Push the standards
When opening a new hotel or reopening a renovated property, an owner or general manager must have strong communication skills—whether they’re dealing with corporate headquarters, construction crews, the managerial team, or the media. “Communication was huge,” says Jean-Marc Jalbert, general manager of the Radisson Blu Resort in St. Martin, which underwent a $10 million renovation and reopened in December 2011. “We had daily briefing with the teams, not only the construction, but also the operation teams.”
When the property closed in May 2011, it not only underwent a cosmetic and structural makeover, but also upgraded from a standard Radisson to a Radisson Blu—meaning the implementation of new brand standards for the staff. “We had to communicate the new product to the staff, and make sure they knew what to expect.”
The resort kept every employee when it shut its doors, and used the seven months of construction to retrain the staff. A small hotel on the island was transformed into classrooms, and each employee attended classes five days a week, eight hours a day to learn about the new brand standards and the new level of service, so they knew their roles and responsibilities long before the reopening. When those first guests arrived, the staff was well past the learning curve, able to communicate the brand standards and perform their duties as though they were second nature.
For a new property, standards circle back to talent acquisition. “It’s making sure you’ve got the right people who understand the brand and the promise that it is putting out to customers,” says Mary Dogan, director of brand management for Hotel Indigo, the Americas. “Hotel Indigo is all about being refreshingly local so we need team members who have a passion for their neighborhoods and can help bring the experience of being from there to life.” To find the right candidates, IHG, the brand’s parent company, provides all of its franchisees with a toolkit to help them attract the right candidates based on the service behaviors of each brand. Dogan says that the toolkit, customized for each of IHG’s brands, contains useful materials such as job descriptions, recruiting ads, and interview guides. “It’s really about making sure that our owners or management companies are bringing in that talent that’s really going to make the hotel come to life.”
Lock in your timelines
Good communication is also critical when managing the construction and design timelines, another key component of a successful opening. For starters, any delays can increase expenditures, and in the end, delay the opening date—which if groups and guests are already booked, can cost the company even more money. Since so many different players are often involved in the construction process, detailing expectations and enforcing deadlines are critical responsibilities of the general manager or property owner.
“You only need one company to be late and suddenly it throws off the whole schedule,” Jalbert says. “One company may not understand the impact they have on all the other companies.” To keep everyone on track, Jalbert had morning and evening briefings with his construction crews where he detailed what needed to get done that day and the next and was able to measure their schedule. “You need a detailed schedule of what needs to be done,” he urges.
Hnedak says that it’s important to stress to design and construction teams that there is no flexibility in the opening date. Having started in the industry as an architect, he recalls a particular instance of strictly adhering to a launch timeline when his architectural firm, Hnedak Bobo Group, worked on the Gaylord Palms Orlando. To achieve this, he says David Kloeppel, former president and COO of Gaylord Entertainment, had the date and time—Feb. 2, 2002 at 2:02 p.m.—of the opening printed on every internal memo and piece of stationery so it was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The strategy worked, with then Florida Governor Jeb Bush cutting the ribbon at that exact time and date months later.
Invest in sales and marketing
Even if a building is perfectly constructed and the guestrooms perfectly designed, a new property is a failure if it doesn’t have guests. Dogan says bringing a sales and marketing team on early in the game is important since their success relies so heavily on building relationships. “Certainly for the sales team, you want to bring them on early enough to make sure they are able to understand the market so they can bring in the right business at the right time,” Dogan says. “Those relationships and the sales strategy take time to cultivate.” At minimum, she says, the director of sales and general manager should be in place 120 days out.
At The Alexander, Moros quickly established a sharp sales team that sized up the Indianapolis market so they could start securing bookings early on. They met with the local convention and visitor’s bureau and the chamber of commerce to line up some meeting business and corporate accounts and hosted 100 receptions in the area to build awareness of the brand. His sales staff also sold the key strengths of the hotel. Situated in the CityWay neighborhood near sports venues such as the Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, the hotel and its larger California king beds and rain showers—both of which have ample space for taller guests—could be marketed to professional teams in town to play Indy teams.
The hotel also gained attention with the help of social media, a platform that shouldn’t be undervalued in this day and age. Moros notes that it didn’t come into play until the two months prior to the opening—he cites an abundance of “likes” for The Alexander’s art installations on Facebook and positive tweets about the cocktails at Plat 99 from customers at the bar. “Social media is huge,” he says. “It’s one of the best marketing tools that you have. And it’s free. If you treat your client base right, they market it for you.”