Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Kinley Hotel employee Rett Bryant checks in Andrew Littleton, of Nashville, as his colleague Jake Goheen waits behind him in the Kinley's lobby in downtown Chattanooga on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Vision Hospitality, which owns the Kinley, has launched Humanist Hospitality to runs its hotels, as well as hotels outside its portfolio.

As it returns to pre-pandemic employment and hotel occupancy levels, Vision Hospitality has created a management subsidiary called Humanist Hospitality that will run hotels for clients across the country, as well as its own properties.

"When you look at the investment thesis of most hotel owners ... their investment thesis is in the dividend, not necessarily the management," said David Martin, the chief operating office for both Humanist and Vision. "We're a highly entrepreneurial company that treats every asset like it's ours, whether it is or not."

Vision Hospitality, founded in 1997 by CEO Mitch Patel, owns 43 hotels, with 14 in the Chattanooga area. In spring 2020, as the pandemic hollowed out the hospitality industry, Vision laid off 1,100 of its 1,500 employees. Now, a year-and-a-half later, Humanist Hospitality has more than 1,400 employees, and is trying to hire more in a tight labor market, Martin said.

"We've hired everybody that we can hire back," he said. "The next strategy is to bring back housekeeping."

The largest department in any hotel is housekeeping, but most hotels have turned to third-party contractors for the service because of labor shortages, he said.

"At the current level of employment we have today, plus contract housekeeping, we would exceed [pre-pandemic] employee numbers probably by 300," Martin said.

Vision Hospitality now functions as an investment development company, and employs just 12 people, he said.

"At every hotel, every employee works for Humanist," Martin said.

The idea for Humanist had been around for years when he arrived at Vision Hospitality in January 2020, Martin said. The pandemic sharpened leadership's focus on how to scale the resources of Vision to other hotel operators, he said.

"When the pandemic hit, and we went through what we all went through, we came up with the idea to launch Humanist as a third-party management platform with an emphasis around the human connection," Martin said.

Humanist Hospitality operates all the hotels in Vision's portfolio, as well as hotels in Colorado and Texas owned by other companies, he said. Plans are to grow that model nationally, Martin said.

"Humanist Hospitality could be a great third-party option for second- and third-generation hoteliers," he said. "We can take management operations off their plate so they can function as investors, owners, developers, and not have the weight and responsibility for management."

The company takes on every aspect of overall management, including guest services, food and beverage, housekeeping, accounting, revenue management, sales, marketing and social media, Martin said.

During the pandemic, Vision opened seven new hotels, most of which had already been in development when the crisis stuck, Martin said. As leaders built out the Humanist brand, they have focused on rewarding the employees who helped carry the company through the crisis, he said.

"We have included them in a profit-sharing model to create a true partnership with them, doubled down on training and development and internal promotion efforts," he said. "It felt appropriate to bring them into a higher level of partnership."

The hotels in Vision's portfolio are typically in mid-size and drive-in markets, and those have fared better than hotels in large urban centers that rely on international and convention travel, Martin said.

"Leisure destinations and drive markets are highly attractive," he said. "Urban areas — downtown Seattle, Chicago, New York, are all struggling to reopen."

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