Eric Davies, President of the Wurzak Hotel Group, spoke to VISTA Today about growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, his childhood love of sports, and his early entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic. He went to LaSalle University intending to pursue a career in criminal justice, but a part-time job at a hotel revealed his passion for the hospitality industry.
Davies also discussed the Wurzak Hotel Group’s recovery from the pandemic, including plans to bring back employees who have left the hospitality industry. Finally, he talked about the mentors who influenced him and his love for the Eagles.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the oldest of two boys and grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. My parents left many years ago to retire and live in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mom was a stay-at-home mom in the early years, and then she worked in HR for the State of New Jersey for the Division of Parks and Forestry.
My dad was a civil engineer his entire life, and before that, a veteran of the US Marine Corp.
What memories have stayed with you from your childhood in Trenton?
Growing up in Trenton then was so different than now. There was no technology, no real gaming systems and no internet. We came home from school and played sports nonstop until it got dark. It didn’t matter if it was winter, summer, or whatever season it was.
I played just about every sport as a child, and I played football, baseball and ran track in high school.
Of the two, which sport were you better at?
I was definitely better at baseball – I played catcher. I’m 5’5″, so even though I played football and really enjoyed it, I knew it wasn’t a long-term sport for me
As catcher, you’re leading the entire team.
Yes, leading the team, directing the pitcher and seeing the entire field in front of you. I enjoyed playing that position as I felt it was leading the team.
Another example of leadership was, in my early years, when I was 10 years old, I had a paper route as a way to buy baseball cards. I didn’t really understand it then, however that was my first foray into business. The route started with one street, and then my goal was to get the next street, and two streets down, and three streets.
After a year or two I was delivering to the entire neighborhood and I started to sub-contract out some of my streets to friends as the business grew too much for me to handle each morning before school. Every Friday night I would make my collections for the upcoming week from each residence I served and would then pay my friends for the work they completed.
Where did that drive to expand your paper route come from?
Definitely from my father and from my desire to be the best at whatever I was doing. My father taught me that hard work and loyalty would always pay off. It didn’t matter how many jobs my father had to work to ensure that we went to Catholic school versus public school, or if we wanted to travel with a sports team or play 20 different sports, he would do it. If it meant that at 5:00 pm, when his regular job was done, he had to go to another one after that, he would do it to ensure my brother and I had the best life possible. Looking back, I think I wanted to work just as hard so he didn’t.
When was the first time recognized you were bringing something unique to the table?
I got a summer job at my mom’s work at the State of New Jersey in downtown Trenton when I was 14 or 15. I wasn’t working with my mom directly, but she was in the same building. I worked there for seven years, even into college. Every summer while most of my friends were having fun all day, I was getting up and driving into work with my mom to start at 8am.
Each summer I would get more responsibility and continued to learn in a business environment so young in life. I started to attend meetings, working on budgets and spreadsheets and interacting with executives on a daily basis.
I saw how the leaders led their teams and figured out early on who was respected most and why they were respected. The teams that communicated the best, enjoyed their working environment and were made to feel apart of something were the most successful. That was really powerful for my future development in leadership of having that time as a young adult.
That’s when I started to see there was something more here. And I think my boss, Marianne Verde, saw something as well.
What do you think Mary Ann saw in you?
I think she saw that I was loyal, determined, and committed. As a 14- or 15-year-old, I was coming to work until 3:00 in the afternoon during my summer instead of hanging out with my friends or going away to some sports camp. She was a great leader and taught me so many valuable business lessons. She trusted me to complete a project correctly and if I didn’t she explained how to make it right so I knew for the next time. She didn’t have me making photocopies all day or cleaning the file room, she actually gave me projects to learn from. Leaders teach and mentor and Marianne had a big role in my future professional development.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I loved all genres of music and still do. When I was in high school, I was listening to a lot of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and U2, but I also liked hip-hop and rap as it was gaining in popularity and culture. I listened to a little bit of everything as I think most kids did, although I wasn’t really a fan of country music. I do have to admit that I listen to a little country music every now and then.
Did you have a favorite artist?
Now, my favorite artist is Bono from U2 who I have seen perform all over the world. But when I was a little kid, my favorite was Michael Jackson. I went to his Victory tour with his brothers at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia in 1984 which was my 1st concert. I remember standing the entire concert on the floor probably about 20 rows or so away from the stage waiting in anticipation for him to throw his hat into the crowd as he did each night. I didn’t catch it but it was a fun night either way.
Where did you end up going to college, Eric?
I went to La Salle University in Philadelphia. I wanted to go into criminal justice and work on the federal side for the DEA, the FBI, or one of those organizations. La Salle had a great criminal justice program, so I was a criminal justice and sociology dual major. At that time I hadn’t been exposed to hospitality yet and didn’t experience the military so some type of law enforcement is what I set my sights on.
Did you look at any other schools?
I was looking down south as we had family down there and I loved the large school football programs. I was a big University of Alabama fan, and coincidentally, my daughter ended up going there. Roll Tide.
Looking back, was La Salle a good choice for you?
Although I didn’t get to experience the large school effect, I think it was a good fit. It was close to home, so I could continue to go back and forth to Trenton when I needed to. I expanded my summer job at the State of New Jersey to more of a year round intern, and I would drive or train back and forth from Philly, where I lived, to Trenton a few times a week to work. I stacked my school schedule to have off on certain days which allowed me to keep working past the summer.
How did you make the transition from criminal justice to hospitality?
While attending LaSalle I was living on City Avenue with some friends. Right next to me was the Holiday Inn Hotel that I could walk to. I was looking for another part-time job while I was going to school, and they took a chance and hired me. I worked in the PBX department, which essentially was answering the calls coming into the hotel or for guests who were staying in the hotel. This was long before they automated everything. We actually had hard keys in those days to use for guest room entry unlike today where you can now use your cell phone.
I fell in love with hospitality and the fact that every day was different. I interacted with different people daily, which I thought was great. It was up to us to create that memorable moment, whether it was a business trip or a family vacation with the kids.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you?
I mentioned Marianne at the State of New Jersey. The second would be Joe Longo, the general manager at the Holiday Inn. I still keep in touch with Joe today and get his advice from time to time. He runs one of the most amazing hotels in North America, the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia which is a historic hotel. It’s been five-diamond rated for 20-plus years under his leadership and is a great example of hospitality.
He’s the one who mentored me in each of the departments and showed me that to ask people to do a job, you should experience the job yourself. In hotels at times, it’s very hands-on. Whether it’s in the kitchen or front desk, you have to be always on your game. He showed me a passion for the business that I never knew before. I started to understand that I could combine that business knowledge
When Joe left in 1998 or 1999, he recommended me to the ownership to be the GM of that hotel. I had grown to be his assistant manager at that point after working for about five years. I was probably the youngest GM of any hotel in the City of Philadelphia (at least it felt that way) at 23 or 24 and not far removed from college. I laugh now because I had the confidence of a peacock and thought I knew everything, but looking back, I had so much more to learn about my profession and about life in general.
What was it that drew you into the hospitality business?
It’s just that every day was a different day and I enjoyed interacting from people all over the world. It wasn’t sitting at a desk, doing the same thing over and over. It’s fun meeting new people and having the opportunity to create a memorable experience for them, whether it’s a guest or a team member.
I also have to stay active – even now, in my personal life, I have to stay active. If I’m sitting, that means nothing is getting done. My wife Carol and I travel a great deal when we’re not working – we want to see the world and experience new cultures. We’re always on the go and doing something
Looking back, was there anybody else who saw promise in you and opened doors for you?
It’s clearly been Howard Wurzak, the chairman and CO-CEO of our company. I joined Wurzak Hotel Group 20 years ago as a property GM and have had the opportunity to continue my growth under his leadership and mentorship ever since. What Joe Longo started in my early years in the industry, Howard has continued to mentor and develop me in the last 20 I’ve been with him. He is a hospitality industry veteran and I have been fortunate enough to work very closely with him and learn from him and build that trust and loyalty. I am in this very fortunate position today of leading the company and executing on our growth plans due to the mentorship that Howard has provided me.
It sounds like you’ve had some great mentors. Have you turned around and mentored anybody?
It absolutely critical that I mentor and pass along the knowledge that I have to develop the future leaders of our industry. I have a few team members on my staff that I have been fortunate to work very closely with and mentor. One team member in particular is Ben Graupen who started with our company just before my arrival 20 years ago and right out of college at Drexel. He’s my right-hand man now and one of the most trusted people on my team.
Over the past few years, it’s been my personal goal to identify, train, develop, and mentor all levels of team members. Again, identifying and developing the future leaders of our industry.
Can you give me an overview of the Wurzak Group?
We started in Philadelphia and now have offices in Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale. We own and manage 10 hotels right now. We have ownership in an additional seven hotels through our investment company, DoveHill, for a total of 17 hotels.
Locally, in Montgomery County, we own the Sheraton Valley Forge and the Element Valley Forge in King of Prussia. In Philadelphia, we own and manage the Hilton Hotel and the Homewood Suites, which have been around for about 20 years. In addition, we have the Home2 Suites at 12th and Arch, right across from Reading Terminal.
Our remaining hotels are in Reston Virginia and four properties in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My wife and I split our time between our residence in Flourtown and Fort Lauderdale.
We’ve recently started construction on our 18th hotel in St. Petersburg, which will be coming online in 2024. We are proud to have roughly 800-plus team members across through the portfolio.
We’re at the end of 2022. What are your priorities and opportunities over the next year?
As you said, the pandemic devastated my industry. There’s no other word for it. This has been worse than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis put together. It’s just been devastating for our industry, not just from a financial standpoint but also from a human capital standpoint. We had amazing people who were part of our company who are no longer part of it because our hotels were forced to close or furlough employees at the start of the pandemic. Many of those great people have found jobs outside of the service industry at this point.
Our focus is growth, and that’s twofold. One is company-wise, from a hotel standpoint. I want to continue to grow the company. I want to grow a third-party management platform as we’ve been very successful at operating all of our own assets for many years, and now we’re looking to take that into a third-party platform in 2023.
And secondly, growing the people side of the business through culture. We need great people back in our business. We have so many open positions that we want to fill with great people. People are just not engaged in the service and people side of our business. We have to get back to the human side of the business, and that’s what hospitality is all about. We lost so many great people – how do we get them back? How do we attract them? I think the only way we can do it is through culture. Dollars and cents – everybody can pay for employees, however, you will not be successful if you don’t have anything that ties people to a company. That’s my focus, how do we attract and retain great people back into our business. How do we excite them to stay in hospitality for the future of our industry.
How would you define Wurzak Group’s culture? What draws people in?
I think it’s our human touch as well as our entrepreneurial mentality and work ethic. We are hands-on to support our team at all times. I’m active throughout all of our hotels – visiting the properties, collaborating with team members, and making one-on-one connections. In our industry the larger corporate organizations are just not taking this approach. They are focused on reporting and bottom-line results and while they are both important, it’s also important to have those real life connections with team members at each hotel. We strategize internally a great deal about culture and continuously roll out new initiatives to improve our communication within the organization and ensure our team members feel like they are part of a family.
What trends are you seeing in the industry that allow you to be hopeful and optimistic in building this 20th property?
For all of our hotels, our fourth quarter year over year is looking very promising. Leisure is driving everything right now. The average rates on the leisure side are up compared to pre-pandemic levels, however all of our costs are significantly up. Food, Beverage, Labor, Energy are all above historic levels at this point.
I am seeing significant growth on the group side – people are itching to travel again and are now holding in person company meetings. These meetings tend to be more regional now and with smaller numbers of attendees, however we are encouraged with the number of requests for proposals and the pace of the bookings. There is so much talk about high levels of inflation, interest rates continue to rise and fears of a 2023 recession are all factors we have to overcome. There’s an inherent need for companies to interact with their customers as well as their team members, so I believe as we progress through 2023 that pre-pandemic level of business travel will come back very strong. We’ve clearly seen it on the leisure side of the business with people wanting to be out and about, not stuck behind a computer or sitting in their house. I believe that trend will follow with the corporate side as well.
Tell me what you do with all your spare time – when you’re not traveling or in Florida.
I’m an avid Eagles fan and a long time season ticket holder, so it doesn’t matter where we are – if I’m in Fort Lauderdale working at our office there, we fly back every weekend for the games. My wife and I travel a lot for work and outside of work. If we’re not traveling for work, we’re hopefully visiting a beach somewhere.
What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been to?
My favorite place in the world is Sicily. That’s where my grandfather was from, and we’ve been to Rome probably a dozen times and finally made the trek over to Sicily before the pandemic. I was taken aback by the beauty, the people, and the food – it was amazing. My wife and I love Rome, too. It’s one of my favorite cities for the architecture, the food, and the hustle and bustle of the city. Sipping on an espresso or drinking a glass of wine in front of the Coliseum or at the Spanish Steps is just truly amazing. I love pasta and I have eaten some of the best pasta in the world in Rome.
What’s your favorite beach?
Wailea Beach in Maui, Hawaii, has great memories for us. From the time my daughter was 10 to 17 or 18, every summer, we went to Maui for two-plus weeks and stayed at The Grand Wailea hotel. We’d stay at this same hotel every year and run into the same people, to the point that we met people there over the years who then vacationed with us outside of Hawaii. It’s always going to be a special place for us for the amazing times we spent there with our daughter Bridgette.
Do you read much?
I read a little bit. Honestly, when I’m not working, I try to decompress. I don’t get the opportunity to read much – I wish I could make the time to do that, however I am currently reading a book called “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish.
In a chaotic world, Eric, what keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
People keep me hopeful. Human interaction keeps me hopeful. It’s a part of me, being in the hospitality world. I just want to interact, see different places, and experience different things. I feel like all of us want to do that. That’s what our industry is about. Creating lasting impressions and memorable moments.
Finally, Eric, what’s the best advice you ever got?
There’s been several through the years. One is, “Focus on details.” In my world, the details matter. The details are what take you from good to great. I’m big on the details, testing, and then executing.
Years ago, I remember Joe Longo telling me, “Stay focused, stay hungry, stay loyal, but always lead.” Just lead by example because people will follow leaders.
We say a lot in our organization: “Slow down to speed up.” If we’re going crazy and running all over the place and doing many different things were never going to be successful. We need to slow down to speed it up so we can grow effectively. That’s what our focus is right now. Growing for the future.