In search of hotel excellence: Hotel Duval

Hotel Duval is a boutique luxury property located in downtown Tallahassee, Florida — the state’s capital city along the Florida Panhandle. It was completely renovated within the past two years on the site of the former Duval Hotel, which opened in 1951. Every room and floor is uniquely designed with many tech-savvy features and style.

I visited Tallahassee for business and was captivated by how well Hotel Duval understands the finer points of the hospitality business. Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Hotel Duval’s General Manager Marc Bauer and recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the property.

Marc Bauer
Marc Bauer

Larry Mogelonsky: Give me a brief history of the property. When was its most recent incarnation as an Autograph property? How would you describe this “Miami in Tallahassee” approach?

Marc Bauer: The hotel opened as Hotel Duval in October 2009 and subsequently became a member of the prestigious Autograph Collection in July 2010.

It was not necessarily a “Miami in Tallahassee” approach, but rather an amalgamation of design and service elements from a number of excellent and very different boutique hotels. Inspiration was drawn from such notable hotels as the Gansevoort in Manhattan, the El San Juan Hotel, the W and many others. The goal was to incorporate some of the great aspects of these fine properties and refine them in the context of our own business model.

At the same time, we had to be sensitive to the community and make sure that the model was one the community could and would embrace. Without the support of the Tallahassee community, Hotel Duval would clearly not have experienced the unprecedented success we have enjoyed.

LM: Tell me about the senior management team. When did you start at the property, and what are your prior experiences?

MB: I arrived at Hotel Duval in September of 2008 to help guide them through one last weekend prior to closing for renovation. The general contractor was technically staged to begin the renovation, and we had to open for one final weekend to accommodate a full house of reservation commitments for Parents’ Weekend. Needless to say, it was an interesting experience. 

Fast-forward to the present. The real beauty of our management team is that many of them are experiencing their respective roles for the first time. I wasn’t all that caught up on titles, experience and prior positions when I assembled the leadership team. I was more interested in people who had energy, passion and natural leadership skills. That’s 75% of the battle. I knew I could instill the hospitality piece.

What that philosophy has brought to the table is a fresh perspective and experiences outside the hotel realm. It has been like looking at a hotel through a different lens — exciting to say the least.

For me personally, it has been a bit of a renaissance, as I am surrounded by a team of free-thinkers who use their creative energy to create memorable moments and constantly position the hotel for success. I think you can feel the energy of youth throughout the hotel — it is palpable.

LM: When you arrived at Hotel Duval, what were the challenges that you saw?  How did you address them?

MB: I hate to sound trite and cliché, but I didn’t accept the position because I saw challenges, only opportunity. True, this project in this market had some inherent risk, as it was the first of its kind. However, if done right the reward far outweighed the risk. For all of us who were stakeholders in some way in Tallahassee, it was our opportunity to put a signature on something that the entire community would buy into and could be proud of. When you have that kind of personal and professional commitment, it makes the job of being successful that much easier.

From ownership on down to line level, I truly felt confident that we had put all the right pieces in the right places. From there, we just had to execute on all levels, and execute we did.

LM: Can you elaborate on your staff training methods? What are the motivators? What are your core principles that drive your recruitment and training practices? Who manages the training program?

MB: This is where I give a lot of credit to my wife, Pam Bauer. Rarely do you find a husband-and-wife team working in the same building. However, early on she took on a corporate role that we created called brand affinity director. Her role was to help develop key training and affinity programs for both our valued associates and clients alike. She was also directly involved in the selection process for our initial team, many of whom are still on board after two years in an employment climate that was generally regarded as transient based on the influence of the universities. And finally, she brought a “cheerleading” quality that I think helped solidify this group as a team.

Since that time, Pam has transitioned to the role of director of sales, which is more aligned with her previous hotel background. In the process, she imparted that enthusiasm to one of our great interns who has grown into a management role and is an important asset to the process. Succession management is alive and well at Hotel Duval.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t give a great deal of credit to our management team. Not only were they hungry to make this property a success, they embraced the ongoing training element as a way of life. To this day, each department still meets monthly to review training initiatives, and every day we learn.  

There are inherent benefits to being a standalone boutique property. We can write and rewrite the book as many times as we want without having to fly the ideas up the bureaucratic flagpole to vet them out for approval. If what we do is not in the best interest of the guest and the business, we go back to the drawing board and refine it.

And finally, I give a lot of credit to the Shula’s corporate team. They provided incredible resources and support both in pre- and post-opening. I have a great deal of respect for their business model; we have adopted many of the ideas as a part of our own operating philosophy. 

As for the recruitment piece, I have always preached that retention breeds recruitment. Never was that philosophy as true as it is at Hotel Duval. Our turnover is some of the lowest I have ever encountered in my career. The plan was simple: create an atmosphere that was fun to work in, empower them implicitly to make decisions, reward them for performance, show them you care, do things as a family that may be a little “outside the normal box” of other companies and make sure they truly feel like they are stakeholders.

From there, we bred 175 advocates of working at Hotel Duval. We can hardly keep up with applicant flow. On the rare times that we have an open position, we have carte blanche of qualified candidates.

It also helps to have some of the best boutique hospitality schools in the Dedman School at Florida State and Florida A&M University feeding you talent. They have become pipelines of talent to the hotel. I think both institutions and their student bodies respect what we do and how we do it, and in turn, they are an important part of our community outreach program.

LM: How has the hotel performed? How does ADR, OCC or RevPAR compare to your comp set? In other words, is this plan paying off?

MB: The hotel has performed beyond my wildest expectations and the pro forma expectations of the five-year plan. Tallahassee is a 55% to 60% occupancy town. I am not shy to share the numbers and say that the hotel is on pace to finish somewhere just south of 85% occupancy in its second full year of operating. Hotel Duval consistently leads the market comp set in all matrices and even gives some of our sister properties in the Autograph Collection in destinations with greater potential a run for their money.

In short, I would definitely say the plan is paying off. As a small company, we have created a name for ourselves, which is paying off with other opportunities. Again, I give every bit of that credit to the great team we have assembled.

LM: What are your future goals? How do you plan to maintain your excellence in a period of continued pressure on government spending?

MB: While we never want to take our eye off the golden goose that is Hotel Duval, the future goal would include plans to take the operating model to other locations for future growth. In the meantime, instead of writing a business plan each year, we write a “reinvention plan.” 

I would be lying if I said the downsizing of government doesn’t have an adverse effect on spending everywhere in this capital city. However, we have diversified our markets in such a manner that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. As one segment shrinks we attack other segments that much more aggressively.

Our biggest opportunity in the coming years is to continue to grow rate while our occupancies remain strong. It’s a revenue shell game that we have been refining since opening. Year one, we simply had to build base at any cost. Year two, we had a better understanding of who we are and who our customer is. Year three, we aim to strike a better balance between the market segments to maximize rate and revenue opportunities. Each year we get a little bit better at what we do. Looking into the crystal ball, I see growth in Tallahassee in the coming years and along with it improvements in the economy. Those two factors will also help our rate opportunity.

I think a great deal of our success is due to the fact we have truly mastered the art of earned media, in some cases by default. As a standalone hotel of 117 rooms, we simply don’t have a war chest of advertising dollars. Therefore, we have had to constantly invent creative ways to point the spotlight on ourselves via earned media opportunities and through strategic partnerships. This helped leverage the dollars we do have to spend to let us go the distance.

After 25 years in the hotel industry, one thing I have come to learn is that the basic core principals still work. Those core principals to me all revolve around relationship building.  If you galvanize relationships with associates, they will deliver great customer service. If you galvanize relationships with your guest constituency, they will come back again and again. The success of this hotel and our delivery is all about relationships.