Interview with Tom Corcoran, Jr., FelCor Lodging Trust and Chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association

by Julia Bourque
Interview with Tom Corcoran, Jr., FelCor Lodging Trust and Chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association

Tom Corcoran started his first job in the hotel industry as a dishwasher at the age of 14. Today he serves as the chairman of the board for FelCor Lodging Trust, a chain of 100 hotels.

He held various hotel restaurant jobs and worked his way up in the hospitality industry as a teen. He started college, had a few false starts and was drafted. He served his Vietnam hitch in Alaska; once back to Kansas, he found renewed interest in his studies. "I really needed a kick in the butt to get serious about education; my education had to be important. War did that for me," he tells HospitalitySchools.com.

With the help of the GI bill and support of his wife and family, he worked his way through Washburn University in Topeka, graduated with a political science major and went on receive a Juris Doctorate Degree at Washburn University School of Law. Then he headed right back to the hospitality business, this time on the management track at Brock Hotel Corporation, the first Holiday Inn franchisee and parent company to Chuck E. Cheese Entertainment Inc. (CEC Entertainment, formerly ShowBiz Pizza). Over 11 years spanning the entirety of the ‘80s, he became the president and CEO of Brock and a member of the pizza chain's board of directors.

Mr. Corcoran co-founded FelCor in 1991 with Hervey Feldman (the founder of Embassy Suites). The duo grew FelCor from one hotel (a Holiday Inn in Dallas) to a large publicly traded hotel Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) [FCH:NYSE]. Mr. Corcoran served CEO until 2006, when he became chairman of the board.

An active member of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), Mr. Corcoran took the helm as AHLA chairman in 2008. He has served in various leadership roles within the organization, including vice chairman of the board and as vice chair of the Political Action Committee. A member of the association's Industry Real Estate Financing Advisory Council, he received the council's prestigious C. Everett Johnson Award. In addition, he is on the board of trustees for the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation (AH&LEF), which grants scholarships.

Mr. Corcoran serves as chairman of Embassy Suites' Advisory Council to Hilton Hotels; as vice chairman of the International Association of Holiday Inns (IAHI); and in various leadership capacities with the Board of Governors for the University of North Texas School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management.

He delights in his professional, educational and mentoring activities in the hospitality industry as well as in the boardroom. Mr. Corcoran describes the basic skills need in his new role as chairman of FelCor as "a lot of experience and prior responsibilities" than puts him in the "position to provide ‘old fart' advice."

Mr. Corcoran & His Career

Tell us about your hospitality career. How did you get into it, and how did you advance to where you are today?

I started out in the hotel business as a dishwasher at age 14 in Topeka, Kan., and held various jobs in hotel restaurant business after that. A few years later, I got drafted and went into the service. After coming back from the war, I went to college at Washburn University, earned my undergraduate degree, and went to law school at Washburn University School of Law. It was after law school that I decided to go back into the hotel business.

I initially started working for Chuck E. Cheese's for 11 years in the 80s when the company moved to Dallas, and I eventually moved my way up to CEO of Brock Hotel Corporation, which owned Chuck E. Cheese Entertainment, Inc. After running that business for a while, I decided to sell it and start my own with a friend, Hervey Feldman. We used the first three letters of his last name and first three letters of my last name to come up with FelCor Lodging Trust. In 1991, we bought a Dallas Holiday Inn. We then bought five more hotels in 1994 and eventually got up to 200 hotels at our peak in 1999. Today we're down to about 100 hotels.

What led you into the area of hospitality?

It was a job. It started out that way, a place to make some money. I've always liked the people side of the business; I just absolutely enjoyed it. Later in life, I decided I didn't necessarily want to run a hotel business but rather own one, so that's what I did.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I think you find most of the people in hospitality have "type-A" personalities; they're very optimistic. If you like working with and interacting with people, hospitality is a great field to go into. You really have to like doing it, serving and pleasing people.

What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

There were a couple people who inspired me. One man worked his tail off-and once told me, "You have to be willing to go into work at 5 a.m. and not get done to midnight." I knew some other people who accumulated a lot of wealth and things, and I admired what they had. The wealth and freedom it gave them, that was always inspiring. It's been nice to be able to have three children and send them to college wherever they wanted to go.

What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?

The biggest success was the merger of Show Biz Pizza Time, Inc. out of bankruptcy and Chuck E. Cheese's. There were a lot of people who told me it wouldn't work, and it did. I take great pride in that company's success; now it's a part of Americana. Starting FelCor from the bottom up has also been a great success.

What are some of your most favorite business moments and why?

The thing I've enjoyed the most has been starting a business from scratch.

I went from working out of home, then someone's office, then leasing a building and eventually owning my own building. I've raised billions of dollars, and I get sheer pleasure out of being able to work in an environment that reflects my ideals. I believe people should enjoy work. I have popcorn machines throughout my building so people can buy popcorn for 25 cents. Then, we take that money and donate it to charity. I cook lunch once a month for everyone, which I've done for the last 12 years. I think it's important to develop an environment where people are able to enjoy themselves. I always tell people, "I don't want you to tell me I'm glad it's Friday; I want you to say, ‘I'm glad to be at work.' " When you have your own company, you get to make your own rules, and it's nice to see that others can work under your rules; people don't leave here.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

Well, I became chairman of the board for FelCor in 2006 and will be the American Hotel & Lodging Association chairman in 2008. Being a part of AHLA is a way for me to give back, and that's what I hope to do more of in the future. I want to spend more time on education boards, charity boards. We do a lot of fundraising for the homeless and for juvenile diabetes. I think people need to do that (give back) when they get to a certain point in their career. People are always looking for guidance how to do things better; it's important to become a mentor to other people.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your hospitality education. How did you decide to study hospitality? And how did you find a school?

I actually flunked out of the College of St. Benedict my first year there. My father said I had to go to school, so I went to Washburn and flunked out of it, too. Then I got drafted and spent my time in Fairbanks, Alaska, during Vietnam. My parents didn't have money for school, but I was fortunate enough to have the GI bill and a part-time job. I also had a willing and supportive wife.

With all this support, I was able to go through college and law school. I don't think I flunked because I was stupid; I was just unmotivated. I really needed a kick in the butt to get serious about education; my education had to be important. War did that for me.

Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

I would have majored in English instead of Political Science.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious hospitality schools, departments or programs?

Cornell University, Johnson College and Wells College are very good schools for hospitality.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in certain areas of hospitality?

You should always try and get in the best schools if you have the grades and the money. Usually the real world will dictate your options, unless you are fortunate to receive scholarships to any of your choices. The best schools will give you more employment opportunities, but that should not be a limiting factor for those who have the desire and drive to succeed will do so regardless of their place of education.

What can students applying to hospitality schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

You should get good grades and a high SAT and have some work experience. Getting into a great school requires these as a minimum. However, getting a great education at any school should give you the tools to succeed if you have the right desire and ambition.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree? Is it necessary?

I usually suggest that people work for a period of time prior to getting their graduate degree so that they can put in practice a lot of what they have learned. There are successful people with a graduate degree, and there are also a lot of successful people without a graduate degree. The choice of getting one is yours.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in hospitality?

Try and get some work experience to be sure that this is what you want to do.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

I am the Chairman of the Board of FelCor Lodging Trust. FelCor is a company that I co-founded in 1991 with Hervey Feldman, and we grew from one hotel to a large publicly traded hotel REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust). I work with the Board of the Directors and the CEO as an adviser and to help with the strategic direction of the company. It has been as a natural progression after being the CEO and founder of the company until about a year ago when I became the chairman. The basic skills for this position involve a lot of experience and prior responsibilities, and I refer to it as being in a position to provide "old fart advice."

You belong to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. How is such membership important to your career? Are there other professional hospitality or affiliated organizations students should consider joining?

It is a great place to network and discuss with other people how they do a lot of the same things that you do. I have found the networking and friendships very rewarding and very important to continuing to learn and grow, no matter how long you have been in the business. You should be active in any brand association if you are a franchisee. In addition, there are the various conferences that you should attend, including the American Lodging Investment Summit and the Tisch Hospitality Event at New York University.

What are some common myths about your profession?

That good customer service is the most important component to success. I think it is necessary, but you have got to have the right location, spend the right amount of capital on building, furnishings and high-speed Internet or such other specific needs at the hotels in order for good customer service to make a difference.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Spending enough time to work on where the customer is going and what you can do to make the customer more satisfied and exceed their expectations.

Best tip for a novice?

Have a goal and the desire and drive to achieve the goal.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

The biggest stress is usually financial, beyond your health and personal relationships. You should be willing, when you are younger, to take a chance with someone or something that you believe. The experience and upside could be very rewarding.

Job Information & Advice

Do you feel it is important for someone to be passionate about hospitality in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Yes, and I think it should be true in whatever profession you choose.

What are some hospitality trends currently in play?

Lots of so-called boutique hotels with a lifestyle feel. I am not sure what it is, but it is supposed to create a feeling that you are selling more than just a hotel room. What is really happening is that our customers want more than just a room. Fifty years ago, a predictable, clean hotel room with a swimming pool was the fad and the beginning of Holiday Inns. The customer has changed over the last 50 years, and the customer cannot be pigeonholed in the same manner.

What specialized computer programs do hospitality professionals typically use?

Microsoft Excel is very important.

How available are hospitality internships? What is the best way for an internship candidate to shine in the application process?

Most hotel companies have an internship program. Candidates should have a cover letter explaining why you want the job, written in your own handwriting.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating hospitality students? Specialty areas?

There are a lot of job openings in various positions today, as the market is very strong. Turnover remains very high for the industry and experienced people are a premium. So, those who have held part-time positions during school or during the summer in the hotel business will have an advantage.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

Be standing there when the person coming in is walking in the door.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the hospitality profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

Work hard and do not give up. You have got to want something; you have to set goals; than work your a** off to achieve your goals.

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