Odle’s formula for success
He makes it clear that he was not born with a gold spoon in his mouth. Neither did he join a family business to get a start in life.
In fact, veteran hotelier Peter Odle will be the first to tell you that when he started his journey in hotel management, he had no prior knowledge of the industry and very little business insight.
Almost four decades later, as chairman of the Mango Bay Group of Companies today, Odle takes lead responsibility for successfully overseeing the operations of several tourism-related properties including the famous all-inclusive Mango Bay Hotel in Holetown, St James.
“A lot of people thought I sort of joined a family business because my father was Director of Tourism for many years, so he started the business. But actually it was quite the opposite way around,” said Odle as he shared his journey with industry players recently.
The occasion was the Intimate Hotels of Barbados annual general meeting at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre.
“Sometimes people look at people and they think ‘well, this fellow born with a silver spoon or gold spoon in his mouth’. It is absolutely nothing like that at all.
“I have been through the ring and I am still going through the ring. I am not finished yet. There is still a lot going on,” said the veteran hotelier.
Odle’s journey started in 1977 while he was attending university in England and studying law to pursue a career. However, when he was about to do his final exams, opportunity knocked and he immediately answered.
“I realized that there was this property in Sunset Crest and we represented the Sunset Crest development and there were a couple of lots left.
“In those days the Barbados Development Bank was trying to encourage people to get involved in the tourism business. I saw that we had these three lots of land in Sunset Crest and I approached the then chairman of the Barbados Shipping and Trading . . . and I said to him ‘you have some land there I would like to buy it’,” Odle recalled.
Offering to pay just over half of the $72,000 which was the price being asked, a determined and enthusiastic Odle started to exercise his negotiating skills. “I did not have a cent in my pocket. I think my bank account had only about $1,000 if so much,” he recalled.
After a little negotiation, and the eagerness of the owners to sell the land, Odle was told he had 48 hours to come back with the amount they were asking. After a little more negotiation, this time with his parents, he secured the well needed assistance from his mother, who signed on the loan as guarantor.
“The long and short of it is that is how I started,” Odle said. “I went to the development bank and they lent me the money to build the units,” he added, pointing out that he formed partnerships to get the project done, which resulted in his first venture known as Regent Apartments.
Since then, the leading hotelier has been contributing to the development of the island’s tourism, forming additional partnerships along the way to construct and take over other operations and run them successfully.
Within a year of returning from his studies in Britain, Odle was involved in the operation of about four different properties including the Island Inn Hotel and Brown Sugar restaurant. From those beginnings, his involvement in the industry mushroomed through the acquisition of more properties with other investors.
His latest venture is the redevelopment of the former Sandy Beach Hotel on the south coast that had remained abandoned for some time. The US$10.5 million investment will see the beachfront property operating as a cross between a condominium and a hotel.
Perhaps, his most successful venture to date, however, was the reconstruction of the then Palm Beach Hotel between 1993 and 1994 into the Mango Bay Hotel.
Odle, who has also served as chairman of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association and other associations over the years, said one of his secrets to successful involvement in any venture was to “call up” those with experience and get some advice.
“So I went from knowing absolutely nothing about running any hotel. I didn’t have a clue of running a business furthermore, but we were just taking on these things (and) I found that I had a couple of good partners with me,” said Odle, who quit his job at the law firm of Carrington & Sealy after deciding to “paddle through” the hotel business fulltime.
“When I started, and the thing that got me through a lot of this, was the staff that we had, that we inherited,” said Odle. “Some of them work with me to this day, have been with me over 35 years since I started and they are fantastic staff members that we have invested time in.”
Like many colleagues in the industry, Odle admitted that operating a hotel was no easy walk-over, no matter the size.
“People talking about running businesses, but running a small hotel is hard, hard, hard business. When you have a small number of rooms, you are jack-of-all-trades, you have to be everything . . . and the worst part of it is that you never have enough money,” he remarked.
“Don’t care what you do, there is never enough money. And that is one of the reasons I decided to expand reasonably quickly and try to see if I could get a few other things together because I realized how difficult it was.”
Pointing out that survival in the industry called for a lot of determination and creativity, Odle said it was still difficult to make money in the hotel business, especially after spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars upgrading.
The veteran hotelier said he was happy with how the industry had evolved over the years to the point where hotels were now getting guests during the summer, although it was not as good as he would like.
“The ability sometimes for small hotels to get good technology, property management systems and energy management systems, those are the challenges now that some of us face,” he noted.
Odle said while operating a number of hotel properties might make him “unemployable”, he liked the independence it brought. Besides, he pointed out, “At the end of the day, you remain the master of your own destiny”.
Anticipating that the coming years will be challenging for the industry, Odle said he believed, however, that Barbados would be able to weather any storm.
And as the country celebrates 50 years of political independence this year, he said his dream was that small hotel operators would be more united and willing to share information with each other to help improve the overall performance of the industry.
Odle also would like to see more young professionals getting involved in the industry. And his advice to potential and existing industry players is to remain entrepreneurial and seek out opportunities for their businesses.
He advised those going into business with friends to ensure they have everything clearly outlined in an agreement. He also underscored the importance of having proper succession planning in place when operating a family business.
He strongly recommended attending seminars to help improve knowledge and ideas, saying doing so was just as important as joining relevant associations.
Odle admitted that during his early days in business, he feared something would happen that would cause him to move back to live with his parents. Fortunately, it never happened.
“That was what I honestly felt because I knew I was taking a big chance,” he acknowledged. “But the point was I knew I wanted to be in businesses. And I had these opportunities and I took them.”