In search of hotel excellence: Hotel Palomar Philadelphia

Rightfully described as “the birthplace of America” for its prominent role in U.S. history, Philadelphia often flies under the radar when flung into a category that includes other East Coast cities like New York, Boston, Washington and Miami. This said, sojourning to Philadelphia is a MUST — art, museums, history, sports, architecture, cheesesteaks — the city has it all. Convincing, huh? So, where should you stay?

A past business trip to Philadelphia afforded me the chance to stay at the Hotel Palomar in the central, fashionable Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. Renovating the 1929 Art Deco husk of the former home of the American Institute of Architects, this 230-room hotel is now fully LEED-certified and totally ultramodern. Arising from all this splendor was my meeting with Wendell Bush, the affable chief experience officer (general manager), discussing, of course, his management philosophy.

As background, the Hotel Palomar is part of the 50-plus properties that make up the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group. Founded in 1981, the core idea behind every Kimpton asset is the oft-zealous attitude of “hospitality with personality.” Bill Kimpton, the founder, strives to embrace guests’ desire for one-of-a-kind experiences, life-enriching amenities and fun-meets-function touches. Given the success of the chain, it is well worth noting its unique formula, as this Philly property is a clear beneficiary.

Further, Hotel Palomar will be joined shortly by a Hotel Monaco, another iteration of the Kimpton brand in the historical district nearby. Thus, it is interesting to see how both downtown properties will function in light of the fact that their own parent firm is enabling mild brand cannibalism.

Wendell Bush did not follow the traditional educational or experience path to general manager, but he has hospitality in his blood. His family ran a restaurant in the U.S. South, and he grew up understanding the value of service. He instinctively understands the relationship between a hotel and the guest is human interaction. In my stay on property, it was not unusual to find him in the lobby, bar or restaurant talking to guests, asking about their stay. Augmenting this, the Hotel Palomar’s modest lobby space was typically a crowded scene. With complimentary wine every weekday evening and an eclectic vibe, there were plenty of opportunities for Wendell to take up his welcoming post opposite the threshold.

Wendell used the word “fun” when describing how he wanted guests to remember his property. More specifically, he remarked, “Everything that our team does to interact with the guest is designed to instill upon them a positive spirit. We want their stay or dining with us to be one of the happier moments in their busy day. We know how stressful work is, and we don’t want to add to this side of the equation. To us having fun brings service to a whole new level: participatory, involving and intelligent.”

Indeed, the frontline staff are all young, typically in their 20s and early 30s. Wendell noted the management team’s success is based less on years of experience and more on commitment to learning, taking the initiative and enthusiasm for the world of hospitality. He cited examples of a staffer who observed front-desk operations for less than a day, and then, unbeknownst to him, was checking in groups the next day (unsupervised!) when another staffer called in sick. And yes, the work performed by this individual was flawless.

For those unfamiliar, Philadelphia is renowned as a center for the arts, academia and world-class museums. The recent opening of the Barnes Foundation catapults the city to a level of sophistication reminiscent of the capitals of Europe. This augers well for the Hotel Palomar, as its architectural heritage and artistic décor blend seamlessly. Capitalizing on this, the property has adapted Kimpton’s “Live Like a Local” program with quarterly concerts by local musicians. “All of our activities contribute to property differentiation,” Wendell said. “The luxury hotel market is fickle. There are many other good properties in Philadelphia. We see these edges as critical to protecting our top-of-mind awareness.”

Later, I asked Wendell whether he was concerned about the opening of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco just over a mile due east of his address. Rather than seeing this as a competitor, Wendell was sanguine: “We’ve loaned them some of our best managers, so we know they’re going to do well. Look out Philadelphia: now there will be two properties preaching the Kimpton logic of marketing the fun side of hospitality!” The lesson from this: always evaluate how you can make your hotel experience exciting for your guests.