Tuesday , December 11, 2018

Hospitality Reinvented

When you think of renovation, you likely think of upgrading a few fixtures in a kitchen or bathroom, but for the Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park located at 5700 Westpark Drive, renovation has meant a year-long process to change not just the look of the hotel, but also the feel, both inside and out. From the new open lobby/restaurant/bar concept to the guest rooms and even the hotel’s green spaces, virtually everything has received an upgrade that calls to mind beautiful European influences.


Of the renovations, General Manager Bill Bennett says, “When you look at the scope of the renovations that we’ve done at this hotel over the past year and how dramatically they have changed the look and feel—to take a building that’s served this market for over 30 years and completely change it—it’s just exciting to be a part of that.”


Although the Crowne Plaza brand is new, “The hotel itself was built in 1983, so it’s been serving the Charlotte market for quite some time,” acknowledges Bennett. “It originally operated as a Marriott hotel. At that time, Marriott was in the middle of a very large growth span, so you saw a lot of these hotels open in the early to mid-’80s.


“One of the main attractions here was a high-energy nightclub, which is now our lobby/restaurant/bar concept, ‘Food for Thought.’ This was one of the first true luxury hotels outside of the city center area, and a lot of people we talk to have fond memories of coming here for meetings or to the nightclub during that era.


“It operated under the Marriott franchise agreement until June 2013. The prior November, Marathon Asset Management, located out of New York, bought the hotel. At that time, they were reevaluating the direction they wanted to take things and they questioned whether Marriott was the right brand. Even though it had been operating under Marriott for 30 years, was it truly reflective of what today’s business traveler is looking for?”


Marathon Asset Management decided to convert the hotel to the Crowne Plaza brand. Crowne Plaza is part of the InterContinental Hotel Group, the largest hotel chain in the world. Currently, the company is in the process of completing a full re-launch, and the Charlotte location is conceptually the face of the new Crowne Plaza brand.


Bennett continues, “June of 2013 we came under new management by Valor Hospitality Partners, based out of Atlanta, Ga. I’ve been at this hotel since April 2010. I come out of a sales and marketing background, but I do have a history of running hotels as well with the Peabody Hotel Group under the Hilton brand. When we converted to the Crowne Plaza hotel, I was honored to be appointed to general manager.”


Renovating and Reinventing


It has been a challenge over the course of the last year for the hotel’s staff to contend with providing guests with excellent service in the midst of renovations at the Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park, acknowledges Bennett, yet rewarding he says as he’s watched his team handle the process with skill and ease. In fact, he acknowledges, “The team is the heart of the hotel.”


He explains, “24/7…that’s an operation that takes a team in order to be successful. Our management philosophy is that we believe our relationship with our associates is cultural. We have to develop the culture where our associates can excel. Our relationship with our guests is emotional. Knowing and understanding that travel today is much different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago, we want to make that emotional connection with our guests, and it’s only through our associates that we can do that.”


“A hotel is nothing more than brick and mortar,” Bennett adds. “No matter how much money you invest into a property, it’s your hotel team that gives it its personality. The culture within a hotel is what plays a major role in delivering a memorable guest experience. So, in order to take care of a 24/7 operation, you have to surround yourself with stellar team members, and you have to develop a culture where those team members can excel.”


Finding the right team members, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. In a city full of lodging accommodations, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd as more and more hotels are vying for the business of travelers in the Queen City. In fact, near Crowne Plaza alone, there are at least six hotels within walking distance.


As companies like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy have expanded over the last decade, they have brought with them more workers traveling in and out of the region, meaning it takes more than just a comfy bed to attract guests.


In order to stand out, Bennett says, “First, we have to start with the facility itself. There’s no other facility in the city of Charlotte that can offer what we do in terms of proximity. We’re three blocks from the Lynx light rail. And if you want to go to uptown, go to South Park and do some shopping or enjoy dining at some of the bistros there, if you want to go to the White Water Center or to Carowinds, literally everything is within about a 15-minute reach of this location.”


“On top of that,” he continues, “we offer 300 guest rooms and, 16,000 square feet of meeting space. But we also sit on almost seven acres of land, so we have a park-like feel to the hotel. Our pool deck area is very expansive, contains dual fire pits, and is able to accommodate receptions for up to 200 people. Simply put, our outdoor area is second to none. Additionally, there’s only a handful of full-service hotels that offer complimentary airport transportation, and we’re proud to be one of them.”


Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park is also meticulous in how it organizes its team as the facility caters to thousands of guests each month. Using a leadership team comprised of Bennett, a sales and marketing force, food and beverage director, a chief engineer, a director of financing, an executive chef, and several other experts, Crowne Plaza Charlotte covers every detail to deliver a memorable guest experience.


 “Everything that we’ve done with our restaurant ‘Food for Thought’—in fact, everything that we’ve done with our entire kitchen’s makeup—has been scrutinized by our leadership team,” Bennett remarks. “When searching for an executive chef, we spent nine months, reviewed 180 resumes, and flew in 10 candidates just to find the right individual to fit into this team.


“This hotel, even under the dramatic, invasive renovation that we’ve experienced over the last year, is currently rated number four for meeting satisfaction tracking surveys,” Bennett continues. “Out of 400 hotels, we’re number four, which is something that wouldn’t be possible without our leadership team and all of our associates.”


Keep Guests Coming Back


Speaking to changes and growth at Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park, Bennett says, “Right now, we have about 140 employees, but we anticipate seeing that grow. Over the course of the last year, we’ve had on average 74 rooms out of service at a time, and as we continue to rebound out of this renovation, we anticipate adding about 30 new associates.


“Charlotte is such a dynamic market, and we’ve had unprecedented occupancy growth. I want to say something like 36 months of continued occupancy growth within the city itself. As a result, it’s our duty to our guests to keep up with this growth.”


Attracting and retaining guests also requires the right marketing, the right loyalty rewards, and the right feedback mechanisms. Currently, Crowne Plaza Charlotte uses a variety of marketing channels, including digital and print, but it also relies on its strategic partnerships with BMW Motorsports and the PGA Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial to get the word out.


In terms of building guest loyalty, Bennett points out that the hotel targets a demographic referred to as “strivers.” These individuals are highly motivated and work in a fast-paced environment, but they are also in need of a hotel environment where they can transition from work to leisure to socialization, all in the same area.


“Take a look at how this hotel is now designed to accommodate today’s traveler,” says Bennett. “They can sit in our lobby and enjoy complimentary WiFi, which is also available in all guest rooms, and that’s something that’s rare in today’s hotel environment. They can return their emails, watch sports on TV, get a bite to eat, share a plate or cocktails with friends, all from the comfort of our lobby. This is just one small part of what keeps our guests coming back.”


He continues, “We also offer IHG Rewards, the largest hotel rewards system in the world, but brand consistency is key as well. What you receive in Charlotte is what you’ll receive at the Crowne Plaza in Greenville, S.C., or at any one of our 400 locations.”


What Bennett truly attributes to Crowne Plaza’s success in keeping guests coming back, however, is the passion with which its management team serves each hotel.


“Every management company has their own mantra or value system, but how many really believe in their passion and develop an entire company around it? At Valor Hospitality Partners, our managing partner, Euan McGlashan, has operated the Cape Grace Hotel in South Africa, the number one hotel in the world as recognized by Condé Nast.


“After this experience, he decided that he was going to start his own management company. He wanted to work with people that have that passion for excellent service, people that want to be successful. In a short amount of time, Valor Hospitality Partners is up to 22 hotels in the United States and in Europe, which is why you’ll see the European influence in our recent renovation.”


Keeping Up With Change


Bennett keeps abreast of technology as it impacts the hotel industry as a whole and specifically Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park. “Technology is a major player shaping the future of our industry, and I think it’s great—but it can also be a hindrance,” he remarks. “Nowadays we need to be connected, but at the same time, we need to be able to just unplug.


“We offer free WiFi and a strong bandwidth and things like programmable voicemail for our guests, but we’ve also designed our pool, fitness and green spaces to be inviting to help our guests get away for a little bit.”


Indeed, technology is changing the face of the hotel industry. Many hotels are toying with the concept of doing away with check-in and check-out times, allowing customers to remotely check-in online, and some have begun instituting the ability to use smart phones to unlock doors. This may speed up the check-in process, but it can also lead to a “self-service” experience.


Bennett says, “At the end of the day, the hotel business is still about the art of hospitality, and in order to be hospitable, you have to have a staff that is trained in guiding towards that. People still want to be pampered, recognized, they still want to sit down and share a plate with friends. Whoever can provide that along with the technology side is going to win the race.


“I feel like, as an industry, we’ve done a great job at greying those lines of delineation. Today’s business traveler knows that they need convenience. They need something that’s clean. They need to have something—how they want it—at the time they want it.


“It still goes back to the fact that we’re in a people business and you have to provide that level of care and understanding.”


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