What it's Like to Run the World's Largest Hotel Data Company: Amanda Hite, STR
Amanda Hite, was only with STR (formerly Smith Travel Research) for a year before she began leading the company’s international charge. Traveling to London once a month while pregnant with her son, and her small daughter at home didn’t deter Amanda from her ambitions for herself or the company. She made it her mission to keep asking questions and getting involved in a variety of projects for various business lines until she understood every facet of the company and was appointed STR’s president five years later.
Since 2011, as president, she has overseen the company’s business activities and overall direction. Under Amanda's leadership, STR has experienced phenomenal growth in its global presence, client base, data coverage, and revenue as well as several significant milestones, including the 2016 unification of STR’s global brands. Her biggest challenge to date? Leading STR through the company’s acquisition by CoStar Group for $450 million in late 2019, immediately followed by COVID. We spoke to Amanda about leading through change, her impressive career trajectory, prioritizing family time, and what’s next for the hotel industry. Here’s herstory.
Before we get into your journey, explain for readers that don’t know, what does STR do, and how do you do it? STR provides data benchmarking, analytics, and marketplace insights for hotels globally. Basically, we tell hotels how they are doing versus competitors in terms of pricing, occupancy, and revenue per available room. STR was started in Lancaster, PA in the 1980s by Randy and Carolyn Smith, today it’s a firm that collects data in 180 countries for 70,000 hotels. We went global in 2008, and there is still lots of opportunity for growth for us around the world. The US is our biggest region, the UK is a market where we are very strong, and China is growing quickly. China is our second-largest market currently, but we have barely scratched the surface. We are also expanding in Central and South America. We are just getting going, which is why we sold the business to CoStar in 2019 to accelerate our growth around the world for the future.
Sounds exciting, do you have competitors? Who are your clients and how do you gather the information? We have local competitors, but we are the only company that can provide benchmarking globally, so our core clients are the big hotel brands, management companies, and bankers. We gather data confidentially, then aggregate it so that we can provide market insights to anyone interested in the hospitality industry. I have fallen in love with hotels–the people, the relationships, the community–it’s like no other industry.
We like to explain “career paths” so let’s talk about your journey. Your background is not hospitality...your first job was doing data analysis for the Chamber of Commerce in Nashville. How did you end up at STR? Just by chance! I had just had my daughter and went back to work at the Chamber of Commerce as Director of Research. I had gone as far as I could go at the Chamber and I was thinking about my next steps when I was introduced by a friend to Randy Smith and then president Mark Lomanno at the end of 2005. They interviewed me a few times and made me an offer, “our business is growing and we need smart talent, we don’t know what you’ll be doing but we want you.” I didn’t know anything about hotels but I took the position, sometimes you have to say “yes” when you have no idea! It was a leap of faith.
How did you manage a new job and life with a one-year-old baby? At first, I was working on different projects, and I was not doing much travel, so it was fine with a baby at home. A year later, by 2006, the company started on a plan to take the business international and I was heavily involved. We bought two businesses in London, a daily benchmarking business and another business from Deloitte, the accounting firm, and merged those services with STR. I was spending a week every month in London while I was pregnant with our second child. Actually, the month we launched our international business was the same month I had our son, so crazy timing but it all worked out in the end.
Hang on, now you have two little kids and you’re leading the international launch? STR has a great culture of understanding you as a person. Families are just as important as work, maybe because STR was founded by a husband and wife. So, I’ve never felt bad for making whatever choice I had. It was tiring in the beginning, but not hard to manage when you have support in the office and at home.
Explain what you mean by “support” and how does it work in your home? My husband and I have a true partnership. I am a person that loves to work. I want to be successful. My husband knows my ambition and supports it, and both of our careers are important to us as people. We have a plan, a calendar, who takes trips when, and at every opportunity, we have a conversation. We talk about the non-negotiable parts of our jobs, then we prioritize those. My husband was recently promoted to be the Chief Economic Development Officer at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. Our kids are teenagers now, but we’ve managed by having open communication. All along, STR leadership has been understanding and supportive.
One debate we have at hertelier, is it better to switch companies or stick with one to progress in your career? You’ve only worked for two companies, and you were promoted to president within five years of joining STR...how did you do that? I am very curious and I love to grow intellectually. I came to STR with no plan, just wanted to learn. I’d heard good things about the company. I started as a director, a lot of people think I came in as president, but I didn’t. I worked hard for five years and that is how I learned about the lodging business and all the facets of STR's various businesses. Because I asked a lot of questions and liked to solve problems, they would send me to learn about different businesses. They would give me projects. When the business was having a challenge, I would raise a question, explore and then take over the team, improve the process.
At the time we were growing rapidly from our little office in Hendersonville, TN, and a few years in, then president, Mark Lomanno said, “I think you can run this business.” So, I said, “I will work really hard to make sure I am the only person that you will want to choose.” And I did that, I was the person who would take on anything. My approach was, it’s OK to not know how, let's work together to figure it out. I did that relentlessly, after five years I had been involved in pretty much every area of the business.
Have you had plateaus in your career? How have you handled it? Probably, but I am not a person who has ever been hung up on titles. If I am being challenged, learning something new, and slightly uncomfortable, that is where I am happiest. There has always been a new challenge at STR, you can create your own career path here. My plateau was at the Chamber of Commerce, where everything I was doing I had done before, so I left.
Have you had mentors, who and how did you find them? My bosses have been mentors, Mark Lomanno and Randy Smith both helped me tremendously. Randy is a great mentor, he never tells you what to do. He will give you a nugget of advice, without telling you what your path should be. Mentors are so important, you need someone that can challenge your thinking and help you become more self-aware.
I also have an executive coach that helps me. The best thing I ever did was to get an executive coach that was not my boss. I have been with him for many years. It is hard as humans to get feedback, you need your mindset to be open to feedback, not just to hear how great you are. Executive coaching helps make you aware of areas for development, our whole executive team gets coached now. Coaching has helped me develop my self-confidence and cope with self-doubt, it has taught me how to be proud of my decision-making and how to articulate accomplishments for me personally and for the company.
I now mentor someone, not at STR, in a totally different part of CoStar. I get to help another young woman become more confident and it’s rewarding.
How do you view yourself as a leader and what makes a good leader? As a leader, I aim to be transparent, fair, open, and direct. In a crisis, a good leader needs to be calm, inquisitive, and reassuring––this has really become apparent during COVID. In the midst of a crisis, you have to be able to think through the situation, process information quickly, and make decisions without over-reacting. When I make decisions about the business, I always think of people first–what are they worried about, what does this message mean and how will they react? If you can explain the path and why decisions are being made, people become more engaged in the strategy and motivated for the future.
Are leaders born or made? A bit of both. I have had this conversation with my coach so many times! I think leaders have some innate qualities that you cannot teach, but I don’t know precisely what those qualities are. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this over the pandemic. You have to be empathic and be able to put yourself in other people's shoes, you have to be able to understand their POV to make sure the message hits and they get it–your own people, clients–whoever you are addressing. I think women are really good at that.
Was the merger with CoStar in 2019 the biggest challenge of your career, what was that like? Yes. 2019 was very challenging, STR is a 35-year-old business that had always been privately held, so announcing the sale to employees and then managing the transition to becoming part of CoStar was a tremendous effort. To give you some scope, we sold the business to CoStar for $450 million and closed the deal in 45 days. Shortly after, COVID happened, so that was another layer of complexity.
Did you lose many clients during COVID? Actually, because we were part of CoStar by that point it was not as stressful because we had CoStar’s financial backing. The service we provide to clients is critical to their businesses, so we were able to allow clients to delay payments during the peak of the crisis which enabled us to keep 97% of our business.
We work hard to give our clients what they need and see them as partners. The data is interesting though, at the peak, only 20% of all hotels were closed in the US and in the UK at the peak 40% of hotels were closed, Europe lagged further, but we worked with clients around the world to keep them informed and engaged. We also made the effort to keep all the many hotel employees that were laid off and furloughed informed, we did free weekly webinars and offered data and insights through a dedicated COVID-19 page and on our social media channels, so people at home were kept in the loop and connected.
You have worked through a few economic cycles, what do you see coming down the pike for the industry? We are not out of the woods yet, the recovery is very uneven right now. Five years from now, I believe the industry will be on an incredible growth trajectory. There was not a structural challenge to the economy with the pandemic, as long as the macroeconomy is in a good place we will continue to see record-setting growth for travel. People love to travel.
You have a big, demanding job, you mentioned how you partner with your husband, but how do you manage with your teenage children? My kids have always known me as a working mom on the road a lot, so actually, COVID was a big adjustment, when we were all home together. In normal times, when I am home, I am involved with their lives 100 percent...school, sports, whatever I try to be there. My daughter does competitive cheerleading, so I travel with her one weekend a month for competitions, which is our important one-on-one time. With my son, I try to take him on business trips with me to have that one-on-one time. My working full-time and full-on has been great for my kids, they are fiercely independent, they understand their responsibilities within the family and at school. We have a part-time nanny, she’s been with us for eight years, who can pick the kids up from school, take them to activities, do homework, and prepare dinner. Though now my daughter can drive, which has been great!
What would you say to other women about balancing being a mother and working?
I don’t love the term balance, there is never a “balance.” Each day is prioritizing where you spend your time. Lots of times work has come first, but I always have family time that is non-negotiable. The thing I’d say I’ve not done well is prioritizing myself, by not asking for help. At work, I can be bad about not taking advantage of the great team that I have, but I am working on and getting better about this. We have really smart people at STR. They all want to learn and grow, when you give up some things, it can be empowering because you then help others grow.
What do you feel is your biggest weakness as a leader?
When I look at our people, I only see the best. I am always the most optimistic about people’s ability to accomplish and succeed, so sometimes I let things go on longer than they should because I don’t want to micro-manage. I am getting better at understanding when I need to be more assertive and provide more support to issues before they become problems. COVID actually helped me improve because it was a crisis, I knew I had to be definitive, and make decisions. Normally, I like people to figure problems out on their own.
What happens when things don’t go to plan? I try to learn. I am always the most critical of myself. When it comes to the team, I tell them when mistakes happen, we have to own them. No one is perfect all the time, learn from it and move forward. You can’t hold on to mistakes and live in the past, talk about it, analyze it, and agree how you would approach it the next time around, and just keep going.
This has been a crazy tough year, have you cried in the office since the pandemic? Or any other moments in your career? I am sure I have. I am someone completely comfortable with emotions. We are all human, I am fine letting people see that. When I stood up to announce selling the business to CoStar and saying goodbye to Randy, I was emotional around the change. The sale was 100 percent the best thing for STR and Randy, but change is always hard. We’ve had people with the company since it began 35 years ago, layer COVID on top of that, it’s been an emotional year for sure, which is why having the team understand why we made the decision and where the company is going is so important.
Women are still very underrepresented in the c-suite and top management of lodging companies, how do you think that can change? I see it changing, there is a push to have more women involved at higher levels. At the end of the day, companies need to think about the pregnancy cycle and how they can make women feel, one, that maternity is not a setback and two, that they can come back and contribute. I’ve been lucky at STR, when I was going through maternity leave and my kids were small, the company was smaller and family-run, but even today, our workforce is still dominated by women, it is equitable here, which is very different from our industry overall. Hopefully, we are setting an example of what inclusive success can look like.
Final thought: If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why? Because I think about people. Of course, leadership requires thought about the business, competitive landscape, strategic thinking about how to grow - financials, revenues, etc. But I believe my success and my ability to continue to transform this business is because I always think about how I lead people, how I communicate priorities, and more importantly, WHY we make decisions, that is how the team becomes committed and engaged.