With more than four decades of hospitality experience under his belt, Kenny Gibson has had a front-row seat to the challenges and opportunities that have impacted the hotel industry. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way hotels have been managed over the years,” says the president of Toronto-based Sunray Group.
Gibson emerged from retirement to join Sunray eight years ago and has played a key role in the company’s acquisition and expansion strategy that has increased its hotel portfolio from 14 to 70 properties. During COVID alone, the team completed 20 real-estate deals totaling $12 million. Of those, 15 were hotels.
“We were the most active of any other hotel operation in that period,” says Gibson. “We saw the opportunities to build our portfolio in areas we wanted to build.”
Gibson started in the hotel industry in the 1970s, taking on his first management role for Holiday Inn in 1980. He believes his years of experience have given him a unique perspective on the ups and downs of the industry. “I’ve worked through 9/11, SARS, and the financial crisis. COVID was just another cycle to manage.”
That insight placed Sunray well ahead of the game when COVID began to surface in late 2019. “We recognized what would happen and put planning to the forefront well before the March shutdown. In January I told the ownership ‘This is going to get pretty ugly, so we better start planning how to deal with it now.’ By early February, we had already identified how we would deal with staff and which hotels we would need to shut down.” While his crisis-management skills are well honed, he says managing day-to-day operations is a continuous learning experience.
“When I started, it was very much management saying this is the way it’s going to be. There was no collaboration. Labour was plentiful and cheap and you could dictate from a management perspective. Things have changed a lot.” Leaders can no longer give orders and expect them to be carried out, he says. “We have to collaborate a lot more with people, both internally and externally, and take on more roles, from operations and acquisitions to dispositions and financing.”
Staffing is no longer a given, says Gibson. “We have to be more cognizant as leaders that the younger generation value their time more than the money. We must adjust more to the experiences and quality of life the next generation is looking for. In today’s world, if someone doesn’t like what we are doing, there’s another job for them in the next building.”
A key learning for Gibson is that not everyone responds to what is important to his generation. “I’ve come to realize that what’s important to my generation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important to the current generation. For example, I’m an early riser. If I tried to put out a policy that the workday starts at 8:30 a.m., millennials would look at me like I’m from a different planet.”
His biggest advice for anyone looking to move up the ranks is to not lose sight of personal connections at a time when technology dominates so many aspects of the business. “People have forgotten that they can still be more effective and get more things done sitting across the table from somebody rather than through email, Facebook or FaceTime.”
He often tells up-and-coming managers to get to know and spend social time with people at their level and age rather than worrying about senior leaders who will be leaving the industry soon. “They should also develop relationships with people who are the next level down, as they will be the ones leading our industry going forward.”