Choice Hotel's Undercover Boss Sweats the Hospitality Business
Steve Joyce is by no means a mama's boy, but he couldn't help thinking of his mother when the CEO of Choice Hotels International went undercover. "Mom spent her entire life helping other people, both personally and professionally, and she taught me to do the same" he said. "When I worked with some of our employees, saw what they'd been through and what they were still doing for others, I realized I wasn't living up to the standards my mother set for me."
And so begins the second season of the Emmy-nominated 'Undercover Boss,' The story employees were told this season was that Joyce and another contestant were competing for the same job for a reality TV show. To hide his identity, Joyce shaved the mustache he'd had since he was a teenager, moussed his hair, wore strange clothes selected for him by a dress-down wardrobe specialist, and tried his hand at some of the most grueling tasks in the hotel industry. He admits it wasn't pretty. "I sweat a lot," he confessed.
Who wouldn't, when you're at an EconoLodge in Orlando, Fla., in 90-degree, humid heat, cleaning a pool and a toilet and hoofing it across the grounds of the largest facility in the Choice Hotels Group? That's where Joyce labored side-by-side with Ricardo, who had been with the company full time for seven years, and had a second job, in order to make ends meet and keep his son in medical school.
Ricardo mentioned that the hotel wasn't in the same pristine shape it was 25 years ago when it first opened, and Joyce observed so many problems that in the end, he called in the general manager, instructed him to fix the place up, and bought a golf cart for Ricardo so he could get around faster. But he wasn't finished. He also expanded the Choice Hotels scholarship program so that it could cover Ricardo's son, who now has medical school school paid for.
Working up a sweat
Joyce also worked up a sweat trying to clean an entire hotel room in 28 minutes. "It took me more like 47 minutes," he said. "With such high standards of cleanliness, it's really tough." Christine, the housekeeping expert with whom he worked admitted that it isn't easy and that it takes its toll, especially on her family, for whom she couldn't provide as much as she'd like. Still, when she saw what a tough time Joyce was having with the experience, she said, "He needs to go to house keeping boot camp.
"The whole experience inspired me to get back to the gym more often, among other things," Joyce added. Those other things included giving Christine and her family an all-expenses paid trip to Orlando, and enabling her to take classes at Choice's online university, so she would be qualified to manage an entire hotel, instead of just the housekeeping aspects. By the time the show aired, she'd taken the classes and received the promotion.
Although his next assignment might not have been as physically demanding, Joyce was also in a lather making sales calls for Cambria Suites near Indianapolis. Joyce was going by his father's name, Jack, but became so flustered he used his real name, Steve -- and thankfully his trainer didn't call him on it. Joyce was surprised to learn that John, the director of sales who was instructing him had only been on the job for a little over two months, but had already developed outstanding expertise, contacts and relationships.
Joyce wanted a sharp guy like that on his international sales team, and arranged for training for John so that he would receive that major promotion as soon as possible. Joyce also noticed that John was a snappy dresser, and gave him $5,000 to use on a new wardrobe that would suit his new position.
Not what he expected
The last thing he anticipated after that was to spend the night in one of his company's own rooms, and find it unsatisfactory. At the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel in Indianapolis, he observed that the kitchen wasn't as tidy as he'd like it, nor as well stocked. He even had to go down to the front desk and pay for coffee! In another hotel, he was stuck in an elevator for more than ten minutes. When he reported these flaws to his board, they were stunned. Since Choice franchises its facilities, they don't have complete control over them all, but they vowed to do as much as they could to make sure guests are as comfortable as possible.
Last but not least, Joyce was flustered to find that Brandalyn, the nighttime front desk clerk at the Comfort Suites in Fishers, Ind., not only had to make an accurate count of the day's intake (which he was not able to do--he was almost $100 short!), but had to fold towels in the laundry room, clean the pool area and do other maintenance because she was the only employee on duty at night.
Brandalyn told him that her fiance had been laid off, so their family was living at home with his father-in-law. She would like to move into management, but was unaware of the extensive online university the company has developed to help her with these goals. Joyce was stunned to learn that employees are not being made aware of all the opportunities the company provides.
"The goal was to not just help the individuals I worked with, but to create and instill policies company-wide that would help all the others who are in the same position," said Joyce. But of course, he reached out to Brandalyn's family as well. He arranged to pay their rent for six months, so they could have a home of their own, and gave the family an all-expenses paid trip to San Antonio, which they used for their wedding.
The three H's
And for watching, Joyce likes to think he's providing 'Undercover Boss' viewers with "the three H's: humor, humiliation and heart." He's not worried that much of the humor and humiliation come at his own expense. His two daughters, ages 14 and 19, are accustomed to their dad's sense of humor, and revel in the advice-giving roles they get to play on the show.
In addition, Joyce tries to make laughter a part of the corporate culture at Choice Hotels. "That's my reputation in the industry, and my industry colleagues won't be too surprised to find me in humorous situations." he said. And his colleagues are legion -- he's been involved in the restaurant/hospitality industry since he was 12. That's how he put himself through the University of Virginia, and funded graduate work at Cornell, Wharton and the Aspen Institute.
Joyce has certainly seen the hotel industry's ups and downs, and acknowledges that it, like almost everything else, has taken a big hit over the past couple of years. He says his industry has suffered a one-two punch, because individuals who have lost their jobs or suffered reduced salaries naturally cut back on vacations, and struggling companies keep business travel at a minimum. "Then the government talks about boycotting travel to certain areas, and that hurts our industry as well," he added.
"But we had a good summer, which indicates that business is improving, and employment in our industry is on the rise," Joyce said. "My hope in being on 'Undercover Boss' is that people get an appreciation for what our people do for them on the front lines to try to make their stays comfortable."
And if that involves a little (or a lot of) sweat equity on his part, he believes it's worth it. His mother would be proud.
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