Published on 06/27/2017
Entrepreneurship at its finest
Julian and Kim McQueenIn this exclusive interview, Founder and CEO of Innisfree Hotels, Julian MacQueen and wife Kim MacQueen offer insight to hospitality students and chronicle how Innisfree came to be one of the Gulf Coast's leading hospitality companies.
Innisfree Hotels was founded in 1985 when Mr. MacQueen left his post as Executive Vice President for Family Inns of America and acquired his first hotel in Mobile, Alabama. Innisfree Hotels now consists of 19 owned and managed properties with 2000 employees and is expected to grow by 40% in the next 18 months.
[GHTM] You graduated from the University of South Alabama with a degree in psychology, what was your ‘aha’ moment when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in hospitality?
[Julian] It was more of an ‘oh no’ experience. Six months before graduation, I went to my university advisor like a cat bringing a dead rat into the house and told him that I was 22 and married with a 1 year old child and wanted to see what jobs were posted for psychology graduates with a B.A. in Psychology. He laughed and said, ‘you can’t get a job in the field with a B.A…. you need to go to graduate school!’ So, crestfallen, I told him that I couldn’t afford it. After not much time, I realized my strongest credential was not my degree, but my experience. I had accumulated 7 years of hotel experience by then, while putting myself through school in the hotel business and summer jobs in hotels starting at 15 years old.
[GHTM] Tell us about an anecdote when growing up that now relates to how Innisfree Hotels came to be.
[Julian] I believe my dad built in me an idea that I should be entrepreneurial. When I was 10, he set me up with an advanced light bulb selling kit called ‘Merlite Lightbulbs’ that were guaranteed for life! My dog Topper and I would get on my bike and go door to door. My dad gave me the incentive that if I sold enough bulbs to buy a boat, he would buy the engine. The light bulbs cost 98 cents so it was a hard sell in 1960.Later on, after working my way up to a sales manager with Hyatt Corporation, I started a hot air balloon business on the side that made money by selling advertising and instruction. Through that business, I met many business people. I was given a challenge and opportunity to learn the development side of the business if I was able to fill up an hotelier’s 17 hotels for the World’s Fair in 1982. I filled his hotels up and he taught me how to develop hotels, and in-turn, gave me some equity in each one.
[GHTM] How instrumental has Kim been in your success?
[Julian] Great question. She has been my moral compass, soul mate, confidante, savant, and muse. She has been a refuge of peace and insight. As a clinical psychologist, specializing in couples therapy, she was eminently qualified for the job. She and I decided that we could form a company that allowed people to feel their feelings in a safe and professional environment versus the bifurcated and schizophrenic world of professionalism that was prevalent in the 1970’s. The rule then was that personal feelings were left at the time clock. The response, ‘that seems like a personal matter’ was the standard when an employee was dealing with any of the many ‘isms’ in our society. She and I worked on a systematic process for open and honest interpersonal relationships that has become the bedrock of Innisfree’s success called ‘the cooperative mode.’
[GHTM] What does the couple behind Innisfree Hotels like doing in their free time?
[Julian] We travel and live part time on this little island between Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia called Saltspring Island. We go to two movies a week when we are close to a routine here at home. We have a go-fast airplane and we like to pick friends and places to visit for long weekends. And we love, love, love to have our grand kids to ourselves.
[GHTM] Does the company invest in social responsibility and the community? How so?
[Julian] We describe Innisfree as a triple bottom-line company (TBL). I was in the Great Bear Rain Forest just south of Alaska in what Condé Nast called the ‘Best Resort Hotel in the World’ and the general manager told me about this initiative supported by UNESCO, that measures success by people, plant, and traditional profit. This, coupled with the principles of the Baha'i Faith, called upon us to look at ourselves as agents of change. We think giving back to the communities where we are located is how we can make a difference. We focus on the blind (Kim’s dad was blind and an inspiration to us), community gardening, and K-12 education. These areas are our primary focus, but in Pensacola we support many other great causes. The last thing we want in our epitaph is ‘they built a bunch of hotels.’
[GHTM] What are some of the biggest challenges the hospitality industry faces?
[Julian] Technology is driving so much. Smart rooms are a reality with keyless entry and a plethora of changes to the guest experience. The ubiquity of social media and the internet of everything forces us to be vigilant in everything we do. I knew we were entering a whole new world when someone texted that they needed fresh towels rather than calling down to the front desk! Equally concerning, is the culture of care that we try everyday to emulate throughout the enterprise. We are always testing and looking at ways to push this through the organization and to scale it with our growth – a particularly difficult task with the high turnover in our industry. Those are two biggies, but looking forward to the millennials is a huge buzz in our industry too, as they turn into our largest consumers in 2020 and the Baby boomers move to second place. This effects all aspects of our business including design, service, standards, employee retention, and satisfaction.
[GHTM] How does Innisfree Hotels look like in the next few years?
[Julian] We are growing by 40% in the next 18 months. We currently have 2000 employees, and we will have 4000 employees with the hotels we have in our pipeline. We are building and buying in high barrier to entry destination markets that have high demand periods of compression.
[GHTM] How has working with GHTM benefited Innisfree Hotels and how do you think it will benefit GHTM students in the future?
[Julian] As you know, we have the MacQueen Guest Experience Management Program housed within the Department of Global Hospitality and Tourism Management, which we have funded and it will become official soon. The idea here is that business should work hand-in-hand with academia to give the students real world expectations and training whenever possible. Remember my experience going to my advisor my senior year and him laughing at me saying there were no jobs for students with B.A.? Well, I want to prevent that from happening at UWF. We are supporting GHTM anyway we can; by inviting faculty to our hotels to experience the latest tools in leadership and offering management to lecture in the classroom. We offer internships at different properties. We have several graduates working for us full time and we think this is symbiotic. Additionally, I wanted to be an example for other business people to support the university in their respective fields so this collaboration expands to other programs and departments around UWF.
[GHTM] What candidate profile does Innisfree Hotels look for, if we think about a long professional career with the company?
[Julian] Servant leadership can be over used, but in this case it is real. If a person has a genuine desire to serve mankind then they can have a long and satisfying career in hospitality. Having soft skills developed by the social sciences I think would be a plus. Not too surprising is the usefulness of my psychology degree that I use every day as we focus on our culture and how we want to be in the world with each other and with our guests. So many parts of one’s character is drawn upon in our field. The successful long-term players are genuinely and authentically hospitable. They gain energy by serving. They see each guest interaction as an opportunity to change that person’s life just a little bit or sometimes a lot. If that is something that sounds strange to you, then you are probably going to be better off in another field, or you should focus on the more technical side of our business. At the end of day, it is about being with others in a positive way and using your street smarts to sort out a constantly changing daily environment. Many would prefer to have something more routine and predictable, but this field is anything but that.
[GHTM] What wisdom would you share with our students and industry partners reading this interview?
[Julian] The core of our business is service. I tell everyone that our guest is going to have an experience when they arrive. Our job is to make it a positive one. There is only so much you can learn from a book or a class. I would encourage everyone to get some experience while you are pursuing your degree. This way you will know if this is what you’re cut out to do. The field has become so sophisticated over the last three decades and it calls on many skill sets that were not really obvious to me when I started. Finance, Marketing, Food and Beverage, Housekeeping, Front of House, Statistical Analysis, Forecasting, Design, and even Theater come into play in our business. I think it is one of the most stimulating and positive careers you could hope to be a part of. What is more noble a profession than hospitality?
Interview by Hugo Reyes Duran