Arnie WeissmannAs the responsibility to manage and revitalize a 500-acre resort was handed over to him, the parting directive the general manager most keenly remembers hearing was: "Don't ef it up."

The owners had spent $20 million to purchase the property. Occupancy was in the mudpit: 20%. His assignment was to keep the resort operational as he spent some $35 million to renovate it; reposition it thematically; improve community relations; keep staff morale up while making any necessary personnel changes; raise occupancy, average daily rates (ADR) and revenue per available room (RevPAR); make the restaurant a destination in its own right; and implement new, creative activities.

And not only should he not "ef" it up, his boss said, he should be sure to have fun while doing all this.

That was almost three years ago. The GM, Daniel Korn, was 28. It was his first job out of grad school. He had never managed people, and he had no training in hospitality. And his boss was John Pritzker, son of Hyatt founder Jay Pritzker, who could well judge how he progressed at every level of hotel operations and management.

Only months before, Korn had been in graduate school (he has both a law degree and an MBA from Stanford). Hired by Geolo Capital, a private equity firm founded by Pritzker, he immediately got involved in the acquisition of a distressed property, Carmel Valley Ranch, near Monterey, Calif.

The acquisition complete, Pritzker was concerned that if he installed a prototypical resort GM to manage the property, he'd end up with a prototypical resort. Though Korn had worked at Geolo for a short time, Pritzker was impressed by his work ethic, intellectual rigor and, interestingly, that he could articulate the formative impact summer camp had had on his life. Pritzker believed the resort could be revived with a focus on making it "camp without discipline," capturing aspects of fun and play that struck a nostalgic chord.

Pritzker engaged Stan Bromley, a legendary Four Seasons GM, as consultant and mentor to Korn. Pritzker himself also kept an eye on things, but primarily to ensure that his summer camp vision was developing as he hoped.

In his first meeting with staff, Korn told them, "We all know I have no hotel experience. Let's try to figure out how to do this together." He found making that confession liberating: He now had the freedom to ask very basic questions as he worked alongside team members in housekeeping, at the front desk, on the golf course, in maintenance and F&B.

Korn's experience as a frequent hotel guest led him to conclude that both staff and guests appreciate the same things: quick and candid communication, genuine empathy and a sense of humor. The hotel's operating mantra became: "Think like a guest and think like an employee."

He inculcated a culture of experimentation, yet he understood the importance of fundamentals. He spent weeks creating an "eyes and smiles" culture.

He called upon his experiences in law school, business school and summer camp. Law school, he believes, taught him the importance of asking questions, business school the importance of finding answers. Camp kept his focus on whimsy, nostalgia and fun.

The staff, some of whom had worked under four owners, noticed the changes. "I used to be told what to say, how exactly to be pleasant," a bellman told me when I visited a few weeks ago. "I couldn't just greet people in a friendly manner but was supposed to say specific words. I felt like a robot."

The bellman also enjoys the physical metamorphosis the property has undergone, from room renovations to the vineyards and plots of lavender where there had previously been only tall grass.

And he was impressed to see Pritzker take a personal interest. "The guy who owns it is, like, a billionaire, but sometimes he shows up at bellman meetings," he said.

Carmel Valley Ranch is now "quite profitable," Pritzker told me, and its occupancy, ADRs and RevPAR meet or exceed comparable properties. Activities in keeping with the camp theme range from s'mores around a fire to scavenger hunts. One unique offering has guests donning bee-keeping outfits to learn about harvesting honey. The restaurant is exceptional, the grounds are well-groomed and staff have perfected "eyes and smiles" service.

It's an impressive accomplishment even if you didn't know where it had been just three years ago.

Another milestone of sorts occurred in May when Korn became managing director and an experienced hotelier, Donald Bowman, was brought over from Mandarin Oriental as the new GM.

Bowman said he appreciates that the property doesn't have a traditional hierarchy or structure, but he feels it's an environment where he can apply the Mandarin Oriental ethic of constant improvement.

"We know others are watching us and will mimic what we do," he said, "so we have to challenge ourselves to get better before others catch up."

As for Pritzker, he's quite satisfied with his gamble to put a nonhotelier in charge of developing Carmel Valley Ranch. "In a tip of the hat to a basic tenet of camp life," he told me, "Dan is leaving this campsite infinitely better than he'd found it."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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