By Kerry Medina
In 2016, Benchmark Hospitality International and Gemstone Hotels & Resorts merged to create a united company that represented 50 properties spread across 22 U.S. states and four countries. Nearly two years later, the combined entities have grown to represent more than 70 properties worldwide and have united all aspects of the two businesses to seamlessly function as a single organization.
“A lot of delivered effort as a team went into integrating the two companies culturally and organizationally,” explained CEO Alex Cabañas. “The deployment of resources was well delivered from the overall system of health benefits to business intelligence capabilities and IT resources. Receptiveness from the field was significantly better than expected and there was a significant increase in job applicants.”
Now, Benchmark is focused on leveraging its 40 years of experience in the independent hotel sector to bring more brands into its two portfolios: Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and Gemstone Collection. Approved to operate full-service hotels and resorts with Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and IHG, the Texas-based hospitality group is now selling its development, management, marketing and advisory services to a broader base of hotels.
In April, Benchmark Resorts & Hotels added Southern California’s Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, to its property roster. The lineup already includes Ames Boston Hotel, part of Curio by Hilton, and Delta Hotels by Marriott Dallas Allen & Watters Creek Convention Center in Texas. Soon to come is a Hyatt Regency in Katy, TX.
“As an expert in experiential and independent hotels, we see soft brands as a natural extension to what we’re already doing,” said Cabañas. “Our expertise in driving unique hotel experiences—as the hotel industry at large moves into this space and focus—is a great opportunity for us to add value to traditional and soft brands.”
Yet, these brands do not simply represent another means of increasing Benchmark’s hotel business. Cabañas pointed out that they are also an opportunity to familiarize guests with the Benchmark name.
“The experience of the company managing the asset can be somewhat lost, but we’re employing the team and we’re delivering the service and so we want to have a voice at the table with consumers,” he said.
In fact, experiential travel has become an increasingly hot topic within the company. At Benchmark’s 2018 internal leadership conference, which took place at Hawaii’s Turtle Bay Resort in May, Cabañas told key staff—from general managers to sales executives—that the company is looking to up the ante on its experiential offerings as far as they can transform the guests or the guest’s existing relationships.
Cabañas explained that Benchmark properties are looking for learning opportunities where locals engage in their markets, but aren’t necessarily in the guidebooks. “We’re developing a tremendous amount of content around that,” he added.
The CEO noted that at the recent leadership conference, he told employees that Benchmark’s corporate executives are working leverage the group’s expertise in the hotel business in order to create opportunities beyond the hotel and resort sector where that knowledge can lend value to other organizations. He further hinted to Hotel Interactive® that product companies are increasingly looking to create brand affinity through lifestyle-driven experiences as well.
Of course, growing Benchmark’s core businesses continues to be a focus for the company, including adding more branded properties to the hotel portfolios. Already, new projects are in the works in New York, Seattle, Wisconsin, Los Angeles and Texas. In addition to the aforementioned Delta Hotel by Marriott in Dallas and Hyatt Regency in Katy, TX, Benchmark will also count the Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center among its Lone Star state properties when it opens in the fall, along with the existing Hotel Contessa.
But Cabañas feels the company is still underrepresented in the state where it’s headquartered and would like to expand further in Texas, ideally with more locations in Dallas and Houston as well as Austin. He’s also interested in more city center hotels in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Benchmark Conference Centers brand also continues to expand with the recent additions of a New Jersey facility that Benchmark manages on behalf of Verizon and another facility in Canada. According to Cabañas, the growth for this line of business tends to be slower because there are a limited number of private or semi-private conference centers.
Still, Benchmark’s leadership approach to this travel segment carries over to the company’s work with the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) where Cabañas serves as global president and Benchmark remains involved in both the organization’s “Meeting Room of the Future” initiative and five-year partnership with Meeting Professionals International (MPI).
Meeting and group business across all Benchmark brands has consistently increased between eight and 10 percent year-over-year since 2014. “It’s been a great few years for group business since the end of the recession,” he said.