Burt Cabañas, founder and Chairman of Benchmark, a global hospitality company, stepped down as CEO several years ago after building a company that employs over 8,000 associates working at 40+ hotels and conference centers across America, the United Kingdom, Japan and the Caribbean. Mr. Cabañas still remains very active and involved as the company’s Chairman, while his son Alex has assumed the role of President and CEO.
Over the course of nearly four decades as President and CEO, Cabañas became well known throughout the company and the global hospitality industry for his “Burt-isms.” These are foundational principles that underpin the culture of Benchmark’s two hotel brands: Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and the Gemstone Collection.
“At the end of the day…” is one of them, which Cabañas often uses to break through complex challenges to deliver a business-savvy, common sense solution. In our age of constant disruption where we’re tasked with integrating more and more sources of information into our decision-making, Cabañas always has a knack for cutting through the noise to identify what’s most important.
That is a lesson well learned by Mr. Cabañas’ son, Alex Cabañas, now President/CEO of Benchmark Hospitality International. In an effort to guide the rest of the executive corporate team and Benchmark property managers through the transition, Burt Cabañas is publishing a book today based on his most popular Burt-isms: Benchmarking A Life in Business “Todo se Puede.”
Written primarily for internal use at the company, each chapter highlights business and life philosophies that guided Cabañas through the development of his family’s company over the course of more than three decades. As a whole, the book champions the company’s mantra for all employees at every level to always “Be the Difference.”
A Cuban immigrant, Cabañas arrived in America as an eight-year-old with his single mother at his side and little else. He attributes his personal and professional success to his mother who instilled in him the beliefs that nothing is impossible—or “Todo se puede” in Spanish—and that the key to happiness is always, without fail, doing the right thing.
Following is our Q&A with Mr. Cabañas, discussing the story behind Benchmarking A Life in Business, as well as the company’s “mosaic” approach to operations that prioritizes collaboration among employees. [The link for the digital version of the book will be available shortly].
Mosaic Traveler: What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Burt Cabañas: One of the things that has made us as successful as we have been is the ability to retain a culture within the company among all of our employees about “Being the Difference” in the way we service the customer and treat our owners of the properties.
When we got to the point where the company was transitioning to another CEO in January of last year, there were a lot of things that kept that culture going forward that were referred to as others in the company as “Burt-isms.” These Burt-isms didn’t quite appear in any of our policies and procedures. They were just things that made people react to things differently, or think about things differently, by the way I phrased my communications with them.
So we started to record those Burt-isms just to see how they could be documented, and the intent of the book was to carry forth the culture of the company and be a document that could go to every manager in the company. Those Burt-isms, 20 of them, or so, ended up being condensed into 12 chapters in the book.
So that is truly the only purpose, but now as the book gets going, people have started talking about selling this book because other people would want to read it, but today, the main objective of the book is for the company.
MT: What do you feel are some of your biggest impacts personally on the hospitality industry?
Cabañas: My mother’s favorite expression, having arrived here without a country, without a husband, without a language, was “Nothing is Impossible,” or Todo se Puede. So my view of the hospitality industry from the beginning was to take whatever I found that had been repeated for long periods of time and try to redo it in a better way.
If I had to choose two things I’ve impacted, it would be the conference center industry, or the view of conference centers. When I got involved in 1980 and became president of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) in ‘82 through ‘84, conference centers were viewed as an extension of academic institutions, mostly with cafeteria line feeding. There also wasn’t a lot of devotion to the aspects of how your brain can work better if you have some physical exercise within all the training. That led to the mantra for the IACC, which is: “Creating the balance of living, learning and leisure.”
I put that out there because, if you go back, I think I created the opportunity to have the conference center industry evolve into what was the best learning environment for major corporations in the United States.
MT: And your second most significant impact?
Cabañas: Secondly I would say the term “boutique hotel” has been used to an incredible degree for things that aren’t boutique hotels. I personally visualized, in those days 15 years ago or so, a boutique hotel as one of two things. It was either a bed and breakfast in California that happened to have a restaurant attached, or a hotel in New York where you had to thank the general manager for allowing you to be there.
Neither of those were really reflective of what we now refer to today as a Personal Luxury Hotel. It’s a property that is an extension of your home, where you feel comfortable in any kind of dress at any point of time, and where the employees are looking out for what I refer to as “personal luxury.” Those two words are never to be used separately. Not luxury alone, not personal alone, but something that the customers recognize and need in those smaller extensions of your home-type properties. Before, “boutique” just said small. The Personal Luxury Hotel is much more than that.
MT: What do envision as the most important parts in the book for your intended audience?
Cabañas: I would say there’s about 40 different individuals in the company, or in the industry, that I have identified that reflect philosophies that I think should be in the book. If you didn’t do anything but read those people’s excerpts, I would think that would be important.
And then secondly I would say two things. Of course, nothing is impossible—todo se puede—and the other is the idea of: Are you prepared to live with it for the rest of your life? That’s almost like when you talk to somebody in front of your children. The words you say are not only important to the conversation, but they are also important to what you’re reflecting to your children.
I think you need to ask yourself that question when you begin to do things about changing the industry or changing the company or carrying on with a culture. It has to be something that you can easily say, “I’m prepared to live with this for the rest of my life.”
MT: Did you learn anything personally during the writing of the book?
Cabañas: Yeah, there were a lot of Burt-isms (laughing), some of which other people reminded me of. I think that if there`s something I learned from creating the book, or was reminded of, is that you cannot really expect somebody to pay attention to what you are trying to communicate with them if you yourself do not live it.
MT: What is the most important thing for hospitality employees to remember in an industry today that’s going through so much disruption?
Cabañas: I think in the industry today we are getting so technologically advanced in everything we do, we may still at times forget that the customer is the most important person. I was recently having dinner with a very successful developer in the hotel industry who I was coaching for a mutual friend of ours. I was coaching him because he was sort of an introvert. He is a very intelligent person but didn’t seem to come out of his shell when he was in a public setting, and I was coaching him on how to do that. And I remember the developer saying, “That’s not really that important.”
And I said, “Actually, it really is.” We are a theatrical company. We’re a theater. When the curtain opens, our personality is not the same as it is everyday, and this individual needs to know that when he walks through those doors from the back of the hotel to the front of the hotel, he is now on stage. Everything he does is representative of the hotel he’s in, the owners of the hotel, and the management that he works for. And he was flabbergasted, because in his mind, theater wasn’t important to what we do, but theater is very important to what we do.
MT: What should this book accomplish most, at the end of the day? What’s the big picture here?
Cabañas: At the end of the day, the book should make everybody feel comfortable in their skin. It doesn’t try to build a model for everyone to be like. I just gives them guidelines on how to think about our business.
Sometimes, if you look into the future of hospitality, one of the difficulties that we’re going through is people tend to standardize everything down to the #2 pencil. And you can’t do that. You have to give people the freedom to be themselves. They will be better at service and they will enjoy it more. They will have more memories to share and stories to tell, and they will do things for guests that they might not normally do under strict guidance. So at the end of the day, if the managers and employees get that out of the book, it would be great for us and great for the industry.
MT: Regarding that opportunity for more freedom, what are the challenges inherent in that? How do you mitigate risk and failure?
Cabañas: You need to take risks and you need to have put every ounce of energy into a project. I always allowed failure. The only failure that wasn’t acceptable was the failure to do everything you could possibly do to make it right.
At the end of the day, success comes from mistakes, and that is in the book. There are some individuals who have made major mistakes in the company, some of which are still with us today 30 years later. So all of the Burt-isms get put into play, and our excitement in this industry should come from mistakes and great success, and they all need to come with having used every ounce of energy and resources and knowledge that you have.
The most important thing is our “mosaic” approach to tapping into the best of everyone, and getting all of the information you can, as possible. Every piece of that mosaic represents an individual in our company who has something to contribute to the company, and something to contribute to people who don’t know about what they know.
Being internal and not going to those individuals to garner what they know to make the most out of whatever it is you’re working on is a mistake. If you have somebody out there that knows more about what you need to know, and you do not reach out to them in the mosaic to learn what they know, I would consider that a mistake. If you have reached out them, then at the end of the day you will be successful regardless.
This post was written by business travel editor Greg Oates.