estate, establishing the North Saskatoon Business Association and putting together the building blocks for what is now a company with nine hotels and 850 employees. A few years after the death of Airline’s pater familias in 2000, it was time to take the company down a new path and grow it beyond the Travelodge Saskatoon and Travelodge Regina (jointly acquired in 1986).
So, Latrace-Henderson courted McLean, Va.-based Hilton Hotels, and she did it the only way she knew how. “We approached them and rolled out the red carpet. They sent their agents to Saskatoon, and they saw potential for the province as a whole. But the signing part of the deal goes back to Prairie roots. They were invited to have dinner with me and my husband — Brian Henderson, Airline Hotels’ chair of the Board — in our home. Our chef made a wonderful meal. The next day we signed.”
That deal, to re-brand the Quality Hotel Saskatoon in 2003 to aHilton Garden Inn and enter into a franchisee agreement with Hilton Worldwide, has served as an origin story, of sorts, for a growing company. It neatly encapsulates the evolution from homespun Saskatoon family firm, vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the province’s agri-economy, to a more diversified company with sturdier footing from Edmonton to Kingston, Ont.
Latrace-Henderson was raised to champion Saskatoon’s prospects and the “R.I.T.E.” values created by her father, which now serve as a philosophy for Airline Hotels: respect, integrity, teamwork and entrepreneurship.
Co-COO Jaret Waddell attributes much of the company’s current success to those principles and a key decision to shuffle the company’s Board of Directors more than a decade ago. “The whole process of realigning the Board to a third-party body was visionary on Betty Anne’s part. She undertook the process to ensure corporate governance came from an outside perspective. That was huge.”
When asked to illustrate how Airline Hotels has grown over the past year, company executives immediately cite milestones such as the purchase of the Ambassador Hotel & Conference Centre in Kingston, Ont., this past March. Approximately 140 new employees were welcomed into the fold after the acquisition. The company also added more management positions outside of Saskatoon. A director of Human Resources now works out of Edmonton, for example. And, after a fire destroyed the restaurant at the Valhalla Inn Thunder Bay in Ontario in 2013, a new concept, named Runway 25 Steak Lounge, debuted in July.
Latrace-Henderson reflects on her company’s recent growth. “It’s been a lot of hard work. Our employees stood by us in rough times. Often we didn’t know where we were going and flew by the seat of our pants.”
Airline Hotels’ executives seem to know exactly where the company is going, and growing, now. Revenues are projected to vault to $68.4 million in 2013/14 from $63.4 million in the 2012/13 fiscal year. RevPAR figures also compel; they range from $92.38 at the Country Inn & Suites Winnipeg to $130.65 at the Valhalla Inn Thunder Bay. Overall the RevPAR average is $117.22.
That revenue is well spent. The company execs assert that they spend more than the industry average on improvements and renovations. A tenth of total revenues has been earmarked during the last four years to upgrade assets. Highlights from 2014 include guestroom updates inside one of the two towers at the Travelodge Edmonton West. The property’s pool, common areas, parking lot and exterior were also upgraded. Starbucks coffee lounges have been added to the Valhalla Inn Thunder Bay and Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Saskatoon. The pool at the Travelodge Saskatoon was recently refurbished, as were the guestrooms at the Country Inn & Suites Winnipeg. And, an overhaul of guestrooms at the Country Inn & Suites Saskatoon and Regina is nearing completion. Lastly, the company’s Four Points Edmonton South received a business lounge and restaurant revamp in October.
Despite continued success, Latrace-Henderson cautions: “One of the worst things you can have is strong growth. That’s when you become complacent. The best thing is to worry about your strengths.”
When asked about Airline Hotels’ next phase, co-COO Dan Folk takes a pragmatic approach. “We’ve gone from four hotels to nine over the last three years. That represents a lot of work. Our hotels are performing well, but we can do better. That’s the focus. We’re looking to expand but not at the sake of current business.”
At this, the president chimes in. “The perpetuity of this company will be assured [not as a result of new growth but] when we can say that our people are happy and well-rounded personally and professionally,” she says. With this noble end in mind, the company recently formed a partnership with The Pacific Institute (TPI), a global consultancy based in Seattle, to provide tools for employees to develop their skills. TPI has provided training to more than 450 Airline Hotels employees — a select group of which is trained to deliver TPI courses internally.
The company also holds annual two-day leadership rallies that bring together more than 70 department heads and corporate directors. The powwows are designed to demonstrate desired organizational behaviours, grow relationships, build trust, create dialogue and develop skills, specifically around goal-setting and project management.
A well-rounded company that ranks among Canada’s Best Managed (2011, 2012, 2013) and sits at number 30 on Hotelier’s “Top 50 Report” likely looks beyond its walls. Indeed, each year, more than 250 charities benefit from Airline Hotels’ financial and volunteer contributions. The United Way is the company-wide charity of choice, and employees can contribute to the Payroll Deduction Campaign. Fundraisers are held throughout the year in support of United Way and many other organizations. Moreover, Airline Hotels has community leaders chosen from its ranks at each hotel it owns and operates. These individuals form a company-wide “Community Committee,” which sets annual fundraising goals. This past year the bar was set at $80,000, and, by September, the company’s employees had surpassed that goal. Volunteerism outside of work hours is also encouraged. As such, employees receive paid volunteer days to take part in initiatives such as United Way’s Day of Caring.
“Growth is not always in the form of acquisitions,” counsels Latrace-Henderson. “One of the things we’re realizing is that, while we have tremendous growth potential, our concentration must be internal, on our people as well.”