Aimbridge Hospitality is that multi-layered cake. Or was. Craig Smith, who took over as president and CEO of the company in March, has a plan to turn that steep cake into it a sheet cake—changing the sprawling organization that manages more than 1,200 hotels worldwide into a flatter and nimbler company with less organizational complexity.

It shouldn’t, if you listen to Smith, the former group president and managing director-international at Marriott International, take navigating through a gauntlet of bureaucracy to get from the property level to the executive level. “The closer to me,” he said. “My goal is to remove layers.”

What does this excavation project look like? Well, for one, there is no longer a global president. That position, which was occupied by Mark Tamis, is gone; so, too, is Allison Reid, who was chief global growth officer. Eric Jacobs, another longtime Marriott executive and Smith confidante, joined Aimbridge in June as chief global growth officer.

Larger companies tend to have reticulated hierarchies, which can—but not always—act as a stranglehold on progress. In the case of Aimbridge, Smith said there were too many levels between him and the hotels. “One of the things I found is what I call reverse delegation,” he said, basically when managers take back assignments they had previously delegated. “It was almost like we’re asking the hotel team to do more. We should be taking things off of their plate so that they’re focused on what’s most important for them—and that’s focusing on the customer and driving results.”

It’s still not a straight line to Smith, but the line is shorter. Aly El-Bassuni, president-owner relations, will expand his role to include operations resources. He, Jacobs and four presidents in charge of Full-Service, Select-Service, EMEA and LATAM divisions will report directly to Smith and sit on the C-suite committee.

To hear it from Smith, leading an organization like Aimbridge is a bit like fielding an army. “You think of field generals and staff generals, right?” he put forth. “You want balance. You don’t want field generals running amok, but at the same time, you don’t want the staff generals to tell the field generals how to do their job. We have them both sitting at that table and that creates better communication.”

Smith said that turnover in the first quarter of the year is already down considerably at its managed hotels. At the top levels, Smith is guided by an addition by subtraction ethos. Consider Jacobs, who ostensibly absorbs the roles vacated by Reid and Tiffany Cooper, who had been CDO, Americas and Caribbean, and will be based at Aimbridge’s Dallas headquarters. For management companies, sourcing new deals is a top priority along with operating successful, profitable hotels. Development is what Jacobs does: More than 15 years with Marriott International, his last one as CDO, before Aimbridge pried him away. “Eric is the type that’s going to be out with the troops finding deals,” Smith emphatically said.

Above and Beyond the U.S.

Smith is more optimistic on transactions picking up later this year after a rather attenuated last 12 months. “But we can’t just M&A our way to a larger size,” Smith said. He appears most excited over prospects of growth outside the U.S., where around 15% of Aimbridge’s portfolio currently resides. His and Jacobs’ Marriott pedigree should help, especially internationally, where Smith has flexed his muscles in the past and, furthermore, since franchising is still nascent in regions like Europe and the Middle East. “The international markets are probably 10 to 15 years behind,” he said. “We’re now seeing this overseas, where people are saying, ‘Craig, you worked for a big brand company, you know how standards work, you know how to do this.’ You don’t want to turn the keys over to somebody who’s unsophisticated.”

Smith said he recently spoke with six CEOs of major brand companies and, to a man, they told him: “We need a strong Aimbridge,” which somewhat surprised him, he continued. “We need you to come in and make sure you are firing on all cylinders. If you do, we would push more business in your direction,” they told him.

Shaking It Up

There is no disguising the fluidity and disruption that has defined Aimbridge over the course of the last couple of years, ever since it announced its structural reorganization in 2022 by creating six operational divisions, which it has since pared back. The bigger shock came in late 2023 when it was announced that longtime CEO Mike Deitemeyer, along with CFO Thomas Song, were leaving the company, while former president and CEO of Choice Hotels International, Stephen Joyce, was joining the board. Talk of an IPO that didn’t materialize was just one thing rumored to have sealed their fate. 

There was more underneath, according to Smith, including owners disgruntled over issues from P&L optimization to the inability to fill key roles in a timely fashion. “They didn’t want to wait six weeks or six months for a new general manager to come on board,” Smith said. “The smart owners know it all comes down to having the right talent because they know that translates into hotel results.”

The advantage Smith has in his new role is that he comes from a background that’s even bigger than Aimbridge—which is saying something, since Aimbridge is the largest third-party management company in the world. At Marriott, Smith had  more than 2,000 hotels in 131 countries under his aegis. Competency and optimization comes down to many things, but structure is where it starts.

“[At Marriott], people would say to me, ‘Gosh, that’s a big job.’ And I’d respond, ‘Yeah, but it really comes down to how good your lieutenants are and whether they’re doing their job and how you structure accountability.’ If you structure accountability right, you can see who’s performing and who’s not.”

Smith is putting the highest amount of accountability on himself. He said that four times a year he’d be doing in-person visits with Aimbridge’s top 16 owners—no phone calls here. It means for one week of every month he’ll be visiting hotels.

Aimbridge can operate up and down the chain scales, but even Smith says he’s still trying to put a finger on “where we are going to dominate,” as he put it. “That’s the question I have for myself and my new team—where do we want to really put our money and our time down?”

He added that by the end of summer he’d have a clearer picture of what that is.

By David Eisen