Editor’s Note: This cover story ran in Asian Hospitality, January 2017 (Volume 17 #144)
The 125-room Howard Johnson along Interstate 75 in Ocala, Florida, has stood the test of time.
So have its owners. And so has the Howard Johnson brand.
Howard Johnson is a chain of franchised economy hotels founded in 1954 and acquired by Wyndham Hotel Group in 1990. The brand name graces 380 properties in the world, about 280 (22,000 rooms) in North America. In an effort to revive the Howard Johnson chain in the U.S., Wyndham Hotel Group in 2013 announced Renew – a property rejuvenation program designed to ease economy hotel owners into the 21st century, where guests want more than a cheap place to sleep.
The interior design – tweaked since the initial announcement – embraces some of the fun retro features of the 1960-70s era of Howard Johnson while raising the brand’s offerings to a modern-day standard, including high-speed internet access in every room.
Hotel Development & Management Group of Ocala, Florida, a family business, has wholeheartedly embraced Renew. The Saju family acquired the L-shaped, two-story exterior-corridor Howard Johnson 25 years ago when they relocated from Long Island, New York, after matriarch Nurjehan Saju read a magazine article about the lodging industry in the Peninsula State. The family visited Disney World and Florida’s sunny climate reminded them of Tanzania, the Sajus’ home country where she and her husband, Fidali, had owned a farm.
The story of hotel ownership reawakened the Sajus’ entrepreneurial zeal. In 1981, Nurjehan and Fidali sold their small grocery store and bought the hotel, which was an Econo Lodge at the time. Nurjehan, now in her 70s, said she “fell in love” with Ocala and the hotel business. Their children are sons, Navroz and Azim, and daughter Shelina.
Twelve years after settling in Ocala, the “storm of the century” rose up from the Gulf of Mexico on March 13, 1993, devastating Florida from stem to stern with hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, rain and snow. The Sajus’ livelihood was wiped out overnight. A twister hit the 9.5-acre tract and seriously damaged the hotel and its adjacent restaurant. With no insurance to cover the loss, the Sajus faced an uncertain future.
Navroz was a senior at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. He returned to Ocala to help his family rebuild their business, eventually earning his juris doctorate from University of Florida Law School. Fidali and Nurjehan sold their home to finance the hotel’s comeback. They lived on the premises during reconstruction, and a year later they landed a Howard Johnson license. (The brand name had an apostrophe “s” until the mid-1980s.)
Once the hotel began to make money again, the couple moved out and Navroz continued to live there through 2003. His brother, also an attorney, joined the business in 2001. Azim is vice president and general counsel of HDG. Navroz is CEO and president of the company, which has built and converted more than a dozen properties. The business model is buy or build and then hold.
The Howard Johnson in Ocala is a definite keeper. “This is our flagship property,” Navroz said. “It gave us our start in the business. We are very patriotic; the Howard Johnson brand is all about America. And, at the end of the day, it makes us money.” Renew has enabled the Sajus to make even more than before.
The iconic brand name and look have endured more than 60 years as a beacon of rest and relaxation for generations of travelers. The orange-and-turquoise-hued Americana portrait is treasured by Wyndham Hotel Group. Its redesign pays homage to HoJo history while giving the economy brand’s image a modern twist with retro influences.
The brand refresh improves the market value of existing properties and uniquely defines new projects (Read the story about the Quincy, Massachusetts, hotel on page 6). During its global conference in September, Wyndham Hotel Group recognized The Hotel Development & Management Group’s Howard Johnson hotel with “Best of the Best” and “Best Renovation of the Year” awards.
Cynthia Liu, global brand director at Wyndham Hotel Group, said the brand refresh scheme is simple, relatively low cost and features nine defining elements, each guaranteed to improve guest satisfaction and RevPAR. The only new addition required in the lobby is a replica of a vintage Howard Johnson poster. There are three from which to choose.
The other eight elements are in the guest room: wall art in the form of two brown canvas panels with the orange outline of the Howard Johnson roofline; a pair of lamps, one with an orange base; a marshmallow mirror on the wall – a nod to George Nelson’s Marshmallow Love Seat, a modernist design created in 1954, the same year the first Howard Johnson hotel opened; a backlit mirror over the bathroom vanity; one accent wall painted orange or turquoise; a white vinyl tufted headboard for each bed and white top-of-bed linens, with a scarf in either orange or turquoise and window treatments, either solid-colored draperies or a turquoise shade and patterned sheers. Other brand-approved enhancements may be made, but the nine elements are the new standard.
Liu said the features were well thought out by the Howard Johnson design team. The back-lit vanity mirror creates a warm ambience and the wall art and marshmallow mirror give the room a modern edge. “Wyndham researched the colors and came up with the shades of orange and turquoise to give the design a pop,” Liu said.
Cost per key for the whole Renew package ranges from $1,500 to $1,700. Owners do not have to do all of their property’s rooms in one swoop nor are they required to install all nine elements at once. Liu said Wyndham advises franchisees to do a block of rooms at a time or add two to three Renew elements per room as revenue becomes available. “Just adding an orange or turquoise accent wall completes 11 percent of the Renew package,” she said.
Rob Myers, Wyndham Hotel Group spokesperson, said about 70 hotels have completed or are in the midst of the redesign. Owners have until the end of 2018 to transition to the new look.
Although Renew was first announced in 2013, Myers said brand leaders “over the last year and a half, spent considerable time reworking the concept to address franchisee feedback and ensure we’re truly unifying and differentiating HoJo within in its segment. The result is a look that’s distinctly retro-modern but also incredibly thoughtful when it comes to required capital investment from franchisees.” Navroz said brand leaders kept practicality in mind when coming up with Renew. For example, his Howard Johnson had ordered new case goods before Renew went into effect, and the franchiser agreed the furniture would work with the new design elements.
The Howard Johnson in Ocala fully transitioned to the redesign earlier last year, becoming the first hotel in the North American chain to complete the Renew program.
Navroz said the guest response to upgrades increased the hotel’s value proposition and incentivized his company to continue to invest in the property even further. In the guest rooms, new carpet or faux wood vinyl flooring replaces worn out carpet when the time comes. New air conditioning and heating units with digital thermostats have been installed in the rooms, and rainfall shower heads are an added amenity. The owners improved the exterior, adding a bright orange A-line roof to the lobby building that is visible from the highway; pouring new concrete staircases; adding custom-designed orange metal screens to the staircase openings; renovating the swimming pool, which is heated and includes orange-and-blue striped cabanas; and resurfacing the parking lot, the largest tractor-trailer parking area in Marion County. The company has a parking contract with a nearby FedEx facility.
“We did it all without breaking the bank,” Navroz said. “It’s a time-honored principal that the best investment is based on what the customer wants and what the local market demands.”
The upgrades boosted the hotel’s TripAdvisor ranking by five spots, making it one of the top 10 TripAdvisor hotels in the county, earning a Certificate of Excellence 2016. With an average occupancy of 75 to 80 percent, Wyndham Hotel Group deems the Howard Johnson Ocala the number-one economy hotel in Florida. Renew and the other improvements allowed the hotel to increase its rates, which start at $90 a night – a midscale price point. The hotel’s competitive set has 36 hotels, and the property consistently exceeds the set’s RevPAR by 10 points.
On The Side
Nurjehan, the property’s general manager, said she is never satisfied with the status quo. Plans are in the works to renovate the lobby’s front desk as well as the restaurant, which share the same building. The structure was completely rebuilt on a new spot after the 1993 storm. The restaurant is not the branded HoJo’s many senior citizens and Baby Boomers can recall from their younger days, but it does serve fried clams and ice cream.
It is also a revenue generator. Navroz placed an iPad at the front desk and guests are encouraged to order dinner during check-in. The meal can be eaten in the restaurant or delivered to the room. A big seller is pizza, added to the menu in May. Since adding the tablet to the front desk in September, F&B revenue increased 20 percent. “It’s a quick option for the guest, and we can add items and change prices according to demand,” Navroz said.
HoJo’s breakfast of waffles and cereal is free for guests per brand standard, but guests can also order a heartier meal from the restaurant menu. Running the F&B show from the kitchen is Fidali, who said he enjoys his background role as chief cook but his sons call him a believer, dreamer and achiever. Nurjehan is the face of the Howard Johnson Ocala, smiling big and warmly greeting every guest at check-in.
About 80 percent of Florida’s visitors travel through Marion County, Navroz said. The main route is I-75. The hotel’s guest demographic runs the gamut – in the winter, older folks either spend several weeks in one of the hotel’s suites or stop on their way to a coastal venue. In the warmer months, families stay over on their trek to Sunshine State beaches or central Florida theme parks. Business travelers include white-collar road warriors, construction workers and truck drivers.
Marion County is “ground zero” for eco-tourism and the hotel attracts outdoor enthusiasts of all ages. Young adults appreciate the cost, the free Wi-Fi and the chance to experience a slice of Americana with a modern vibe. “They like to experience something different,” Navroz said, “and they like Wyndham’s loyalty program.”
Liu noted Renew has led many second-generation owners to hold on to the Howard Johnson properties in the family business portfolio or convert an existing asset to the brand.
Navroz views his ownership of the Howard Johnson as a partnership with Wyndham Hotel Group. “What you get out of any partnership is what each partner is willing to put into it,” he said. When Hotel Development & Investment Group wanted to redesign its exterior to complement the interior improvements, Wyndham representatives brainstormed with the Sajus and their architect to come up with cost-effective ideas.
Liu said the key to the success of the Howard Johnson Ocala is not only the property’s physical upkeep and redesign, but the manner in which the Sajus and the rest of the staff engage guests. Customers are not the only ones who find happiness at the hotel. From front desk to dining area to housekeeping to maintenance, the 35 employees appear to be happy on the job.
Employee Buy In
Navroz and Nurjehan both place high importance on employee training and providing opportunities for advancement within their company. “A lot of our company’s leadership started their career at our Howard Johnson,” Navroz said. “They learned the hospitality business at this hotel. We are a blue-collar company. We have never sold a hotel because our roots are very important to us. So are our employees.”
While high turnover rates are the bane of the U.S. hotel industry and cost owners millions of dollars in labor loss and retraining, Hotel Development & Management Group manages to retain its rank-and-file. The company offers continual training and educational opportunities through a program it has dubbed “Extreme Ownership.” It also offers a 401(k) investment plan with a matching 4 percent; and a health care package in which it pays 75 percent of employees’ insurance premiums. Cedric Truelock, assistant general manager at Howard Johnson, said he has been with the company for eight years. Nurjehan noted the property’s head of housekeeping has a 16-year tenure and the maintenance supervisor clocks in at 11 years.
“We believe in providing our employees with upward mobility,” Navroz said. “We are heavily involved in the community, doing leadership events; we just held our second annual holiday event that drew 400 people. We believe profit has to have a purpose.”
“Our Howard Johnson hotel represents our core values.”
In a cycle of growing supply and increased competition, Renew is setting the iconic Howard Johnson brand apart from other economy-segmented hotels. Navroz said he values the freedom the program gives Hotel Development & Management Group to innovate and thrive. “Howard Johnson has allowed me to be an entrepreneur and to grow our business.”