A tale of Northern California

I’ve known the people at Timber Cove Inn for quite some time now. Maybe it’s the gentle Pacific breeze or the tranquil seclusion of sparsely populated Northern California, but the senior managers and staff at this coastal resort property are some of the nicest you’ll ever met.

They also have a lot of wisdom to share when it comes to marketing a hotel that is somewhat off the beaten track — in Jenner, California, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest international airport (San Francisco). It was my pleasure to interview Timber Cove Inn General Manager Keith Hill.

Larry Mogelonsky: Tell me a little bit about the history of Timber Cove Inn.

Keith Hill: The area surrounding the hotel was originally inhabited by Russian traders over 200 years ago. The coastline of the Timber Cove region is so stunning and inspirational that pioneering photographer Ansel Adams spent a great deal of time in the area capturing timeless images.

The inn itself was designed and built by Richard Clements, opening its doors in 1963. Mr. Clements’ design was inspired by the great Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most respected architect in U.S. history, which is evident immediately upon arriving to the property. The near exclusive use of redwood and stone to construct the framework of the inn, and the manner in which it was contoured to the rocky bluffs of the Pacific, represent a truly unique configuration that brings along with it unforgettable character and tremendous sense of place.

Over its history, Timber Cove Inn has offered reasonably priced accommodations in a world-class setting, granting us one of the more diverse and extensive guest demographics you will find. The location and feel of the property naturally lends itself to romantic couples who want to disconnect from the distractions of their daily routine and recharge their batteries in one of the most peaceful environments you can imagine.

LM: When did you join the property? What was your prior experience?

KH: I joined the property in April 2012. My path to GM began in the food and beverage division. Along the way I have had the privilege of managing in varied environments, from urban luxury icons to the Relais & Chateaux all-inclusive hideaway to the National Historic Landmark proudly sitting at 94% annual occupancy.

The lessons learned from these properties — Loews New Orleans Hotel, The Hermitage Hotel, Twin Farms, The Chanler at Cliff Walk and The Ahwahnee Hotel — have each distinctly contributed to my approach in managing Timber Cove Inn. I’m very grateful for the insights and support that I’ve been given from some of the very best people in the industry along the way.

LM: Sonoma County is best known as a premier wine destination. Yet your location is still another hour off the beaten path. How do you attract oenophiles?

KH: The truth is that we must be creative and proactive, and maintain excellent partnerships, to provide this kind of experience. We are surrounded by a wealth of accomplished wineries and the best terroir for chardonnay and pinot noir this side of Burgundy, but most of these wineries do not have tasting rooms. Thus, Timber Cove Inn is in a fortunate position to present itself as the sampling destination for the best of what the region has to offer, including the celebrated new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA.

We accomplish this first and foremost with a wine list that almost exclusively features Sonoma AVA wines. Wine flights are offered daily, and we can pair wines from the region with our tasting menus or anything else you choose to enjoy. Now that we are approaching the start of our second year together as a unified management team, we are working towards putting together a series of locally driven food and wine events. We can also arrange private tours of several nearby wineries with enough notice. Finally, there are two tasting rooms — Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery and Annapolis Winery — within reasonable driving distance from the inn for those seeking a more traditional wine country experience.

LM: Again, Jenner, California is not on the main road. F&B has to be a critical component in your guest promotion plan.

KH: First and foremost, with few other dining alternatives available near the hotel, it is very important that we diversify the dining experience from meal to meal and day to day. It is also critical to provide variety within each menu, which is not an easy task to accomplish in a remote destination. We offer lunch picnic baskets to enjoy on the grounds or on nearby hiking trails. We maintain exceptional selections in both Alexander’s Restaurant and the Sequoia Lounge, which provide varied menus both from a compositional and price-point perspective. We will begin offering a room service breakfast option by the end of the month, which is a new service for us. We will be introducing brunches and barbecues on Sundays this year. Everything we do in F&B keeps in mind our conscious effort to keep the dining experience fresh for guests staying with us for multiple nights.

In addition to maintaining variety, it is our responsibility to provide cuisine and services that rival the stunning views and world-class wines our region provides, and the bar is set very high indeed. We view our F&B program as a creative outlet to provide an attractive amenity for our guests rather than just “three square meals.” The Fort Ross Vineyard mushroom foraging experience in early January was a recent example of this. A renowned mycologist led a group of hotel guests through the redwood forest foraging for mushrooms, followed by an educational rendezvous in one of the most beautiful tasting rooms you will ever see to celebrate our booty while sipping great wine. All the while a four-course wild mushroom-themed dinner was being prepped and paired with some of the best wines that Fort Ross Vineyard has to offer — the perfect way to end a day of adventure. What’s not to love about that?

LM: What approach do you take to business and weddings?

KH: Social groups such as weddings, anniversary and birthday celebrations naturally flock to Timber Cove Inn due to the intimate feel of the hotel and photogenic location. Due to our size, it is also not uncommon for social groups to “buy out” the hotel for exclusive access to the entire property.

Corporate business groups represent a bit more of a challenge for us because of the lack of consistent cellular service in the area and on property. While we do offer wireless Internet coverage property-wide, most corporate groups are unwilling to give up cellular connectivity for any significant length of time. This deficit is, unfortunately, beyond our control at this time.

LM: How do you maintain staff levels and promote guest training?

KH: This is one of the most lucrative places to work on the entire Northern California coastline, and we are the largest employer for quite some distance in any direction. We also offer benefits for full-time employees, so the inn represents a very attractive employment opportunity worth driving for, and some of our staff commute from an hour away.

Having said that, employee housing is necessary to attract talent outside of the immediate area, so we rent nearby housing for this purpose. In small hotels with a limited number of managers such as Timber Cove Inn, peer accountability is critical for consistent delivery of great service, making group training so very important. We have budgeted for several examples of group training in 2013, both in the areas of sales and guest service.

LM: What are your long-term goals to enhance operations?

KH: Although our guest rooms are clean and comfortable, offering vintage charm and unbelievable views, our lodging product is due for a refresh, so we have completed two all-new model rooms. We are in the process of calibrating them to perfection before moving forward in updating the rest of the property, including guestrooms, public spaces, the kitchen and Alexander’s restaurant. Because of the tranquil setting, a spa facility also makes perfect sense in order to complete the circle of providing a rejuvenating experience as well as increasing length of stay and onsite revenue capture.

These initiatives will go a long way towards augmenting our top line, allowing us to provide even more services and amenities, and ultimately build the bottom line. The F&B program will obviously adapt and change to reflect the quality of the rest of the inn and appeal to the guest demographic. Regardless of any changes that take place, the F&B program will always stay true to the bounty of incredible locally sourced food product and wines that are becoming regulars in the 90-point-and-up club of any viticultural publication of significance.