Nothing is more nerve-wracking and then satisfying than opening a new hotel. Some gifted hoteliers spend their careers on opening teams, traveling the world to prepare properties and their teams for the big day and make the ultimate first impression.
Each hotelier has their own unique tradition to prepare for an opening – from meditation to wearing a lucky jacket or throwing a team-rallying crawfish boil.
HOTELS talked to five hotel GMs in the U.S. to learn about some of their traditions, techniques and strategies to prepare for a hotel opening.
Peter Yeung, managing director, Walker Hotels, Greenwich Village and Tribeca, New York, New York
Before opening a hotel, I like to get familiar with the new layout and space of the property. My tradition has always been sketching out a floor plan so it is better ingrained in my mind before I take the helm and move into the hotel, so to speak.
More recently, I have made sketching a family affair by asking my two young daughters to help me and chime in on how to outfit the space with furniture. My girls feel valued, and that sketch turns into a piece of art that I hang in my office post-opening.
There has never been a hotel opening or renovation project that I have been on that has been perfect. If someone tells you that, they are lying. The best thing that you can do is to prepare, train, educate, motivate, empower every member of the staff. They must be empathic and very patient with guests when something goes wrong – and it will.
Have the team be a part of the solution. Give them full empowerment to make any decisions to resolve guest issues. This includes full financial empowerment. No approvals needed to do what it takes to make guests happy.
As the opening manager, you will not have all the answers to questions from your staff and guests. You will not have all the answers for your owners, construction crews, etc. You need to learn to manage these expectations, or you will find yourself feeling defeated or overwhelmed.
Anton Moore, general manager, Gansevoort Meatpacking, New York, New York
Fashion inspires me and my tradition involves a turquoise Tom Ford jacket. To me, there is nothing like wearing a beautifully designed piece to make you feel confident.
This one jacket, in particular, I choose to wear for hotel launches because turquoise represents calm, compassion and communication – three important attributes that are required when opening a hotel. The fine tailoring and fit mimics the luxury experience I want the guests to feel while enjoying our property.
I once worked for a hotel brand that told us to prepare for each workday as if you are preparing for a first date. There is nothing more invigorating than a first date or an opening of a brand-new elevated hotel or product experience.
First and foremost, I think the most important thing when opening a hotel is to set expectations. Knowing that the first guest experience may not go as perfectly as you envision, I like to look at it as a learning experience. There’s no first perfect opening. It’s all about keeping a positive mindset and your team will follow. What do I do personally? A great night’s sleep.
Coming from an Irish hospitality family and my upbringing in the hospitality industry, it is my natural instinct to motivate the team or help them feel truly empowered. It’s my own personal drive and passion to ensure the guest has the most memorable experience possible. Therefore, I would like to think the team around me feel inspired by that drive and it empowers them to mimic my genuine and authentic drive for service excellence.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced was with opening luxury lifestyle hotels: there’s always the give and take over style and function. Working together with the design and operations teams to create the best functional and esthetically pleasing stylish product.
Teach Mayer, general manager, Dawn Ranch, Guerneville, California
I love listening to the stories and legends about the property. It helps me visualize how people have experienced this place in the past – and use that as a starting point for imagining our future.
I set aside time each day to mindfully walk the property and feel the energy the spaces hold. It’s not unusual for me to spontaneously sit down and meditate in a space to fully immerse myself. What makes this place special? How can that be enhanced? Feeling into the experience of the space as it was, as it is, and the possibilities it holds for the future.
When building a new team for a new property, my goal is to hire good people, empower them to take initiatives and give them permission to make mistakes. Surrounding myself, and our guests, with people who want to create an exceptional guest experience and are ready to improvise when things don’t go quite as planned – that makes all the difference.
I let the team know that as long as they have the guest’s best interests in mind when taking initiatives, the management team will have their backs – that opens the door for the team to have the courage to improvise… for a successful opening, we need to be able to play jazz, not just read sheet music.
COVID was the greatest opening challenge – without a doubt. So much fear. So much uncertainty. It forced us to re-examine every detail of every process in the hotel with everyone’s health and safety in mind. Quite honestly, we just took things one day at a time, stayed as close as possible to the team and followed the ever-changing information from the authorities.
Personally, I collaborated with a group of other GMs from around the world, sharing best practices to adapt and build a new guest and employee experience.
Sergio Maclean, Mac&Lo Hospitality, operators of Shinola Hotel, Detroit, Michigan
We’ve opened about five hotels and a few restaurants, and it’s never the same. The one thing we always try to do is go dark for a day right before opening. It’s a means of turning off before we have to be completely turned on – a self-prescribed calm before the storm, if you will.
We try to give the entire team a day off before we open, as well. If possible, we even set up a little pre-opening party. This is always great for us and the team because it gives us a moment to step away from the chaos and look at all the work we’ve done thus far before the craziness of opening.
Everything is a team effort for us. So, there is little I can do personally that will have an effect on the outcome other than being supportive of the team and making sure they have all the resources needed and are in the right frame of mind. The team’s mental space is fundamental to success, and anything can affect it at any time.
I stay away from the cliches that we have all heard about, read about, and talked about. Be upfront and clear. Leadership is not about stating famous quotes or quoting famous people; leadership is about relating directly to your team as a member of the team, confronting the challenges as they are, sharing the risks, the fears, and the successes of the team as a whole and as a group of individuals. Be honest and vulnerable – only then are you truly leading and motivating a team.
Those great leaders that issued those great quotes were talking from their hearts, from their personal experiences. None of them would be remembered or remarkable if they were just quoting someone else.
“Resonance” is best achieved with a true and meaningful message, and it doesn’t have to be poetry or smart or brilliant. It just needs to be honestly connected to you and your team.
The biggest opening challenge for me is my own personality – knowing when the best that can be achieved at that moment is achieved and letting it be. Things are never finished, never perfect. Accepting that is a challenge; not accepting it is a recipe for failure. How do I overcome it? I breathe.
Brian Englehart, general manager, Maison de la Luz, New Orleans, Louisiana
Teamwork and fellowship are two important components for the success of any hotel and that camaraderie, I would argue, is more apparent in the state of Louisiana. It just has a way of bringing people together.
One tradition that is special to me is putting together a crawfish boil for my team and their families. There is no one from Louisiana that does not cook their crawfish. So, before opening, I invite everyone over and have two 40-pound sacks.
When we opened Maison de la Luz in 2019, my son was 18 and helped with cooking, which made it even more special. The recipe to the hotel’s success is my crawfish boil – pun intended.
When we prepare to open a hotel, I walk the entire property and personally assist with cleaning up to opening the doors to be sure all is perfect.
I involve the team in decision making and creating the service culture, and I always have them practice service skills on the contractors in the building.
Empowerment only works if you are present for your team and support them in creating memorable guest experiences, which creates a psychologically safe environment for the team. They have to trust you as much as you trust them.