Hoya Highlight: John Graf (B'86)

John Graf

President & CEO, Priory Hospitality Group

Describe your current profession.

I own and operate a multi-line hospitality business, which includes an independent boutique hotel (the 42 room Priory Hotel), event facilities and a retail and commercial bakery. Priory Hospitality also provides hotel management and consulting services to hotels owned by other parties.

What inspired the transition from attorney to hospitality guru and hotel owner?

I had practiced law in the commercial litigation arena for more than 12 years, and the constant combat wore me down. (Eight year old daughter: “Daddy what do you do all day?” Daddy: “I yell at people on the phone.”) I needed an alternative which required creativity but which also took advantage of my natural tendencies as an extroverted. Hospitality was a natural fit, as your satisfaction is putting smiles on people’s faces (the opposite goal of commercial litigation!)

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career and how did you overcome it? (Or what are you doing to try and overcome it?)

The biggest challenge was not coming in to our business with sufficient working capital. I took over our hotel in 2002, just after 9/11, and travel and tourism were down significantly. We had to scrimp pretty heavily the first few years. We overcame the issue by hunkering down and paying close attention to our expenses until our marketing program and operational updates and improvements (installation of Wi Fi, etc.) kicked in and our revenues increased dramatically.

Whom do you consider to be your influencers?

My biggest business influencer is my marketing consultant and friend, Steve Wayhart, of Brandmill, LLC. Steve had worked at large corporations—McDonald’s and Sprint—and did a great job at guiding me to professionalize the way we operate our (relatively) small business. He helped us design and implement various standard operating procedures and worked with us to create internal reporting requirements. These changes helped to make our guest and client experiences consistent, and they have also created a culture of accountability among our staff. Steve is also the person who taught me that you live and die by constantly tweaking and improving your product to surprise and delight guests, customers and clients.

What was the most useful piece of career advice you ever received?

My wife, Suzanne, who has also worked in hospitality, inculcated the importance of attention to detail in the hotel and event business. As she stated, your product is your marketing, and if you’re making even small mistakes, it detracts from the guest experience. Instead of having a raving fan who’s directing others your way, at best you’ll have someone who is silent and at worst you have someone creating a negative portrayal.

What characteristics or skills do you feel are necessary for one to possess to excel in your industry?

You need to listen to your clients and your guests. Find out what their wants and needs are, and fulfill those. Don’t try to force them into a pigeonhole because it fits your model or it’s otherwise convenient for you.

How do you think your time at Georgetown affected your professional decisions?

While it’s important to have a profitable business, it’s also essential that a business support its community. There’s a lot of good our hotel, bakery and event businesses can do, whether it’s sponsoring a sports team or neighborhood festival, donating baked goods to a charity event, or offering free meeting space to a community group. Georgetown, with its emphasis on ethics and consideration of the greater good ingrained the ethos in me that it’s important to give back to your community.

What’s a phrase, motto or quote that you find yourself saying to yourself or your team constantly to keep momentum going?

“The most important thing is this: to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” Charles DuBois.

This quote is on the wall in my office, and it underscores how critical it is to success to constantly alter your view of your business and how it’s operated, and be willing to take the risk of change or expansion in order to grow and evolve the business.

What’s next for Priory Hospitality Group?

I see our biggest growth area as taking over management of smaller, boutique hotel properties for other owners. We have developed an excellent template here over the years for how to operate and market a smaller property in a way that creates significant profit for other owners while keeping our own costs and risk levels in check.