Eric Strand of Drury Hotels saw the COVID-19 crisis as the perfect opportunity to focus on distance running, leadership skills and those left reeling from the fall in hotel demand.
ST. LOUIS—Drury Hotels EVP and COO Eric Strand does not do things by half, or even three-quarters.
Nearing four decades in the hotel industry, Strand has been at Drury for the last 32, moving through the gears from division director to director of sales marketing and all the way to the C-suite in his current role, which he has held since 2017.
In his spare time, he runs long distances.
In May, he ran Missouri’s 237-mile Katy Trail, the longest rail-to-trail path in the U.S., in a new record time for the course of three days, 14 hours and six minutes, beating the previous fastest time by four hours and six minutes.
He took three quick power naps when the sun was at its height between four stages of 115 miles, 52 miles, 31 miles and 47 miles, respectively—the ultramarathon often running alongside the famed Lewis & Clark Trail.
The additional eight miles were detours due to washed-out bridges.
The Herculean effort shows the same dedication and team spirit as his role at Drury Hotels.
“Perseverance and a positive attitude of abundance go a long way in both running and in the hospitality business. Not every run, not every day is going to be great, but the breakthroughs and successes will happen when you keep showing up and continue to learn in despite setbacks,” Strand said.
“When people think of running, they immediately think of the physical demands, but that’s really the easy part. Running is so much more about managing the demons in your head that are trying to convince you to stop, or to not even start. Those battles are no different than the ones we all deal with every day when following through on a commitment to excellence in hospitality or servant leadership or fill-in-the-blank,” he added.
He said he often brings the lessons he has learned from running, such as setting goals that capture the imagination, to meetings with GMs and his operations teams. In 2001, Drury set a goal to earn its first J.D. Power award by 2007. The best it placed in years before was third in its segment.
“The idea of going up against some of the biggest names in the industry scared the hell out of us, but it also motivated us to raise our game,” he said. “We won our first J.D. Power award in 2006, a year ahead of plan, and on (22 July), J.D. Power announced we won our 15th award in a row. No other hotel company in the history of J.D. Power has even come close to this record. A good goal is also one that induces equal parts fear and excitement.”
The other goals the company set were:
- Surround yourself with the best.
- Realize this is serious business, so lighten up.
- Orchestrate relentless forward motion.
- Know there are no shortcuts.
- Understand that someone is always watching.
- Celebrate joyously before going back to point one.
Strand said most of his team members have been very supportive. Drury Hotels President and CEO Chuck Drury and his wife, as well as a number of corporate team members, came out to cheer him on at the 230-mile mark of the Katy Trail.
“It was a good reminder that we can help each other accomplish big goals with just a little encouragement, and it meant a lot to me that they would take time from their Memorial Day holiday,” he said.
Strand said that his achievements have motivated others at Drury, including VP of Central Division David Ziegler, who completed The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee averaging 8 miles per day over 80 days. Approximately 20 others at the firm are competing in the same event.
During the Katy Trail, Strand’s concentration was most acute running at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures, often in the company of running buddies who joined him for certain sections.
“It was a little eerie with the glowing eyes of critters on or along the trail staring at us as our headlamps lit the path,” he said.
His wife, Tami, who Strand said is a “logistical genius,” acted as the chief of his support crew, on hand to provide food, fresh socks and encouragement at checkpoints.
(Tami Strand has a key-worker role, director of clinical performance improvement at St. Louis’ St. Luke’s Hospital.)
Strand is now back in his office, the COVID-19 pandemic having affected both the running of the company and Drury’s day-to-day running.
“We may be the only hotel system of any size that has been able to keep all of our hotels open through the pandemic. This is something in which our Drury team takes a great amount of pride. There have been a lot of healthcare workers and others involved in the relief effort who have no choice but to travel. We felt it was important to be there for them,” he said.
Strand said he believes it will take several years for business to return to 2019 levels, but demand continues to pick up.
“Our primary focus has been on providing as safe of an environment as possible for our guests and our team members. This pandemic has challenged us to think different, and I have no doubt we will come out of this stronger than ever. It will be different, but it will ultimately be better,” he said.
Running gave Strand an outlet, too.
“There was a two-month period where all of our corporate positions were working remotely. We were all working seven days per week, and those days were long and packed as our team worked to figure out how to keep our hotels safe and open for essential travellers. That said, since there was no commute, no reason to go out and no reason to shave, I was able to convert those extra minutes into extra mileage,” Strand said, noting in May he trained close to 500 miles.
“On Patriots Day in April, the day the Boston Marathon is traditionally run, I did a socially-distanced virtual ‘Boston Marathon’ around the circle drive in our front yard, about 280 laps, which I will never do again and would strongly recommend against to anyone,” he said.
Another epic ultramarathon Strand has finished—eight times—is the famed Leadville 100 Trail Run in Colorado, a 100-mile, elite event that starts at an altitude of 10,200 feet and, in Strand’s words, “goes up from there.”
“Less than 50% of the runners who start this race make it back to the finish,” he said.
The cancellations of such events inspired Strand to do the Katy Trail.
“It would have remained lost in my imagination if it hadn’t been for the ability to combine the physical (and) mental challenge of running the distance with a charitable cause that would focus attention on our front-line hospitality workers who have suffered the most from the abrupt reduction in travel caused by the pandemic,” he said.
“I find that the risk-reward is generally tilted in favor of taking action. There are no sure things other than knowing you didn’t give in to the demons trying to convince you that it’s a bad idea. I think it was Sir Edmund Hillary that said something along the lines of it not being much of an adventure if success is guaranteed,” Strand said.
“One of my personal heroes is Ken Chlouber, who played a critical role in building the Leadville 100 Trail Run. (He said) you are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.”
Strand’s charity page for the Above & Beyond Foundation, which provides financial aid for low-level hospitality employees who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, is still up and running at https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/helping-hospitality-katy-trail-run.