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.