From the outside, the January 2013 opening of The Alexander in Indianapolis went as smoothly as possible. Upon arrival at the new downtown property, the first guests enjoyed 209 state-of-the-art guestrooms, a modern mixology program at hip new lounge Plat 99, and an exquisite collection of 40 works of art selected by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other top amenities. What they didn’t see were all the problems that occurred during the new property’s development that, left unresolved, would have marred the experience for those early arrivers.
Of course, with any newly constructed or renovated property, there are bound to be issues. Any general manager or property owner will tell you that a hotel opening invariably comes with a unique set of challenges, sometimes akin to moving Hannibal’s army through the Alps. There are construction timelines to follow, staff members to hire, sales and marketing campaigns to launch, and almost always, an unexpected hiccup to handle.
In the case of The Alexander, it was the water heater system that almost gave the launch a cold shower. Toward the end of construction, General Manager Michael Moros began to worry not about the property’s hot-water efficiency, but how much it could hold. To test its capacity, his team turned every shower in the hotel on simultaneously and discovered there was a gap between the amount they had and the amount they wanted. Fortunately, they had the time to fix the problem, ensuring that the hotel opened on time and that each guest had a comfortable, well-heated stay.
Moros isn’t new to openings. Prior to The Alexander, he participated in four—one as director of rooms, one as director of food and beverage, and two as a chef—which gave him a good perspective on the tasks and responsibilities that needed to be tackled in order to open a hotel smoothly and on time. “You have to be a taskmaster,” he says of his success. “And organization is really important.” We spoke with several industry veterans who, like Moros, are experienced in openings to learn the secrets of their success. While the road to an opening may be complicated, they provided several clear objectives to set you on the path to a well-executed launch.
Hire the right people
The top priority when opening a property, our experts agree, is acquiring good talent. “Equipment is great, art is great, technology is great, but without the talent to provide excellent service, it’s not going to be successful,” Moros says. “We consider our staff artists. They need to understand hospitality. We can teach them the technical skills they need, but we can’t teach personality.”
Moros brought a director of human resources, Molly Clark, on shortly after he started in April 2012 to oversee hiring. They thought outside the box, expanding their search beyond employees with exclusive hotel experience and focusing instead on personality traits. Prospective employees were also brought in for an evening reception where they learned about the property and talked with the leadership team instead of sitting through an intimidating traditional interview process. Hourly staff members were brought in months before the opening—some in October and the majority just before Thanksgiving—for training and to help get the property ready.
Greg Hnedak, CEO of Memphis-based DreamCatcher Hotels, agrees. “It’s all about the personnel and the training,” he says. Hnedak launched his company in 2008, providing a one-stop shop for select-service hotel development, starting with construction and design all the way to pre-opening services. Hnedak, who works predominantly with Native American casino operators, stresses the importance of a well-trained staff from the get-go. “You can’t train your employees enough for a grand opening,” he says. “The staff needs to understand how the product works, and how to maintain it.”
To aid its hotel partners with training, DreamCatcher brings the employees from each new property to its model guestrooms in its Memphis showroom. There they can ask questions about every item in the room and learn how to maintain specially selected products like their showerhead well in advance of the opening. The goal is to make every guest feel like they are the first to use the room, Hnedak says.
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.”
Test everything again and again
All the hard work bringing those first guests in the door is for naught if the TV doesn’t work or the bed is uncomfortable. “Everything in our guestroom is tested by us,” Hnedak says, explaining that he personally sampled every piece of furniture, bedding, coffee maker, and more before it became part of the DreamCatcher guestroom. He adds that product testing should be done well in advance of the opening date so that if something isn’t working properly there’s time to replace it—custom pieces like furniture can take time to replace. “I don’t know of an opening where someone didn’t discover something that wasn’t working,” he says. “That can create a lot of problems for the guest experience.”
Jalbert adds that it’s important to focus first on aspects that directly impact the guest experience when it comes down to the wire. “You have to say what can wait that doesn’t affect the guest experience and what can’t wait because it does,” he says. “You have to make tough choices and see what can be done and what can’t. It can be nerve-racking.”
Expect the unexpected
Of course, Jalbert says that in planning for the grand opening, hotel owners and managers have to prepare themselves for things to go wrong. “Sometimes you have to adjust,” he says. “Some decisions are made and sometimes they work out well and sometimes you have to adapt.”
For example, after opening the walls at the St. Martin property, they discovered that the wiring wasn’t up to standard and had to rewire every guestroom. “That was not scheduled,” Jalbert says. “I had to create a case for the head office and let them know it was going to cost another 2 to 3 million Euros.” Then, a month before opening, a nasty storm flooded the entire first floor, and as a result, the hotel had to replace the carpeting and some furniture. When the unfortunate occurs—and most likely it will—Jalbert says it’s important to stay focused and devise a plan that will allow the opening to stay on schedule.
In the end, successfully opening a hotel requires an ability to handle whatever comes your way, be it hot water supply, construction deadlines, or Mother Nature. “You have to keep your cool, roll with the punches,” Jalbert says. “You have to readapt the plan every day.”