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McKibbon Hospitality CEO Randy Hassen talks humble beginnings and hospitality trends at Conversation with a CEO

TAMPA – McKibbon Hospitality CEO Randy Hassen’s 32-year career at the hotel management firm began on a downtrodden note.

With less than $100 in his bank account and no money to repair his car, the University of Georgia student went around to every hotel within walking distance, desperate for a job. He thought his experience bussing tables at a restaurant would get him in the door.

Unfortunately, nearly every hotel said no. At the final hotel — the Days Inn in Athens, Georgia — a “Welcome Home” sign greeted him. Hassen said he thought the sign was odd for a hotel. But the placard would be a prescient one, foretelling his long career with the hospitality management firm.

Hassen was offered a part-time job as a houseman carrying luggage and tending to guests’ needs at $4.50 an hour.

“Here I am 32 years later, and it still feels like home,” he told a roomful of nearly 100 attendees at the Conversation with a CEO event hosted by the USF Muma College of Business. The event was led by Interim Dean GJ de Vreede, who asked Hassen questions about his career with the nearly 100-year-old company.

During the 90-minute conversation, Hassen talked about his humble beginnings, offered students career advice, touched on weathering the COVID pandemic and shared how the company uses real-time data analytics to manage its nearly 100 hotel properties.

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Hassen shared stories from some of the darkest days in the hospitality industry.

When the COVID pandemic hit three years ago, he was at a conference in Washington, D.C. with Marriott and saw that hotels in Italy were seeing occupancy rates drop from 90% to 9% overnight. Nine days later, Florida hotels were seeing the same dramatic drops.

Hassen said their company went from 2,500 to 500 associates.

“It was probably the worst day of my life,” he said with emotion in his voice. “But every single day we saw improvement and that was key. The one thing we didn’t cut was the chaplain’s program.”

Hassen said the lessons learned from surviving the pandemic were many.

“It taught me the value of the guest. If the guests aren’t staying in your hotel, you’re not going to be able to pay your paychecks,” he said. “And the resiliency of our company, of our industry, of our employees, is what stands out the most.”

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Hassen said he’s had two bosses at McKibbon Hospitality and is thankful both have taught him many lessons in leadership.

One of the best pieces of advice from his long-time mentor: “The most important guest is the one right in front of you. Take care of that one and the rest will take care of itself.”

Hassen also touched on trends in the hospitality industry and offered career and hiring advice.

On how Airbnb has impacted the hospitality industry: “It complements our business. It promotes tourism. We don’t consider them a competitor.”

On what he looks for in a new hire: “Individuals who have a calling and are passionate. They need to be genuine and authentic. Usually, if they have that, then we can train them on the technical as long as they bring the personality.”

On making mistakes: “The lesson learned on mistakes is that I’ve made plenty, but don’t make the same mistake twice. Learn from it and move on. You don’t say, ‘Is this the way to go?’ You have to say, ‘Is this the best way to go?”

Hassen also shared that the decisions students make can impact their careers.

He said he was a basketball player and wanted to attend the walk-on tryouts for the basketball team at the University of Georgia and needed the day off to go to tryouts. He said he didn’t want to go to work. But then common sense kicked in and he realized he needed the job.

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In retrospect, he said it was the right decision because even if he made the team, he wouldn’t have had time for much else and wouldn’t have gone far.  

After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1994, Hassen served as the opening general manager of the Courtyard Tampa North before opening the Courtyard Tampa Downtown, where he was awarded the 1995 Courtyard by Marriott General Manager of the Year Award.

He also serves as a member of the AC Hotels by Marriott Franchise Advisory Council and on the board of directors for the Ryan Nece Foundation.

Hassen also helped forge a partnership between McKibbon Hospitality and USF that opens the door for the next generation of hospitality students. In November 2021, McKibbon Hospitality partnered with the Muma College of Business to give students in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management first-hand experience in the hospitality management industry by creating an innovative hospitality teaching lab program.

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