As a college student, Expotel Hospitality President and Chief Development Officer Michael Nixon was considering different careers—medicine, law, and especially, espionage—while working summers at a hotel. Describing his journey from his college days, he told LODGING, “I had majored in the Russian language and minored in international affairs, with thoughts of joining the CIA or the NSA, that is, until I factored in the starting salary.” With a young family to consider and years of progressively more responsible positions in hospitality under his belt, upon graduation, he abandoned thoughts of becoming a spy to instead become general manager of the hotel where he’d cut his hospitality teeth.
Nixon said he never regretted that decision since hospitality suited him, as it does many others who possess the “hospitality gene.” “I’m in love with all the things that make good hoteliers—being with people, employees, and building teams,” he explained.
It all began for Nixon at Mark II Beach Resort (now Seahaven Beach Hotel), in Panama City Beach, Florida, where he remained for nearly eight years, starting as a night auditor while in college and becoming GM just two years later. Then came nearly 25 years with Innisfree Hotels, starting as GM of Beachside Resort and Conference Center, also in Panama City.
At Innisfree, he received “25 years of mentorship” from founder Julian MacQueen, who he places at the “top of the list” of those who taught him the hotel business. “As far as the nuts and bolts of hotel operations, hotel development, hotel purchases, etc.—I learned all that from him.”
Of course, Nixon was clearly eager to learn, right from the start. “I was that guy always asking for more responsibilities, so Julian told me to find some hotels that need to be managed,” he said. “So, even though I didn’t know really what I was doing, I would make the calls, and sometimes stumbled across deals, many of which worked out.”
He said Innisfree was then a young company with just a few hotels, which it owned and managed, and there was much to do and learn. “I helped develop a lot of the tools that they used to manage and monitor hotels—I taught myself Excel—and also helped to build the culture within the company.” While he was being mentored by MacQueen and as the company grew over the years, he hired, mentored, and promoted others, some of whom are still there in high-level positions.
Nixon said of the move to Expotel after nearly 25 years with Innisfree, “I loved the people and my time at Innisfree, but when I was recruited by Expotel, I was at the point in my life that I had to decide whether or not to remain there for the rest of my career.” The offer, he said, also included a partnership position, something not available to him at Innisfree. Given the opportunity to become an owner and take on a new challenge, Nixon accepted the position.
He described the change from being president of what had become a large company that owned the properties it managed to assume that title at a relatively small third-party management company. “It was definitely a learning experience. Because we’re a small company, we don’t have a huge infrastructure, which makes us agile,” he explained. The new role has also meant “wearing many hats,” he said. “For example, I underwrite hotels, look for financing, and project revenue and net incomes out over five to 10 years. I also advise on sites and markets—that is, the strengths and weaknesses of hotels, which ones to go after and which ones to avoid, which ones are overpriced, which ones are underpriced.”
Identifying with Owners
He said Expotel’s small size also enables him to connect with owners of the managed properties at a different level, something he relishes. “I find making those connections with the different owners, with all their different individual personalities, to be a challenge and a thrill, too. We’re not just working for just one person; we have roughly 10 owners,” he related.
Nixon said of his chief development officer title, “I do have a knack for what’s involved in development—working out the details alone or in meetings with others.” However, he added, “I’m an operations guy at heart. If I had my druthers, I’d always be out there meeting people, like at the front desk.” He added that being an owner has colored his view of the position he holds. Although he always regarded every job as more than a paycheck, being an owner has made him aware of how “everything I do could benefit me personally in the future,” he said.
Reflecting on his own climb from night auditor to president and partner, Nixon considers himself a prime example of the rewards available in hospitality—for those with the hospitality gene, that is. “It’s not really a 9-to-5 thing,” he asserted. “People who view hospitality more as a vocation, a calling, serve themselves and those around them best.”
The Personal Approach to Prospecting: Making Connections the Right Way in a Post-Pandemic World
Expotel President and Chief Development Officer Michael Nixon remembers his early efforts to snag third-party management contracts by cold calling potential clients, but said there’s just no substitute for in-person meetings at what he called “the right shows.” “People want to sell me lists of hotel executives, but I have found that the best way to get third-party contracts is through face-to-face meetings,” he said. Emphasizing the importance of seeing those faces, he commented on how that crucial connection was impacted during the pandemic: “It was terrible. All those 2020 conferences got canceled, and then during the first part of 2021, we were all walking around in masks and we didn’t know who anybody was.” That’s why, he said, he is now eager to go “where the people are”—mainly owners—such as the franchise owners’ conferences, the annual Hunter Conference in Atlanta, and the Lodging Conference in Phoenix. At such events, he enjoys the contact and comradery. “Even if they don’t hire us as a management company, I love giving free advice, I’m happy to help—I guess it’s that hospitality thing.” EM