Nice article in the local paper, The Missoulian, about the resort and my new position here. We are trying to recruit some active retirees for summer employment and last week's job fair was very successful, mainly because this article appeared on the front page the day before!
It has been a difficult year in which to find time to blog regularly but I'm going to make a New Year Resolution to try to do so more often in 2013.
My time in the Caribbean came to an end in August. While I have a personal motto that "no experience is bad experience", and I learned a lot during my tropical period (including how to drive a boat!) there is definitely truth in the saying "horses for courses". At heart, I'm not really a desert island kind of horse and when the mountains and rivers of Montana beckoned, I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame.
So in October, a new adventure began as I was invited to join The Resort at Paws Up as Chief Executive Officer. Initially I was here on a part time basis, for two periods of two weeks, returning to Waterloo, Canada in between assignments, where we now have a small place close to Ginnie's kids, mother, brothers and grandsons. We then drove from Canada to Montana in late November (5 days, 2300 miles) to begin full time on 1 December. Since then we have been to Las Vegas for a sales meeting and staff Christmas party and Ginnie spent Christmas back in Waterloo while I have been working and successfully guiding the team here through their busiest holiday season to date.
During the year, we managed to welcome many members of the family to our many abodes throughout the world (USA, BVI and Canada), and share in the safe arrival in late August of our second grandson, Oliver. Furniture has been moved from WIsconsin to Canada to Montana. Personal belongings were shipped back from BVI to Montana and we are slowly settling in to our new abode on this spectacular ranch.
The photographic opportunities here are so many and varied and although I haven't had much time yet, here is a sampling of some of the views we have!
It has been a long time since my last blog post which was all about change. Ironically, since then, we have been through an enormous period of change that started very soon after that posting and has consumed vast quantities of time ultimately ending very positively.
After many months of job search littered with dead ends, false starts, broken promises and the kind of frustrations that appear to be common to all job seekers, I have finally "landed".
As is often the case, I heard about the new opportunity through networking; a Riverbend member who has become a friend, heard about the position through another mutual acquaintance and after submitting my resume, I was interviewed by Skype the following day. Online personality and intelligence tests followed and within three days, Ginnie and I were heading to Michigan to meet the owner of the new company, David V. Johnson. We were so impressed by the professionalism and speed of response, something that sadly had been missing from many of the companies with whom I had been in contact during the last eight months, and David is an inspirational entrepreneur who has had great success in US real estate and resort developments and is now branching out into the Caribbean.
A few days later, we were heading down to the British Virgin Islands to see Biras Creek Resort (a Relais et Chateaux property) and David newest development on Virgin Gorda, Oil Nut Bay. We loved everything about the region, the people, the scenery and the company and a few days later we had negotiated a package for the position of VP-Hospitality for Victor International, responsible for both the US and BVI developments.
The official papers have now come through and tomorrow, Virginia, our puppy, Hopi and I will fly to the BVI to start our new adventure. We will be spending the next two years in the Virgin Islands and then return to Bay Harbor, Michigan with continuing responsibility for the BVI properties.
All of the furniture from our Sheboygan home remains in storage in Wisconsin and will go to a new home in Michigan in two years. We have shipped a few personal odds and ends to Virgin Gorda and will look forward to dodging the Midwest winter as we luxuriate in temperatures in high 70s and low 80s. It will be an enormous change and naturally there is a certain amount of trepidation (see my last blog), but we are embracing it with open arms and can't wait to get started in earnest.
Thanks to the many, many of you who have offered wonderful support to us during these last few months. It has been quite a salutary experience and we have been living out of suitcases for many months. However I believe I have a much better understanding of the plight of the unemployed now, and we were able to have some great experiences as well, including our month-long cross country road trip, and being able to be in Canada together for the birth of our first grandchild. Life is short and all of these memories help to round us as people.
As I often say, no experience is bad experience and the next chapter is just about to begin!
Every so often, Facebook comes out with an enhancement or a different way of presenting things to its subscribers. Inevitably when this happens there is an outcry, people begin posting incitements to "hate Facebook" and there is a huge surge of online negative emotion. The purpose of this post is not to agree or disagree with the changes to Facebook, but rather to examine the inherent aversion that humankind has to any kind of change.
In business, leaders are often asked to be "change agents" and that has been a buzzword for a while and something that many of us put on our resumes. In truth, change of any kind is initially uncomfortable and many of us try to avoid it. The pitfalls with this approach are that familiarity breeds contempt. After a while, when things are so routine, so unchanging, progress ceases to be made and in effect we start to regress - move backwards. More than ever, in the ever changing world in which we live and work, if we fail to be nimble in our apprach to change, we will be left behind watching our competitors roar ahead of us in a cloud of dust.
Change is necessary. Change is actually essential. But change is not comfortable. The answer to getting better at navigating change, is practice. Like any skill, change requires that we practice it, and practice it often. In that way, we will slowly become more comfortable with the uncomfortableness of change and rather than run from it, moan about it, complain about it, we will begin to embrace the positive effects that change can bring.
Are the recent changes to Facebook a step backwards or forwards? I really don't know. But I am pretty sure that within a few weeks the naysayers and complainers will have begun to accept the new look and very soon will have forgotten the previous iteration altogether.
As business leaders, or change agents, our responsibility is to support our teams through the uncomfortableness of change, not to isolate them from it. We must encourage doing things just a little differently every day, to break habits, open the mind and explore the positive benefits of change. In many of my training sessions, I encourage the participants at the end of the day to drive home by a different route, and pay attention to how it feels. Or if they usually enter the house by the side door, to go in through the front.
Practicing change is easy. The more comfortable we get with that feeling of initial discomfort, the greater the ultimate benefits.
There was a time when the quality of a restaurant wine list was judged primarily by the number of countries and regions represented, and therefore the larger the wine list, the better the rating. I recall lists that were encyclopedic in stature that went on for pages and pages, invariably starting with the classic regions of France - Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone etc. and ending with a smattering of "New World" offerings that were added as an afterthought.
The days when a restaurant can afford to maintain an inventory of that size have long been over and the best lists in my view, are the ones that work on a "less is more" philosophy where the skill lies in creating a selection based more on stylistic considerations than trying to encompass every region of the wine world.
Recently I have seen some excellent examples of short lists that exemplify brevity in creative ways. A hotel restaurant I visited in Chicagoland has an all-American list that breaks out of the mold of offering only Napa cabs and chardonnays. The list is divided into sections based on styles and grape varieties and states such as Virginia, New York, Michigan, Arizona and New Mexico are included alongside the usual representations of California, Oregon and Washington. Cabernet Sauvignons are intermingled with Bordeaux blends and Meritage blends within a section called "Powerful Reds", and there is a delightful section of "Alsace grapes" within the whites, representing wines made from the likes of Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, and Pinot Blanc. There are recommendations for which styles pair best with certain items on the menu and a large number are available by the glass or 500ml carafe (2/3 of a bottle, which is a very good size for a couple wanting a little more than a glass each but not needing a whole bottle). This method of presenting wines to the consumer does a wonderful job of combining the familiarity of grapes and styles with a modern and accessible way of encouraging experimentation. And the whole list is but a few pages long.
There is really no excuse for a wine list to ever be out of date these days, with the ability to print beautiful full color pages on word processors and desktop publishing programs from any computer. Restaurants can keep their lists fresh and vibrant by frequently changing the selections, perhaps buying small quantities and gauging customer reaction before committing to purchasing more. Restaurant managers and sommeliers can experiment with different ways to present the wines and engage the customer by requesting feedback. They can monitor what sells and encourage experimentation by offering a large selection of wine by the glass. The best wines are not always the most expensive, a fact that consumers and restaurateurs are becoming more aware of in these hard economic times.
Wine lists should be accessible, informative and fun to read. If they have a focused theme, so much the better as nobody has the time or inclination to wade through 100 pages, and few of us are impressed by the gargantuan choices of yesteryear. Before going to a restaurant, check out their wine list online. Small lists are actually harder to put together than long ones. If there is a fairly short, well thought out selection that is presented intelligently, it means the restaurant truly cares about its wines and you won't be disappointed.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, bombings, shootings, explosions, fires. All of these disaster situations have been in the news in the last few months and I don't know if it is my imagination or whether many of them really are worse than we have experienced in recent years.
We were recently staying in a hotel in Ontario, Canada, when the whole area was placed under a tornado warning. It appears to be a very rare occurrence in that region and nobody on the staff had the slightest clue what they should be doing. In fact there was argument and misunderstanding regarding the difference between a tornado "watch" and a "warning" but absolutely no plan in effect for what to do in the event of either. Consequently, while the local TV stations were advising residents to take shelter in basements, the hotel pool, with glass on three sides was full of kids completely oblivious to what was going on or the potential danger they were in. Hotel staff and guests were standing outside, watching the rain, the lightning and the winds as if a new show had come to town. All the while, the front desk clerk (who was also the designated Manager on Duty) was completely unprepared and had no clue what she should be doing, but seemed fine with that, assuming that it was just a thunder storm.
As an hotelier who has spent the last ten years in the US Midwest, I take tornadoes seriously. We had a plan and we practiced to make sure everyone knew what to do in the event of a tornado or other disaster. The residents of Joplin, MO certainly understand the devastating power that nature can bring to bear on a community, and it is to late after a disaster to put a plan in place. Hindsight can cost lives. A plan that we hopefully never have to put into action is a wise investment in training time and can literally make the difference between life and death.
Yesterday, Ginnie and I visited a new ice cream parlor located on the South Pier of Sheboygan. The weather was perfect and the whole area was a-buzz with activity. The Blue Harbor Hotel was obviously running at high occupancy, the mini-golf course was crawling with people, the patio of the Italian Restaurant was pretty with umbrellas shading late afternoon diners and the ice cream parlor had people lining up out of the doors. Yachts and motor boats were gliding in and out of the harbor, there was a light, warm breeze that kept everyone comfortable and there were no bugs. We remarked that the scene could not have been more perfect.
The ice cream parlor had been featured in the local paper yesterday morning, and the owners were remarking that it had really drawn the crowds and they were having one of their busiest days yet. It was so wonderful to watch their success and then, as we walked up and down the pier, I reflected on a sobering thought. The numbers of perfect summer days like this are pretty few in South Eastern Wisconsin. What will it look like here in November, December, January and February? How many people will be lining up for ice cream on this off-the-beaten-track area of the city even in March? This year we had snow right into April and this summer we have had a fair share of cool, wet days too.
Most businesses that offer any kind of hospitality service have to navigate through some element of seasonality. Unless you are located in Southern California, it is likely that there will be some times of the year when the weather is less kind to business than others. How do we have a successful business when we only have a few months of optimum conditions and what should we do to minimize the effects of slow business in the "low season"?
The old adage that a business needs three things to be successful - location, location and location really holds true more than ever before as we continue to claw our way out of this recession. If our business is located in a location that has no traffic or little appeal for half the year, then it will be exceedingly difficult to be profitable. Most hotels need to run at a minimum of 70% occupancy year round. Even if you run in the 90s for six months of the year, that means you still have to run at 50% for the other six months. That is an increasingly difficult challenge for some hotels particularly when rates are also being driven down by a "buyer's market" . The same goes with ice cream parlors. The lines outside the doors in June, July and August need to be VERY long to survive the winter famine.
So what do we do? Basic as it seems, there are really only two ways to succeed in a seasonal market. The first is to do everything possible to steal market share and maintain the highest levels of business possible in the low season. This needs to include building loyalty to our brand, encouraging what business there is to use us rather than the competition and to come up with innovative ways to bring in new business as well as maintaining our current position. Social media has a lot of potential to help in this area, and an intelligent pricing policy (or revenue management strategy) is essential to balance rate (or price) and volume. The other essential but equally difficult thing to do, is to reduce costs to the bare minimum WITHOUT negatively impacting your customer or guest experience. And herein lies the challenge. As hospitality and business leaders, we have to walk the fine line of cost cutting while ensuring that we don't undo the reputation that we have worked so hard to build in the high season, because now, more than ever, we need loyal customers.
Our ice cream parlor will likely struggle in the winter. Hopefully that has been fully fleshed out in their business plan and they have not been too optimistic in their revenue projections. If they can reduce costs or maybe even close altogether for the winter, they stand a good chance of succeeding. But even if they close, there are ongoing fixed costs that don't disappear. Cash flow becomes critical. If they could pick up the parlor and put it in Malibu, California, they would have a greater chance of success. But people want ice cream in Sheboygan as much as California and I am pleased they are taking the chance and putting everything into it to provide a great summer experience for visitors. They will have to navigate the seasons as carefully as the mariners who take their boats up and down the estuary. Lets hope that the seasonal rocks don't snag them and they come out unscathed.
We were excited to read that a new Sushi restaurant was opening in our little Midwestern town. The owners occupied about half of the front page of the local newspaper yesterday morning in an article heralding the new project, and so last evening we headed over to try it.
We arrived at about 6:15pm and as we walked through the door, a sign greeted us that said "please wait to be seated". We stood and waited. Nobody greeted us, nobody even acknowledged our presence for several minutes. (Complaining guests can be known to exaggerate, and so I will not claim it was five minutes, but it was certainly more than three). Finally, a frazzled server told us we could sit anywhere. So we found a table and sat down. Then we overheard another table being told they could not serve alcohol because they didn't have their license yet. OK, I can live without alcohol for an evening, no biggie.
So we sat staring into space but nothing happened. Finally, two glasses of water arrived - no menus yet. We ordered two Diet Cokes. Ten minutes later, after asking, we receive menus, but no Coke. Then the frazzled waitress finally came to take our order. We ordered and reminded her about the Cokes. There was no music in the room, and people were arriving and being ignored at the door, just like we were. I wanted to jump up and start taking charge. This was the second night that they were open and there was no atmosphere, no welcome, nobody having fun. Everyone was waiting an eternity for their meal and I was reminded of episodes of Hell's Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares. The owner was behind the bar, presumably making sushi, studiously ignoring everyone.
The server came and told us our order would be up next. Twenty minutes later it still hadn't appeared. I am really patient in situations like this because I have been in nightmare services too and I know how they can go wrong, but I was concerned that the owner seemed completely oblivious to what was going on.
Finally our one plate of sushi arrived, 75 minutes after we arrived at the restaurant. The server said she was going to see if she could give us a discount or a free dessert or something. I asked if we could have a bowl for our soy sauce, and maybe also a plate. They were brought to the table and almost thrown at us.
I was so hungry at that point that I ate everything, even though the food was mediocre at best. The frazzled waitress cleared our table and I asked for the bill. I put my credit card on the table so I could give it to her as soon as the bill arrived; I wanted to leave at that point. She came past the table and whisked away my Visa before a bill had even been presented, then returned with the credit card slip for signature. She told me she didn't charge for the two Cokes.
I paid the $25 and also, against my better judgement, added a tip. We left and nobody said a word. Nothing. Zip.
When I got to the car, I was fizzing and told Ginnie I was going to go back in and tell the owner that he is not doing himself any favors by opening before he's ready. I quietly told him this and that our meal was extremely disappointing. He told me that he had to open because he has everything in this business, but he has no chef and the server didn't show up. So his cousin and aunt were serving. I repeated that he is losing customers and really creating a poor first impression. Otherwise, people like me will not return.
"That's fine" said he, all cocky and smart Alecky.
"So you don't care if customers don't return?".
"We get it", said he. "You don't have to come back".
No apology. No regret. No business or marketing sense whatsoever.
I really do understand how hard it is to own and run your own business (I've done it) and in the current economy it is all the harder. We all recognize that things can go wrong, but this is not an auspicious start to a new local business, and it is such a shame.
I hate to say this, but really, he doesn't deserve to succeed, which is all the sadder, because sometimes, even people who do it all right, also don't make it.
Stephen Beaumont CWE