Benchmark Hospitality CEO Shares Stories About Connecting with People

Benchmark C-suite from L to R: Greg Champion, James Simkins, Alex Cabañas, Ted Davis
Benchmark C-suite from L to R: Greg Champion, James Simkins, Alex Cabañas, Ted Davis

Alex Cabañas, president/CEO of Benchmark Hospitality International (BHI), talked to the New York travel press last week at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant, ranked among the best restaurants in the country. There’s been a shift of late as BHI is attempting to differentiate the group as a whole with a unified brand voice in the marketplace.

We spoke with the other writers, and many of them knew Bardessono in Napa, Hotel 1000 in Seattle and Villas of Grand Cypress in Orlando, but few of them were as familiar with the BHI brands behind them: Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and Personal Luxury Resorts & Hotels.

For BHI, the overarching company vision relies a lot on experiential storytelling. Cabañas began his presentation with an old photo on the monitors of his father, Burt Cabañas, as a school boy in Cuba.

“So that’s my dad, he started the company 33 years ago having very much an attitude that nothing is impossible,” said Cabañas. He explained how his father and mother met in the States after immigrating from Cuba with almost no resources.

And then over the years, Burt Cabañas built the company up without much fanfare while earning the respect of hotel owners and business/conference travelers based on fiscal responsibility and deft management.

Acknowledging that few of the travel writers in the room knew about Benchmark, Cabañas explained how the company has grown from one man in 1980 to over 6,000 employees today. BHI continues to expand and develop new hotel partnerships in new markets, such as Curaçao last year and an adaptive reuse project in Knoxville opening this fall.

“We built our brand in reverse,” said Cabañas. “Now we’re really wanting to tell the world that we’re this collection of great hotels…. It’s really a celebration of collective individualism, and it’s best told through stories.”

During the 20-minute presentation, Cabañas focused on various stories from hotel guests, both group and leisure, who felt compelled to write in about the deft service and people-centric culture. They ranged from simple stories about anticipating guests’ needs at the hotels to staff members rescuing guests stranded on the side of the road.

Cabañas then ended with a photo of his two sons and a story about one particular day when he was leaving on a business trip. He described how if he was going to be leaving his two sons to travel for work, it had better be for a company worthy of that sacrifice.

Many meeting planners can relate to that. The presentation also hit home with the writers.

“I was particularly fascinated by the backstory, the classic American dream about an immigrant coming to this country and creating success for his family,” said Mark Thompson, contributor to Global Traveler and founder of the MRNY blog. “I mean, here’s a man who came from Cuba with nothing in his pockets, and now his progeny is speaking at the podium at Per Se.”

“Storytelling is the great elixir,” summed up Cabañas, explaining that’s how the company inspires executives and employees to accomplish that goal. “Every meeting should start with a story, every event should start with a story, every stand-up report should start with a story, and every manager should have a story in their pocket.”

“I left with a sort of kinship with the brand,” said Mark Thompson afterward. “There’s a bond there, and that’s what you take away with those kinds of stories that Alex told. In hospitality, it’s all about the importance of employee relationships and guest relationships. And I think, as a travel professional, maybe we don’t always appreciate that enough.”

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